Want to hack your creativity? Here’s a powerful way

There’s an interesting “hack” you can use if you’re trying to be more creative.

It’s a technique that has served behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists well for decades, and it relates surprisingly well to your ability to think creatively.

What’s the hack? Extinguishing your behaviors – or pre-existing ideas – to spur new ones. Essentially creating challenges for yourself, even if your problem or situation is familiar (in-fact, this hack works best in familiar situations).

As renown author and psychologist Robert Epstein explains: “A challenging situation is like an ‘extinction’ procedure in the behavioral laboratory. We extinguish behavior when we withdraw the reinforcers that usually maintain that behavior. In challenging situations, a great deal of behavior goes unreinforced; it just doesn’t work.”

Epstein gives an example of encountering a locked door that we believe should be unlocked.

Your initial reaction to such a situation would be to turn the knob harder, maybe jiggle it a little, then you’ll get progressively more creative with your approach to getting the door open. Pressing against it with a shoulder or even kicking it, exploring it as best you can. That’s really the key here: extinguishing your options leads to exploration.

He explains why this approach works for creative ideas: “When a behavior is unsuccessful, typically it gets weaker. We feel frustrated and upset, and, most important for creativity, there is a 'resurgence’ of behaviors that used to be effective. We begin trying out every other behavior that ever worked for us in the past under similar conditions. That gets many behaviors competing vigorously, which greatly enhances the generative process.”

Want to make this technique work for any situation? Here’s how.

Make your task impossible. If you’re trying to create a painting ask how you could make the largest painting in the world and pursue it vigorously. Trying to write a new song? Make it solely for bees to play in the wild. Want to write a novel? First make up a language to write it in.

Do whatever you can to turn the problem or situation into something utterly impossible, then pursue it. In many cases you’ll either resolve your initial problem that got you feeling creatively “stuck” or, in some cases, you’ll complete the impossible and come-up with something truly creative or innovative.

When your problem becomes what’s known as an “Ultimate Problem” – something that is overwhelmingly challenging – your natural instinct is to utilize behaviors and ideas that would otherwise lay dormant. Exploration then becomes a necessity in order to accomplish the task. Think of it as a forceful way to hack your brain into thinking creatively.

Hack your creativity by making your project or task or problem an impossible one, excruciatingly challenging. See what happens.