At the beach today, I overheard two friends talking about love, or specifically, the lack of. At one point, I heard the familiar advice: “You know, the moment you stop looking for love, you’ll find it.” How strange, the same thing is true with the elusive idea. Got a problem to solve? Go do something else.
The intentional separation of your brain from the problem is a form of cognitive disengagement, a turn of phrase meaning “mental activity not associated with the problem itself.” I’ve found several psychological text books which give it a more colloquial definition: “spacing out.” It’s been more or less a part of creative philosophy since the first specific process was articulated by Graham Wallas in his book Art of Thought, published in 1926. He developed a four step process where Incubation (“where the problem is internalized into the unconscious mind and nothing appears externally to be happening”) was a necessary part of ideation. Almost every creativity expert outlining their own thought process has included a similar element ever since, from Osborn to von Oech to others.
Many times, the incubation step of “daydreaming” accompanies a creative block. More often than not, the block is self-imposed – usually by assumptions the brainstormer places on the topic or issue. The most common remedy for creative blocks – found in creative writing courses to acting workshops to engineering analysis – is to get away from the problem.
There’s several ways you can mentally get away from the problem in hopes of finding creative solutions.
1. Get away physically.
Literally, get away physically from the problem itself and do something else – preferably something not associated with the task at hand. I’m often fighting with myself to solve a problem. When I do, I find boring activities, such as folding laundry, organizing my office, vacuuming, filing receipts. My extravagance is going to the pool and swimming laps. That’s an introverted thinker for you.
My extraverted friend Tom prefers to find a place extremely noisy and active for inspiration. His favourite place: his local coffee house. (I tell him he simply needs caffeine as a stimulant. He says if he can combine two into one, so be it.)
Another option? Both of us laugh at his partner Marilyn who (according to Tom) brainstorms the lazy way: she sleeps on the problem. Marilyn absolutely swears she can ‘program’ her brain to think of the problem while she sleeps. It’s amazing to me how often she typically has a whole different perspective on a problem the next morning, as well as a few creative options to consider.
2. Engage your brain in different ways.
If you don’t want to step entirely away from the problem – you’re crunched for time, you’re at work – introduce something else into your brainstorming. I especially like icebreakers or games which engage the hands because research shows hand-to-brain interaction and coordination increases the firing of more horsepower in the brain. That’s why I like LEGO® blocks for brainstorms, or other hand-friendly items like Play-doh®, Tinkertoys®, or drawing with crayons.
Visual elements are similar to getting the hands involved, and for visual people, perhaps even more effective than just dexterous activity. The trick is to have lots of visual images immediately at hand. I collect postcards from every coffee shop I visit. I have a huge file of photographs ripped from magazines in my desk drawer. I keep a stack of visual books at hand in the library. I’ve even used a dictionary to force other disassociated thoughts into my head. If you like, turn on your favourite browser and search with Images.
3. Two heads are better than one.
It’s an obvious cliché, but an important one. Another brain can help stretch or challenge your creative block, but another twist may be to do it purely for the social networking and engagement. It’s funny how many times something will pop up in the middle of a casual conversation, and I instantly connect it back to my original problem. It happened just last night when I caught up with an old friend over dinner. Something about his recent trip to Palm Springs made me think of an alternative approach to a training program I was writing. Who knows why and where creative inspiration will zap into your brain? That’s why it’s good to keep a small notebook with you at all times. Or, if you’re truly a child of the technology age, send yourself a text or video message.
As a side/related note to close out this post, the interaction between people reminds me of a terrific video by Matt Ridley at TEDGlobal 2010: When Ideas Have Sex.