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Seven Steps to Boost Creativity in a Pinch and Meet Your Next Deadline

Seven Steps to Boost Creativity in a Pinch and Meet Your Next Deadline

That nagging nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach just exploded into full blown anxiety. The important deliverable your boss wants? It’s due in “five minutes.” The paper that counts for half of your final grade? It should’ve been done yesterday.

But no need to fear, constraints drive creativity and you can unlock your imagination and drive solutions by THINKING DIFFERENTLY. Here are the seven steps to conquer creativity in a pinch and meet your next deadline:

1. Ditch Traditional Brainstorming and Give “Gamestorming” a Try

Traditional brainstorming is broken in that it stimulates ‘groupthink’” and adds unneeded pressure. To make matters worse, ideas offered by the loudest people drown out the great ideas from those who aren’t as extroverted.

Gamestorming incorporates co-creation in ways that stimulate thinking and states of play. It requires breaking into two ‘zones of thinking’, the divergent zone, which is all about quantity, and the convergent zone, which is where choices are filtered down.

Once when faced with a crazy deadline and a completely booked-up team, I had to brainstorm campaign ideas for an emerging startup. Rather than wait for the clock to run out, I made a fun game of it I call the “50/50 experiment”. I challenged myself to come up with 50 ideas in 50 minutes. Don’t have 50 minutes? Aim for 20 ideas in 20 minutes or even 10 in 10. Shoot for quantity over quality, you can separate the wheat from the chaff when you converge afterwards.

Nothing jump starts creativity like pressure. Combine the stress of a fast approaching deadline with the adrenaline of a gamestorm – you’ll be hooked.

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2. Frame and then Reframe the Problem

Einstein famously said, ”If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Hopefully your life doesn’t depend on meeting your next deadline, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take cues from Albert. (I hear he was a relatively smart guy.)

Stanford Professor Tina Seelig demonstrates the power of reframing by asking an identical question in two different ways: “What is the sum of 5 plus 5? What two numbers add up to 10?” The first question has a single definite response, while the second can be answered in many ways.

It’s easy to get lost in the details when the pressure is on. Ask yourself: “Why?” “What If?” “Why not?”

If you are trying to make a chair more comfortable, does the problem lie with the chair or the way the person is sitting in it?

Think about how to reframe the problem at hand and get back to the root of what you are up against. An obvious solution may be waiting right in front of you. By constantly reframing the question and the problem, you can unlock new, productive ways of thinking.

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3. Dig Deep. Think “Sideways” 

Even when up against a ticking clock, immerse yourself in the task to boost creativity.

In typical education systems, we’re taught from an early age to use logical, goal-centric approaches to thinking. This makes us want to jump to ‘solutions’. However, this can also stand in the way of creativity.

Don’t be another person that uses Google to arrive at the most obvious idea and proceeds to try to pass it off as their own. To truly arrive at your own thoughts, use what psychologists call “lateral thinking”, or what I like to refer to as “thinking sideways”.

Founder of Contently Shane Snow wrote a fantastic book called Smartcuts that shows the power of lateral thinking.

I like to approach creative projects like a crime TV show drama by mapping out my work in a ‘war room’. I find going analog is a much more flexible way of working and stimulates teamwork by creating physical spaces to display information in plain sight.

This saturation period is a critical part of the creative problem solving process. Don’t be afraid to interview people and ask questions to really dig deep. If you are designing the vending machine of the future, call vending machine repair companies and ask them what breaks often and why. Starting with ‘why’ helps you to break out of the status quo.

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4. Let it Soak

Do the hands on the clock feel like they are moving faster and faster, barreling you through time closer and closer to missing your deadline?

Why don’t you go have a snack? Not hungry? Take a shower then.

It’s time to let the work you have done in the saturation period marinate. Step away from work for a couple minutes and refresh your mind.  You may not still be consciously working on the problem, but your mind will continue to try to process and make sense of it.

In a scene from TV’s Mad Men, a partner from Don Draper’s agency remarks to him, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”

I don’t suggest you adapt all of Draper’s work habits, but creatives have always understood the importance of taking time aside to let your thoughts develop. The minute you stop actively thinking about how to solve a problem is usually when a solution presents itself.

5. Check your Surroundings

Still struggling to get your work done?

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Consider your surroundings. Our brains are constantly absorbing the stimuli around us and our environment can have a profound effect on our creativity, or lack thereof.

Steve Jobs found long walks around Palo Alto to be an invaluable way to problem solve and contemplate the products that would shape technology forever. Determine the environmental inputs that drive your desired outputs. The right people, places, and music (or lack of) can make all the difference.

6. Strike While The Iron is Hot    

Once the ideas finally start flowing, keep working and capture them however possible: momentum is a fire you must never stop fueling. Thanks to a sudden ‘ah-ha’ moment, the blocked lows of creative problem solving can give way to an exhilarating rush of ideas that will make your deadline attainable.

7. Be Vulnerable

Creative problem solving dies without the courage to fail your way to each and every success. Brainstorm. Observe. Repeat.

Remember Theodore Roosevelt’s great words about the power of vulnerability:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Featured photo credit: Shutterstock via shutterstock.com

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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

3. Move Your Body

A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

4. Connect With Another Person

Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

5. Use Your Imagination

When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

Final Thoughts

Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

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Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

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