Have you ever marveled at someone’s ability to come up with unique and creative ideas? When we see these individuals, it can often feel like our capacity for innovation was programmed for precisely the opposite. But the answer to why some people have amazing ideas lies in creative thinking—the ability to see beyond the obvious in ways that lead to unique concepts.
The term “creative thinking” may invoke thoughts of children and artists. And while creative thinking is a skill we develop as children, it’s one that remains highly relevant in our adult life, even if artistry is not a strict part of our job definition. So what is creative thinking, and why is it important? Let’s take a look.
What is Creative Thinking?
The definition of creativity is the “use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.” The “something” we create can be either physical or intangible.
When we talk about creative thinking, we’re referring to the process of developing new ideas or methods. Though there are many different ways to define this term, one definition is that creative thinking is the process of thinking outside the box for novel ways to solve problems, face challenges, and carry out duties.
Creative thinking avoids orthodox solutions. It asks us to perceive subtle patterns, make disparate connections between ideas, and see a problem as a larger part of a whole. The goal of creative thinking is to produce a concept that is fresh, unusual, and distinctive in its approach to the problem or task at hand.
Why is Creative Thinking Important?
The importance of this process cannot be understated, and adopting creative thinking methods is critical. This practice allows us a better way to meet the demands of our ever-changing world, and it’s also a highly sought-after skill in the workplace.
Creativity is often the determining factor between businesses who succeed and those who fail. Remaining firmly planted in assumptions and biases can keep you from advancing, especially in the STEM professions (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). For this reason, employers like to fill their team with individuals who bring unique perspectives to the job.
Creative thinking also has many benefits for you personally.
- The ability to solve problems more resourcefully. Instead of always going with the tried and true method, you may discover a better, more practical way of doing something—something that makes your life easier. Creative thinkers stop taking problems at face value and see if there is a more straightforward method of tackling it.
- Greater success at work/school. Individuals who come up with novel ideas tend to advance further in their endeavors. Whether you’re looking to get ahead at work, school, or somewhere else, ingenuity can help you do that.
- More respect. People tend to admire others who frequently come up with innovative and helpful ideas. Thinking outside the box is a surefire way to get others to notice and respect you.
- Feeling more self-confident. Engaging in the process of creative thinking helps to build confidence. Curiosity, resourcefulness, and positivity are traits of creative thinkers, traits that help us see problems not as insurmountable, but instead roadblocks that we must find ways around. These characteristics help us to view ourselves as capable, and overcoming challenges instills confidence in us.
- Make a difference. It may not happen all the time, but the right idea could change the course of your field of study, the future of your company, your life path, or even the life of someone else.
- Greater self-awareness. Creative thinking allows us to delve into our authentic selves since it requires us to get in touch with our emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. It teaches us to value ourselves as we take the time to understand what we think and develop our ideas, which may also lead to more effective self-expression.
- Stress relief. Being creative is fun, and having fun can help reduce stress.
Examples of Creative Thinking
It may be hard to envision concrete examples of creative thinking, but they are all around us—especially in the workplace. Artistic creative thinking and problem-solving are the two main types of creative thinking. You may be surprised to learn that, regardless of your job title, you are likely required to employ both of these types daily.
Here are some concrete examples to help you get a better grasp of what creative thinking is.
Artistic creativity is probably what comes to mind when you hear the term “creative thinking,” and it comes in all shapes and sizes. Artistic creativity involves much more than things you would consider strictly artistic, such as sculpting, sketching, or playing an instrument.
Artistic creativity is part of many tasks, such as designing a visually stunning resume layout, writing engaging web copy, or developing a dynamic lesson plan to use in the classroom. Many jobs require this skill in some form or another. Here are some common ways you may be asked to use artistic creativity at work.
- In logo design
- When coming up with compelling copy for advertising and web content
- To overhaul a website’s look
- When arranging clothes in a unique way
- In writing a script for a TV commercial
Problem-solving in creative thinking, however, involves moving away from the norm to figure out if there’s a better way to solve the task at hand. The goal is to identify new solutions, particularly an idea that is revolutionary in its approach to a problem.
