Allow ideas an incubation period
Schedule time during major projects for your initial ideas to incubate—you'll almost always think of ways to improve upon them. One University of Sydney study found that when people worked on a specific assignment, setting aside time for a completely unrelated task was a key factor in boosting quality. For the experiment, participants were given four minutes to come up with as many uses for a piece of paper as possible. The first group worked on the task continuously. The second group was interrupted after two minutes to work on a related task (generating a synonym for each word from a given list) and then asked to return to the original task for the remaining two minutes. The third group was interrupted after two minutes and given an unrelated task (a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test) and then asked to return to the original task for the remaining two minutes. Despite working for the same amount of time, the third group was most successful in accomplishing the original goal. The takeaway? Start assignments with enough time to set them aside and reassess them with a clear head. These are the things all highly creative people do.
Try this brain game on your commute
Keep your brain in top shape by actively exercising it in your spare time. You can try these skill-building online games, but for an offline option, try toppling, a free association practice in which you generate a string of words that are each related by a different kind of connection. Begin with a random word. "If you start with 'carrot' you can't free associate another vegetable; instead, you might pick 'stick,' as in the phrase 'carrot and a stick,' then 'glue' because you're thinking of a glue stick," writes Christina Desmarais in Inc.
Try this Post-It hack
This Post-It trick works best for assignments that have put you into a mental rut, such as deciding on a creative title for an important memo, or choosing how to begin a short story. Refresh your brain by—quite literally—shaking things up. Take a stack of Post-It notes and write down one thing associated with your task on each note. These could be specific words you've considered including in your title, possible ways you think you might begin a story, or different words you'd like to incorporate in a new brand slogan. Fold the notes into squares and mix them up in a bowl. Pull them out one at a time in groups of threes. Do any new ideas come to mind after seeing the words in a fresh order? These surprising habits can block your creativity.
Read the first paragraph of every news story
If it bleeds, it leads: the first paragraph of every news story is where the most important information goes. But in addition to keeping you updated on current events, the first few sentences of a random story might also inspire an out-of-the-box idea.
Get coffee with an old friend
If you socialize with the same group of people every day, you're limiting yourself. Invite an old colleague, classmate, or friend to coffee—you never know what point of view they might be able to offer. Here's how to make better small talk.
Get to the office at a different time
If you always work a nine-to-five day, try switching things up. A change in schedule will expose you to new moods and perhaps even new people. Consider getting to work by 7:30 a.m. and heading out around 4 p.m.—especially if you'd normally never dream of heading to the office at that hour. Or try blasting through a memo for an hour at home in the evening with a cup of coffee. Not everyone has their best ideas at the same time of day. It's worth it to experiment with what works best for you.
Think about challenging projects when you're tired
One study found that participants were able to solve problems that required insight—as the Atlantic writes, questions "characterized by a problem that seems unsolvable until an 'aha' moment dawns"—as much as 20 percent better when they were sleepy. Night owls solved more of these riddles in the morning and early birds solved them best at night. On the other hand, here are the advantages of being a morning person.
Break your routine
Breaking routine removes you from the standard autopilot that can dictate our daily lives. If you take a new route to work one morning, you've got to pay attention, and who knows what you might notice. So hold a meeting outside of the office, read a children's book, or go on a weekend trip by yourself. By giving your brain new input, you allow it more material to draw from for better output.