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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 July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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