Problem-solving is an essential process for many businesses, and it can look very different according to the context. Here are some ways you might use problem-solving at work.
- To design a plan to reduce the company’s carbon footprint
- In developing a marketing pitch
- When devising a social media campaign
- To figure out how to reduce extraneous costs
- In developing more effective channels of communication across teams
Skills Related to Creative Thinking
We briefly mentioned specific skills characterize creative thinkers, such as curiosity, resourcefulness, and positivity. Let’s take a closer look at what skills define them and why.
Strong analytical abilities are crucial for creative thinking. It’s impossible to innovate unless you have a firm grasp on the problem or challenge, and to do so, you must be able to analyze it carefully. The better you understand the issue you’re facing, the more likely you are to see possible solutions.
Flexibility refers to our capacity to adapt as we are thrown curve balls and our willingness to adjust our way of thinking. Since creative thinking is all about looking past what we know, an inflexible approach makes that challenging or impossible. Flexibility is a critical trait if you’re looking to develop this skill.
Similarly, if you want to see the question at hand in a different way, open-mindedness is a skill you must have.
Though open-mindedness and flexibility may appear to be the same, there is a subtle difference between the two. When we talk about open-mindedness, we’re talking about being able to disregard biases, as well as identifying and ignoring our assumptions. Keeping our biases in check by having an open mind helps facilitate the process of creative thinking.
The creative thinking process can be disorganized, but you should eventually be able to create structure despite initial chaos. Having organizational skills is what allows others to understand your creative ideas, which is especially crucial in a work environment. You need to be able to create a road map for your concept with quantifiable objectives and deadlines.
Much the same way you need to be able to organize your idea in a way that makes sense to others, you must also possess the ability to relay that information. The most genius ideas are useless if you are unable to communicate them to others, which is why oral/written communication skills are vital. The ability to communicate your idea allows others to be able to assess it and implement it.
How to Encourage Creative Thinking
We’ve talked about the two types of creative thinking, given you some examples, and have gone over traits the most effective creative thinkers possess. But you might be wondering if there is a way to develop this capability if you don’t consider yourself to be one of the lucky chosen few. And if so, how do you do so?
We’ve got good news for you: creative thinking is not something you’re either born with or without. All individuals possess an inherent ability to think creatively, not just the people we consider “creative,” such as artists, musicians, writers, etc. The key is to strengthen our capacities for creativity through practice, and also by priming our bodies.
Here are some ways to encourage creative thinking.
Jot Down Your Thoughts
Do brilliant ideas strike at inopportune times, like when walking down the street, or on your way to work? Keeping a small notebook in your purse or in your backpack so that you can write them down is a fantastic idea.
Besides writing down your more imaginative ideas, it’s good to get in the habit of jotting down passing thoughts. You may be able to spot patterns or build on a view that may have seemed unimportant in the moment. Plus, some people are visual learners, and seeing the thoughts on paper can help them understand their ideas better.
Turn Up the Pressure
Having an immediate problem to solve can spark creativity, especially if the situation is filled with pressure. Try deliberately putting yourself in settings that throw you off or cause you stress. Nerves and frustration can lead to creative ideas that an otherwise calm environment may never have produced.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to step away from a problem and look at it as one part of a bigger whole.
So while it’s vital to have a firm grasp on what concerns us, it’s equally important to have a well-rounded vision of related fields and concepts. Understanding how our problem fits into the bigger picture can help us identify connections and think innovatively.
Daydreaming is often viewed as negative, but in reality, it’s a valuable part of the creative thinking process. Have you ever noticed that as soon as you turn your attention away from solving a challenge, the answer tends to come? Letting your mind wander is a fantastic way to gain new perspectives.
