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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 April 8, 2019

22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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  1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
  2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
  3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
  4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
  5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
  6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
  7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
  8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
  9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
  10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
  11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
  12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
  13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
  14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
  15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
  16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
  17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
  18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
  19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
  20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
  21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
  22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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