If you’re trying to solve a tough problem, is it better to push on through or take a brain break? Is it better to be out in nature or will the sidewalk do? Is it better to build on an offered idea or disagree and criticize it? Yes.
When I’m teaching mediators, I like to tell them to choose an approach to a problem confronting them, then hold on tightly and let go lightly. In other words, give the approach a serious try but if it doesn’t work, let go of it and try something else. Avoid flitting from approach to approach without commitment, but don’t become overly committed to a single approach that really isn’t working.
It’s good advice for problem-solving at work and home, too. And sometimes the best approach to try next is the opposite of what we’ve been doing, as though flipping the approach makes the mind break free of fetters. Here are three sets of contradictory creative problem-solving approaches I’ve found helpful in my work and in my life.
Go out into nature…
When Frank Lloyd Wright was nagged by a tough design problem, he’d turn to nature for help. He said that nature had already solved some of the same problems he was struggling with and figured he could learn from nature’s solutions. Some of his most famous structural and creative designs came from those natural solutions.
Research supports what Wright did intuitively. The restorative powers of nature soothe us and improve our wellbeing, leaving more of our mental resources available for creative thinking. Nature can enhance our curiosity and flexible modes of thinking, essential for creative problem solving.
…Or take a walk in the concrete jungle
Walking boosts creative thinking, increases oxygen intake (essential for clear-headedness and stress management), and can improve creative inspiration and increase creative output by an average of 60 percent.
What’s more, when we’re walking together, we’re facing forward together. That’s a powerful, if subtle, alignment of intentions. So, even the sidewalk can do the trick.
Give yourself a brain break…
There’s a lovely Japanese word for the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking: Boketto. Boketto is about letting your mind wander without agenda, like we do when we’re taking a shower, weeding the garden, tinkering with the Lionel train layout in the basement, or kneading loaves of bread.
Those kinds of activities are only mildly active physically and mentally, engage us without boring us, and last long enough for an uninterrupted stream of thought to unfold. They’re the kinds of activities that seem to activate our default mode network, a network of interacting brain regions thought to catalyze free association.
As we’re free associating, ideas bump up against other ideas, creating juxtapositions we may not have encountered before.
…Or push your brain even harder
You have 24 hours in which to bring about world peace. How do you do it?
That’s what creativity researcher Dr. Robert Epstein calls an ultimate question, a tough question that has no real solution but which can be used to accelerate creative output.
Ultimate questions and problems teach your brain to keep working even when the going gets tough. Epstein argues that when we initially fail at a tough problem, we begin trying out every other behavior that has worked for us in the past under similar conditions. This causes our behaviors essentially to begin competing with each other, which enhances the generative process.
When I’m mediating, I will occasionally make use of what Epstein calls a “controlled failure system,” a tough challenge that I can make it safe to stimulate new ideas and solutions. For instance, I’ll invite them to re-approach a resistant problem that’s stopped them cold in the past. They’ll usually say a version of, “We already tried to find an agreeable solution to that one and couldn’t.” To which I like to reply, “I know you can’t. But if you could, how would you do it?” It’s astonishing how well that works.
Generate more ideas by accepting the offer…
Theatrical improv has long offered creative ways to think and work. I did some improv in college (once ending up with the lead role as a female, Spanish-speaking Dracula in Drácula Responde á Sus Críticos — but that’s a story for another day) and two of my favorite creativity sparkers are to “accept the offer and move it forward” and the closely related “yes, and.”
Accepting the offer and moving it forward means that your job in the moment isn’t to push back, criticize, or judge. Your job is to accept the other person’s idea or point of view and work with it for a little while (check out the link for an illustration).
Yes, and is a replacement for the over-used “yes, but.” Where “yes, but” implies affirmation and then takes it away, “yes, and” affirms and builds on the offered idea or solution.
…Or generate better ideas by disagreeing and criticizing
Research has cast serious doubt on the merits of traditional brainstorming with its “do not criticize” rule. One 2008 study, for instance, concluded not only that “don’t criticize” is more an impediment to creativity than a boost, but also that disagreeing and criticizing can enhance creativity.
And remember, how you disagree and criticize (or how you help others do it) makes a huge difference in whether the act helps or hinders.