Letting creative solutions find you

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The more time you have to think on something, the more solutions and ideas will make themselves known.

That phrase is actually pretty appropriate, because ideas and answers aren’t the types of things that simply come from nowhere.

No, insights – especially in the case of creative thinking – are already there, inside your brain. But there are a slew of factors that keep us from uncovering those solutions. Sometimes the things that keep us from seeing a creative solution come from a place of fear, though often our inability to think creatively or see the answers in front of us is a direct result of misplaced attention.

Recently Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin discussed this topic on their amazing podcast Back to Work. They explored how where we place our attention impacts literally how we think, not only what we think. They also walked through a problem many of us unknowingly face: we aren’t always consciously aware of where our attention is going at any given moment. A result of this unconscious attention is we end up feeling agitated or anxious without ever fully understanding why.

From that anxiety and wandering attention comes the inability to be creative; our brains are preoccupied with other things to solve problems or generate smart ideas.

A result of all this misplaced attention, anxiety, and unconscious habits? We wind up asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places for creative insights. Our intentions might be good – i.e. sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper trying to brainstorm – but if we’re unable to consciously frame our problem or project in a context that allows ideas to make themselves known, we’re doomed.

This act of figuring out where our attention is and where it should be is referred to as Untangling the Present, a buddhist practice. Dan Benjamin explains for us:

As anyone who has solved a complex problem knows, the trick to finding its solution lies in how you frame the issue: identifying the problem and sorting out the pattern of factors related to it….What this boils down to is, when faced with a problem, knowing which questions are helpful to ask about it, and which questions aren’t.

How do we know this is true? From a research and evidence perspective, we don’t. But looking at the logistics of how we, as human beings, think, all signs point to this being the case.

For example: assuming you’re a fairly healthy adult, you have some 100 billion (that’s 100,000,000,000) neurons in your brain. Each neuron is firing and connecting with the hundreds of billions of others at any given time in order to create memories and concepts, experiences, ideas, and understandings of things like taste, sounds, sights, and so on.

Knowing this fact alone, it feels pretty safe to say there’s an overwhelming amount of information tucked up and away in our brains.

But we can’t just access that information by will I’d guess that most of the information in our brains we don’t even know we have. We can’t sit down and think: I need to remember what happened on June 3, ten years ago.

No, the brain doesn’t work like that. It instead works through relationships and linked concepts. For example, when you smell something that you smelled ten years ago, a whole bunch of feelings come rushing back to you instantly. Those areas of the brain associated with that smell have become active.

So when we’re trying to be creative it’s not about attempting to will new ideas out of your brain (that just leads to more frustration, as you probably already have experienced before). You have to instead think about where your attention is, then use your attention proactively bring about possible solutions through the brain’s natural association process (though adding a little imagination in the process is a nice trick too).

There’s so much inspiration and knowledge tucked away in your brain! If you want to be creative all you need to do is step back, relax, and focus your attention on the positive things that may lead to ideas.

I like to think of it this way: you can look at a plank of wood and see it as a solid object. It’s a plank of wood. But if you take the time and energy to get up close and play with the plank, you start to learn more about it. You discover the microscopic crevices and how they form tiny valleys and mountain ranges within the wood. You can feel the texture and how individual splinters flow one way or the other. By looking up close, the color of the plank is no longer simply brown, but maybe there’s some white and blacks in there, possibly yellows, a hint of red perhaps, a dash of blue.

Within each of those details, if you’re paying attention, you can learn a lot more about the plank: what type of wood it is, is it somewhat soft or extremely sturdy, perhaps a symptom of having been a tree in a climate where it rains often? Look closer at the splinters, which way are they facing and does that tell you anything about which way the plank “is facing” or was cut?

A plank of wood is certainly just a plank of wood, but it’s also texture and detail, splinters and divots. It’s a whole bunch of things are easily overlooked.

This ability to be mindful of our attention, to adjust where we’re looking and how we’re looking, that’s where creativity begins to stem from. It’s through that mindful attention that we give our brains a whole lot more to work with than simply “a plank of wood.”

This is all an example of looking at any creative problem, of course.

But it’s not easy. It takes practice, and figuring out what works for you. It’s not enough to simply pay attention, we have to invest time to check our attention, calibrate, and then (and this last part is extremely important) ruminate. Time plays a critical part to all of this, of course. Not only for being mindful of ourselves, but for allowing our brains to make the necessary connections to places where ideas may be hiding.

Being given time to ruminate and explore, to ask the questions nobody asked on the forefront, that’s when our brains can do their natural job of associating the vast library of information held within them.

In conclusion, while someone may look at a project and think: “This is what it is, and this is what it can do,” it’s the creative individual who gets up close, takes their time, and thinks: “This is what it is, but what about the details? What if we changed the environment? Where did this come from? What am I focusing on here and what else could I be focusing on?”

Today, try to pay more attention to where your attention is. Then adjust it and see what happens. Ask questions as you adjust, give yourself time to ruminate, and you’ll find that ideas start to appear.