Creative ideas are all around us, all the time. Uncovering them is often a matter of how we’re looking at things and less of where we’re looking.
And yet when we’re feeling uncreative or stuck it’s often helpful to get away from the work: to get up and go for a walk, or do a chore, or otherwise change scenery.
Why is stepping away from the work so helpful for invoking new ways of looking at or thinking about it?
There’s a bit of science behind why walking helps spark creativity. And we know that incubation—giving ourselves time to let ideas bubble up subconsciously—is a crucial step to the creative process. But what is it exactly about stepping away from the work that makes creativity more likely?
As with all things, the longer we look at them or the more we inundate ourselves with the task, the more challenging it is to see it differently. We are creatures that pride ourselves on optimization, and things like familiarity, routine, and processes help optimize our lives and work for efficiency over novelty.
When we try to think creatively about something we’ve been thinking about—or something we already know some of—it’s difficult to think any differently about it. It’s extremely challenging to literally see things any other way. And the more familiar we are with something, the more difficult it is to think creatively about it.
This familiarity effect is underlined when amateurs are introduced to a professional playing field: new golfers tend to outperform experienced ones.
Some of the most daring discoveries have come as a result of novices playing in an expert arena; including many of the most important inventions and innovations in history. Barcodes, television, sticky notes, ice blocks, the electric motor, the telegraph, and many more inventions or discoveries were made possible thanks to amateurs who had stumbled into their arena with fresh eyes.
While professionals and experts are constantly surrounded by their work (and the nuances of how that work comes together) they’re often blinded by potential new discoveries and ideas.
The same is true of any idea really: ideas are all around us, all the time, but we’re often too focused or too distracted by what we think we know (and how we know it) to see these creative possibilities.
No matter where you are or what you're doing, the world around you is filled with insights and ideas that can creatively inspire and motivate you. When you realize this, you never have to feel creatively stuck again.
To capitalize on these ideas we need not change what we’re looking at, but how we look at it.
Things like going for a walk, trying a new hobby, or otherwise breaking up our thinking allows us to re-consider what we think we know. Rather than looking at things the same way, we can quickly shift to a different lens of thinking; one which might uncover new and valuable ideas about familiar items or subjects.
Jumping back-and-forth between task is a great way to unlock new ways of thinking or seeing. Einstein was famous for his diverse interests, as was Edison, and—more recently—Elon Musk exemplifies this approach to tackling creative problems.
But you don’t have to jump between tasks to invoke creativity. You can also dig into anything around you, here and now, for inspiration.
Start by observing items you’re working with—the tools, the expected output, the environment—then really look at it. Consider what it’s made of (or not made of), its history, its purpose. You can expand on any of these things—by asking more questions or by repeating questions at each step—to go deeper into new ways of thinking about the thing.
Consider something as plain as a table. The purpose of any table is straight-forward enough: to hold things. But what about specialized tables? Poker or pool tables, picnic and the tables you’d be seated at in a fine-dining restaurant. The table built for a modern office worker might have plugs and power adapters built in, whereas the traditional family dinner table will need to be larger, sturdy, and power-less.
Then there's the history of any table. How was it made: by machine or by hand? Who made the table and where did they learn to do that? What’s their history? Is there a town of table-makers somewhere? How does the factory where tables are made smell? How does that smell carry over to the tables around us at home or work? How are these tables designed, before they are made? Where was the wood or metal or plastic or concrete sourced from for the table?
What if the table meant to hold our computers and cups of coffee was designed to instead hold thousands of pounds of materials, how might that affect how it looks and functions? What if a table needed to expand or shrink depending on how many people will be using it? What if your table could transform into a shelf when not in use? What if the table was modular, or entirely a touch screen, or embedded with floral smells or haptic feedback mechanisms?
When we start to see a table as more than just something “to hold things” we begin to unlock new and possibly provoking ideas. These once overly-familiar objects or projects begin to take on new characteristics and, inevitably, expose us to new ways of thinking.
And if none of the digging and question asking works, there’s always the option of going for a walk to shake up how you’re thinking about things.