Being creative day-in and day-out is a must for most, if not all, knowledge workers and entrepreneurs. We have to come up with new ideas related to struggling projects, new products, business creation, and ideas to solve numerous amounts of problems. It can be a hard thing to do if you don’t have a framework or process for being creative.

Instead of just skirting by when it comes to creative pressure, you have to stand out and create ideas to make things happen in your career and life. That’s why it’s important to start thinking outside the box today. This mini guide will show you how to create ideas with minimal effort and frustration.

What this is and what it can help you with

First off, what is “thinking outside the box”? According to the Wikipedia article on the term, there is a 9-dot puzzle that is meant to be an intellectual challenge. The idea is to connect all of the dots of the puzzle by drawing four straight lines without ever lifting your pencil. The term “thinking outside the box” was coined because to solve the puzzle you have to move your pencil outside of the artificial boundaries of the box.

It’s interesting how this term came to mean “think creatively,” and now it is sort of a cliche when you hear it, but it doesn’t mean that the idea isn’t important. Thinking outside the box is important for so many things. Here is a quick list of different issues creative thinking will help you with:

  • Large problem solving at work or home
  • Creating ideas for new business opportunities
  • Creating potential ideas for writing
  • Project planning
  • Goal setting
  • Ideas for new products and services (as well as ideas to improve current products)
  • Event planning
  • Household repair

… and the list goes on

There really isn’t much in our lives that doesn’t deserve some out-of-the-box-thinking, that’s why it is important we have a creative process in our lives.

The process

When it actually comes to generating ideas and thinking creatively, there are many different ways to do it. But, there is a small, simplified process that you can follow to start thinking outside the box as quickly as possible. First let’s look at the overall setting you need to put yourself in to think differently:

  • Turn off your filter. We all have an internal “filter” that tells us ideas are good or bad even before we let them see the light of day. You have to make sure that when you are trying to think differently and come up with ideas, that this filter needs turned off so you can create as many ideas as possible without criticizing them internally. Some of the best ideas may be lost because of this internal filter we all have.
  • Create now, criticize later. When you are in “idea generation mode” you want to come up with as many ideas as possible. These ideas shouldn’t be classified as “good” or “bad” because that it is a totally separate process of thinking outside the box. Make a list
  • Go off in tangents. While creating ideas it’s important to let the creative process go where it “needs” to go. That is, don’t try to limit your ideas to the problem that you are trying to solve. If you start creating new ideas for a product or service while you are trying to create ideas to solve a family problem, let it flow the way that it flows. Some of my best ideas have come out of the weirdest and most “unnatural” times and situations. Embrace these times.
  • Create time and space for creating. As you can have creative ideas anywhere and everywhere, it’s important to remember to actually carve out time to use your creativity to solve your problems. If you have a group of people that need to be in on the creative process then schedule some time with them. Even if it is just you that needs to create some ideas, time block it in your schedule to create the time and space you will need.

Now that you have the atmosphere for thinking outside the box down, here is the simplified process of idea generation and critique:

  1. Start with a focal point and create as many ideas around that focal point. The focal point requires you to have some sort of focus and perspective on a current project, problem, business idea, etc. Having this perspective will help put your mind in the right place. You will be able to create ideas around something you are focusing on.
  2. Create ideas for a set amount of time. This could be between 5 or 25 minutes at a time. The idea is to devote this time to collect all ideas that are related to your focal point.
  3. Take a small break after the creation process. This break will be followed by the next step.
  4. Critique and organize. Now that you have some ideas down it’s time to throw out some of the bad ones, organize ones that go together, and also create new ones based off of the organization and critique. Sometimes, by this point in the process, you will already have the ideas that you need to solve your problem. If so, you can stop and work on your new ideas. If you still need more ideas then…
  5. Repeat steps 1–4.

The tools

There are a good amount of creative tools that you can use to bolster your outside of the box type of thinking. Here is a list of things that we at Lifehack like to use:

  • Mindmapping software. This is (in my opinion) the be-all-to-end-all creative thinking tool. You can get a good mindmapping app for any platform (MindNode Pro for Mac, MindManager for Mac/PC, or FreeMind for Mac/PC/Linux). Mindmapping is great to set-up your creative focal point and then generate ideas around it.
  • Outlining tools. These are good for the organizing step or even the idea generation step. Once again, there are great outlining tools for all platforms (OmniOutliner for Mac, Word for Mac/PC, Microsoft OneNote for PC, Outliner for iOS, Vault 3 Outliner for Android).
  • Pen, pencil, crayons, markers, and paper. If you are an avid mindmapper, you should try mindmapping on paper every once in a while. This will help you free yourself from digital constraints and put your mind in a different place to create. There is nothing like a huge piece of paper and a bunch of different writing utensils to help you get your creative ideas down.
  • Whiteboard and erasable markers. The corporate standard for creating ideas. It’s so engrained in corporate and business culture that it’s referred to as “whiteboarding”. Usuaally you are using whiteboards in a group setting, so remember to keep your filter off during these “whiteboarding” sessions.

Dealing with criticism

No matter how hard you try to turn your internal “filter” off or force yourself and others to keep the creation and critique and organizing steps separate, you will inevitably be faced with criticism from yourself and others. Here are some ways to counteract the effects of criticism in the creative process, while keeping the positive aspects of it:

  • When creating ideas by yourself, instead of “forcing” yourself to not be critical when a new ideas strikes you, write down the idea and then the criticism on a separate piece of paper (or digital mindmap our outline, you technophile, you). This helps you to get the idea out of your head, the same idea that could have been killed off by your filter, as well as getting the criticism out that could help you later in the creative process.
  • When creating ideas with groups, try to have a “creative thinking leader” that will help account for criticisms that come up. This person is sort of a facilitator and they can lay out the groundwork for the creative process before it even starts. This creative leader can do the same thing with criticisms of ideas that are generated, log them for later. If a certain group member has become Mr. or Mrs. Critique Master, then the creative leader may need to remind them that this isn’t the time to critique ideas, only create them.
  • There may be times that your criticisms are too harsh. One of the best things to do in this case is to keep the idea on the “back-burner” and come back to it later. If you still think that the idea is bad and are still very critical of it, you may need to let it go. Sometimes this revisiting of old ideas can last for months or even years. That’s not a bad thing. Just make sure that when you re critiquing something that you aren’t being negative, that you are being realistic.

Thinking outside the box is an important skill to have for any knowledge worker, entrepreneur, or creative. Hopefully this guide will help you grasp the creative process when it comes to project planning, goal setting, idea generation, business creation, etc. You should now be able to generate massive amounts of ideas and not let your internal or external criticisms get the best of you.

(Photo credit: Anonymous businessman with his arms folded via Shutterstock)

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