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11 Ways to Think Outside the Box

11 Ways to Think Outside the Box

Thinking outside the box is more than just a business cliché. It means approaching problems in new, innovative ways; conceptualizing problems differently; and understanding your position in relation to any particular situation in a way you’d never thought of before. Ironically, its a cliché that means to think of clichéd situations in ways that aren’t clichéd.

We’re told to “think outside the box” all the time, but how exactly do we do that? How do we develop the ability to confront problems in ways other than the ways we normally confront problems? How do we cultivate the ability to look at things differently from the way we typically look at things?

Thinking outside the box starts well before we’re “boxed in” – that is, well before we confront a unique situation and start forcing it into a familiar “box” that we already know how to deal with. Or at least think we know how to deal with.

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Here are 11 ways to beef up your out-of-the-box thinking skills. Make an effort to push your thinking up to and beyond its limit every now and again – the talents you develop may come in handy the next time you face a situation that “everybody knows” how to solve.

1. Study another industry.

I’ve learned as much about teaching from learning about marketing as I have from studying pedagogy – maybe more. Go to the library and pick up a trade magazine in an industry other than your own, or grab a few books from the library, and learn about how things are done in other industries. You might find that many of the problems people in other industries face are similar to the problems in your own, but that they’ve developed really quite different ways of dealing with them. Or you might well find new linkages between your own industry and the new one, linkages that might well be the basis of innovative partnerships in the future.

2. Learn about another religion.

Religions are the way that humans organize and understand their relationships not only with the supernatural or divine but with each other. Learning about how such relations are structured can teach you a lot about how people relate to each other and the world around them. Starting to see the reason in another religion can also help you develop mental flexibility – when you really look at all the different ways people comprehend the same mysteries, and the fact that they generally manage to survive regardless of what they believe, you start to see the limitations of whatever dogma or doxy you follow, a revelation that will transfer quite a bit into the non-religious parts of your life.

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3. Take a class.

Learning a new topic will not only teach you a new set of facts and figures, it will teach you a new way of looking at and making sense of aspects of your everyday life or of the society or natural world you live in. This in turn will help expand both how you look at problems and the breadth of possible solutions you can come up with.

4. Read a novel in an unfamiliar genre.

Reading is one of the great mental stimulators in our society, but it’s easy to get into a rut. Try reading something you’d never have touched otherwise – if you read literary fiction, try a mystery or science fiction novel; if you read a lot of hard-boiled detective novels, try a romance; and so on. Pay attention not only to the story but to the particular problems the author has to deal with. For instance, how does the fantasy author bypass your normal skepticism about magic and pull you into their story? Try to connect those problems to problems you face in your own field. For example, how might your marketing team overcome your audiences normal reticence about a new “miracle” product?

5. Write a poem.

While most problem-solving leans heavily on our brain’s logical centers, poetry neatly bridges our more rational left-brain though processes and our more creative right-brain processes. Though it may feel foolish (and getting comfortable with feeling foolish might be another way to think outside the box), try writing a poem about the problem you’re working on. Your poem doesn’t necessarily have to propose a solution – the idea is to shift your thinking away from your brain’s logic centers and into a more creative part of the brain, where it can be mulled over in a non-rational way. Remember, nobody has to ever see your poem…

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6. Draw a picture.

Drawing a picture is even more right-brained, and can help break your logical left-brain’s hold on a problem the same way a poem can. Also, visualizing a problem engages other modes of thinking that we don’t normally use, bringing you another creative boost.

7. Turn it upside down.

Turning something upside-down, whether physically by flipping a piece of paper around or metaphorically by re-imagining it can help you see patterns that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent. The brain has a bunch of pattern-making habits that often obscure other, more subtle patterns at work; changing the orientation of things can hide the more obvious patterns and make other patterns emerge. For example, you might ask what a problem would look like if the least important outcome were the most important, and how you’d then try to solve it.

8. Work backwards.

Just like turning a thing upside down, working backwards breaks the brain’s normal conception of causality. This is the key to backwards planning, for example, where you start with a goal and think back through the steps needed to reach it until you get to where you are right now.

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9. Ask a child for advice.

I don’t buy into the notion that children are inherently ore creative before society “ruins” them, but I do know that children think and speak with a n ignorance of convention that is often helpful. Ask a child how they might tackle a problem, or if you don’t have a child around think about how you might reformulate a problem so that a child could understand it if one was available. Don’t run out and build a boat made out of cookies because a child told you to, though – the idea isn’t to do what the child says, necessarily, but to jog your own thinking into a more unconventional path.

10. Invite randomness.

If you’ve ever seen video of Jackson Pollock painting, you have seen a masterful painter consciously inviting randomness into his work. Pollock exercises a great deal of control over his brushes and paddles, in the service of capturing the stray drips and splashes of paint that make up his work. Embracing mistakes and incorporating them into your projects, developing strategies that allow for random input, working amid chaotic juxtapositions of sound and form – all of these can help to move beyond everyday patterns of thinking into the sublime.

11. Take a shower.

There’s some kind of weird psychic link between showering and creativity. Who knows why? Maybe it’s because your mind is on other things, maybe it’s because you’re naked, maybe it’s the warm water relaxing you – it’s a mystery. But a lot of people swear by it. So maybe when the status quo response to some circumstance just isn’t working, try taking a shower and see if something remarkable doesn’t occur to you!

Do you have strategies for thinking differently? Share your tips with us in the comments.

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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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