We mentioned priming our bodies for creative thinking, and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that getting enough sleep is a simple way to do so. The REM cycle, which is one of the four phases of sleep, has been shown to improve our creativity and problem-solving capabilities. So if you need another excuse to get your seven to eight hours per night, this is it.
You can take it to the next level and stimulate creative thinking by keeping a journal next to your bed, writing down any discerning thoughts you have during sleep. Similarly, short naps of anywhere from 15-20 minutes can help you beat the midday slump and boost your creativity.
Another way to prime our bodies for creative thinking is through exercise. We all know that working up a sweat every day has significant benefits for our health and mood, but the benefits extend beyond that post-gym glow. Exercise also fosters creative thinking, so your next ingenious idea may just be a gym session away.
How to Encourage Creative Thinking in Your Employees
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re interested in creative thinking, most likely for yourself. But what if you’re an employer interested in employee creativity? How can you help your employees develop these skills without them realizing it?
There are several ways to develop creativity in your office or place of employment. Certain circumstances facilitate this trait, so here are some tweaks you can make to create the optimal creative thinking environment.
Despite their popularity, studies show that the constant distractions present in open-plan offices can negatively affect worker performance. Others suggest that an open office plan adversely affects creativity. Though changing an existing space may be unrealistic, you can take steps to minimize the distractions inherent in open-plan offices.
For example, creating spaces where employees can work in private is one way to improve their focus and help them unleash creativity. You may also want to consider allowing staff to work from home one or two days per week, where distractions are minimal.
Encourage Nap Time
We already mentioned in the previous section that sleep, and even short naps, fosters creativity. Though mandating your employees to sleep seven to eight hours per night is impossible, you can provide them with the opportunity to take a short sleep break during the day. Just make sure that naptime is short—fifteen to twenty minutes is ideal.
Change Up the Environment
A change in scenery can be all it takes to encourage creative thinking. The fresh sensory stimuli that are abundant in new environments help shake the brain out of its typical patterns. Encourage your employees to leave their desks and take a brief walk every hour or two to help get the creative juices flowing.
Techniques to Develop Creative Thinking
All it takes is a quick Google search to see that there are endless amounts of methods for developing creative thinking. We’re going to go over a few active techniques you can utilize to increase creativity.
One thing to keep in mind as you read them is that there is no right or wrong way to innovate. What works for one person may not work for another. Try some of the ideas on this list with an open mind, and if you find they don’t work for you, try something else. The important thing is to keep working on developing this skill.
And remember, it’s never too late, and we’re never too old to become more creative.
Brainstorming is our first creative thinking technique. Everybody knows what brainstorming is, and you’ve heard of it for a reason: it’s a highly effective way to generate ideas. You can brainstorm by yourself or as part of a team, where the potential for coming up with groundbreaking ideas multiplies exponentially.
There are a few different ways to brainstorm. The general idea is to write down everything that could be a possible solution to whatever you’re facing. Write down every idea, regardless of how outlandish or impractical it may seem. Censorship has no place in a brainstorming session, so let the ideas flow freely as they occur to you, and take note of them without judgment.
If you want to take your brainstorming session to the next level, especially in a group setting, you can go over all the “worst” ideas and discuss their positive features. Changing the way we look at a “bad” idea can help us gain perspective, as can figuring out ways to turn these problematic solutions into workable ones.
Brainstorming at work does have one major flaw, which is that people tend to value the ideas of the higher-ups more than the rest of the staff. To help ensure that everyone’s voice is heard regardless of their status, you can require team members to submit ideas anonymously ahead of a meeting.
Everyone votes on the proposals that will be heard, and later each team argues for and against an idea. Conducting the brainstorming session in this manner forces people to view solutions from all angles and helps encourage the development of new perspectives.
Have you ever found yourself unconsciously lacing up your tennis shoes to go on a walk when you feel stressed? There’s nothing like putting one foot in front of the other to help clear our heads. But beyond being an excellent way to relieve stress, walking has other significant benefits for our creativity.
