eureka!

The complete guide to having a creative breakthrough

July 25, 2014
July 25, 2014

We all struggle for a moment of insight. Whether you’ve been banging your head against the wall for days or just woke up to a problem this morning, the desire for a creative boost is a powerful one. It’s the same feeling that plagues writers facing a blank page or advertisers developing a brand’s next campaign—and learning how to achieve it can have a profound impact. Here are some tips to avoid your next headache or create something the world has never seen before:

Sleep

Just like a car needs gas to drive, your brain needs sleep to fire on all cylinders. Sleep consolidates what you’ve learned throughout the day, strengthening neural connections and, more importantly, creating new ones. Making original associations between different pieces of information stored throughout the brain (like that thing you read in the news and your college professor’s dog) is at the heart of having a “eureka” moment (Archimedes supposedly coined the term while running naked through the streets of Syracuse, Italy after realizing the fraud in Hiero’s “gold” crown by stepping into his bath and seeing water spill out.) For most adults seven hours of shuteye is recommended; new research suggests eight might be too much. So even if you don’t work at a company with designated “nap rooms” or Energypods, make sure to plan your sleep schedule accordingly.

Get moving

Exercise has long been associated with better thinking, such as improvements in memory and attention. And as of late, it’s also been linked to creativity. A recent study from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education found just eight minutes of walking (whether on an indoor treadmill or outside) boosted creativity by about 60%. It’s possible that walking works by naturally improving your mood, and creativity is known to improve when you’re feeling good. Or, the authors note, it could be that walking takes brain power that would otherwise silence creativity. But there’s no need to purchase a treadmill desk just yet. The researchers found creative thinking lasted past the stroll, so just be sure to get up and moving throughout the day. And if you do head out for your lunch hour, leave your notebook at your desk and have a pen ready upon your return.

Grab a partner

While Rodin’s solitary thinker may be the quintessential emblem of a creator, a look back in time and a growing body of research indicates the power of the duo. Just take John Lennon and Paul McCartney, or Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Pairs are built for fluidity and flexibility, notes Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of the forthcoming book, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, and they’re a social structure that allows idea to flourish. With neither partner able to hide, there is constant engagement and exchange of ideas that naturally generates productivity and creation.

So grab a buddy and begin talking. Within the constant tension, dialogue, and sheer physical proximity lies an “Aha!” moment waiting to happen.

Break out of your comfort zone

Maybe it’s finally time to ditch the “but I have poor hand-eye coordination” excuse and grab a tennis racket. Novel experiences work wonders for exposing you to new ideas and people, expanding your knowledge base, and opening up the opportunity to see novel possibilities, according to Daniel Burrus, CEO and founder of Burrus Research and the author of Flash Foresight, and is an effective way to create that lightbulb moment.

A recent study led by Wenfu Li, a psychology professor at Southwest University in China, found that individuals who had the most “openness to experience” were significantly more likely to be creative. Though openness, one of the classic “Big Five Personality Traits,” is not just marked by a willingness to try new things. You can also increase your openness by unleashing your inner child and being more imaginative, paying close attention to your feelings, and pondering complex issues.  

Practice

Although its direct contribution to creativity is still up for debate, practice is essential: You can’t just be born the next Ernest Hemingway or Steve Jobs, and no problem is going to solve itself overnight (even with enough sleep). While 10,000 hours of practice clearly isn’t necessary to become a creative expert (take Mary Shelley, who wrote her first short story at 18 and published Frankenstein at 20), regardless of natural talent, some practice certainly is called for, as Malcolm Gladwell, the theory’s developer, noted in a recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything.” So no matter what problem you’re trying to solve or masterpiece you’re working to create, practice the skills required to get the job done. Consistent effort and learning from your inevitable mistakes are key for breaking through your inner turmoil and coming up with a creative solution.

Space out

One of the best ways to solve a problem, experts suggest, is to stop thinking about it. A study done by Dutch researchers Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs asked participants to invent new pasta names, after being prompted with five examples of fake names, all ending with an “i.” The researchers found that participants who were given three minutes of a distractor task were much better at generating original pasta names that didn’t end in “i” than those who were simply asked to sit and think of new pasta names for the same amount of time.

Letting the unconscious mind work its magic may do more than just help with novel idea generation; it can also help you identify which of your ideas are the most creative, suggests a related study done by Dijksterhuis, Simone M. Ritter, and Rick B. van Baaren of Radbound University Nijmegen’s Behavioral Science Institute in the Netherlands. In this case, participants who played a computer game for two minutes instead of thinking about the problem at hand (how a student can earn some extra money) were twice as good at weeding out which of their ideas were the most creative.

So don’t be afraid to take time away from the problem you’re trying to solve and let it stew. It’s no surprise insights often happen in the shower or while daydreaming. Giving your mind a break may be just the thing you need to generate your next creative breakthrough.

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