A 2014 Stanford study demonstrated that people are more creative when walking than sitting—60 percent more creative, to be exact. Many brilliant minds swear by walking to combat the effects of writer’s block, solve problems, or even conduct meetings.
It’s not entirely clear why walking boosts creativity, but it may have to do with the fact that walking requires the simultaneous use of various parts of the brain. Walking is also thought to help the right and the left side of the brain communicate with one another.
Whatever the reason, a long walk may be all you need to overcome creative struggle—or merely encourage it. The Stanford study did discover one caveat, however. Walking does not stimulate all types of thinking in the same manner.
Researchers found that the positive effects were more prominent on divergent thinking, or finding ideas that deviate from the norm. But when it came to convergent thinking, or finding the correct answer to a problem instead of a variety of possibilities, walking did not help. Rather, it appeared to hinder our capacity to think convergently.
So beyond being a fantastic way to combat the effects of sitting all day, a simple walk may be all you need to find inspiration. Just keep in mind what type of thinking you need to do. If it’s convergent, try a different creative thinking technique.
Make Yourself Work
It’s all too easy to avoid working when inspiration is thin on the ground, but this is actually the best time to do so. Working when you feel uninspired or blocked forces you to overcome these less creative moments and produce. The trick, however, is to assign yourself manageable time chunks in which to work. Anywhere from fifteen to twenty minutes is ideal.
During this period, you should remain focused on your objective. Avoid distractions and pressuring yourself to produce anything significant—the idea is merely to create. Even if what you come up with is very little, that’s fine as long as you’re focused.
Take a break once the twenty minutes are over, and as soon as you’re ready, start again. Repeat this pattern several times, and you’ll likely notice an increase in productivity and creativity after a while. You’ll probably also see that you’ll be less relieved that break time has come after a few rounds.
Try New Things
Remember how we mentioned that expanding your view of a problem to include information about related fields can be useful? The same principle is valid for new experiences in general. Creativity can come from anywhere, not just in thinking about the task or challenge.
Saying yes to new activities is a fantastic way to enhance the possibilities for creativity. It’s also an excellent way to relax and have fun. Here are some ideas to help you incorporate new activities into your life.
- Engage in conversation with someone new. Hearing the perspectives of others can help improve creative thinking and broaden your worldview. Strike up a chat with someone you see at the gym or a person you’ve never talked to at work. Anyone unknown to you will work just fine.
- Say yes to a social situation you may be hesitant about. Expanding on the point above, social settings outside of your typical circle are the perfect place to engage in conversation with someone new.
- Try an activity you’ve always been interested in. Picking up a new hobby is the ideal way to stretch our minds, especially if it’s an artistic hobby like ceramics.
- Consume media doesn’t typically interest you. Try exploring entertainment options outside of the genre you generally gravitate toward or reading blogs from a different industry.
Changing the way we look at a situation, or reframing it, is another way to find creative solutions for it. When we use the reframing technique, we are able to change our perspective on the situation. Reframing is highly useful if you feel unable to advance with a recurring issue.
Here are a few ways you can reframe your problem.
- Rethink your question. Answers depend on the question you ask, and sometimes the question you ask can be limiting. Change the way you ask the question, and you may find better answers.
- Change your mindset from negative to positive. Speak about “challenges” instead of “problems,” and try to view them as opportunities, not inconveniences. When you shift your attitude to a positive one, it becomes easier to consider solutions.
- Break it down. You know how Rome wasn’t built in a day? Most challenges aren’t solved in a day, either. Instead of viewing the problem as one large whole, which can feel overwhelming, break it down into smaller parts. It’s much easier to face small, manageable movements that you can tackle easily, which will help create momentum towards a solution.
We hope you found our tips for tapping into your creativity helpful. Remember, creative thinking is for everyone, regardless of whether you consider yourself to have a “creative” job or not. It’s a vital skill in school, work, and life, and anyone can improve their ability to think creatively. The more you work your creative thinking abilities, the stronger they get.