10 Proven Ways to Boost Creative Thinking

Updated: Feb. 09, 2017

Creativity isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. The latest psychological research shows that simple tweaks to your environment and behavior can make you more a more imaginative and resourceful problem solver.

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Keep your desk a little messy.

In a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science, students met in either a messy or an organized room, and had to come up with a new use for ping pong balls (a standard test of creativity). Judges rated the ideas, without knowing which rooms the groups were in. The result? Solutions from the messy room were gauged to be more interesting and innovative than those from the neat one.


Work at a coffee shop.

There’s a reason Starbucks is always filled; it has the ideal decibel level for brainstorming, according to the New York Times. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign asked study participants to think of ideas for new products with various levels of background noise, and found the best ideas were generated with ambient noise of around 70 decibels, or that of a coffee shop. Moderate noise levels help you think outside the box, study author Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor of business administration, told the paper. Extreme quiet (around 50 decibels, typical of many offices) is good for projects requiring sharp focus—say, crunching numbers—but not abstract thinking, while a too-loud 85 decibels (think: garbage disposal) is too distracting.


Drink up.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago recruited Craigslist posters who described themselves as social drinkers. Some panelists were served vodka cranberry drinks until they had a blood alcohol level of 0.075; others did not drink. All participants then performed a cognitive exercise requiring creative problem-solving. The researchers found that the intoxicated subjects solved more of the problems—and, more quickly—than the sober people. However: Alcohol may tamp down working memory, which is crucial for analytical thinking, and may hinder “out of the box” illumination, Psychology Today reported.


Hang with a mixed gang.

In 1999, Martin Ruef, then at Stanford and now at Duke, did a survey of Stanford Business School alumni who went on to start their own businesses. He found that the most creative entrepreneurs spent the most time networking with a diverse group outside of their typical business colleagues. “Weak ties—of acquaintanceship, of colleagues who are not friends—provide non-redundant information and contribute to innovation because they tend to serve as bridges between disconnected social groups,” he said in a press release. “Weak ties allow for more experimentation in combining ideas from disparate sources and impose fewer demands for social conformity than do strong ties.”


Color yourself blue.

Blue is the hue for creative thinking, a series of experiments from the University of British Columbia found. More than 600 participants did cognitive tasks that demanded either creative or detail-oriented thinking. The tests were performed on computers that had either a blue, red, or white background screen. The blue screens encouraged participants to produce twice as many solutions during brainstorming tasks as other screen colors. (Conversely, red screens improved performance on tasks like proofreading and memory recall by as much as 31 percent, compared to blue.) “Through associations with the sky, the ocean, and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace and tranquility,” study author Juliet Zhu told ScienceDaily.com. This makes people feel safe about being creative and exploratory, she said.


Dim the lights.

Turning the lights down “elicits a feeling of freedom, self-determination, and reduced inhibition,” which is key to imaginative thinking, according to German authors of a study recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. The researchers assigned a group of 114 students to work on a series of problem solving tasks that require creative thinking. Those in a dimly lit room (150 lux) solved significantly more problems than those in a brightly lit room (1,500 lux). (Typical office light is about 500 lux.)


Work when you’re tired.

It sounds counterintuitive, but night owls may actually be more creative first thing in the morning, and early birds may do more innovative thinking late at night, according to a study from researchers at Michigan State University and Albion College. The researchers believe that you use more creative thinking when you’re less inhibited, which happens when brain fog compromises your attention span. So early-bird students, for example, may do well to save art and creative writing projects for later in the evening.


Budget it in.

While many a-ha! moments happen spontaneously in the shower or while you’re doing something random, it also pays to slot in time to focus on creative projects outside of your day job or schoolwork—or else you won’t commit to really doing it. This strategy has been made famous by companies like Google and 3M, Business Insider reports. The technology giant allows its engineers to spend up to 20 percent of their work time on creative projects, which, as it happens, is how Gmail was created. 3M gave its workers “15 percent” time, which one scientist used to create Post It notes back in 1974.


Step into new surroundings.

Studies have found that students who spend time studying abroad are more creative problem solvers than those who don’t, perhaps because a more expansive worldview allows for more open-minded thinking. Scientific American reports that even thinking of a faraway place can spur ingenuity. In one study, for example, participants who were told that the questions they had to answer were developed by researchers in California (2,000 miles away) solved more problems than those who were told that the questions were developed by local researchers two miles away. The next time you need a creative jolt, try a new environment—or even just imagine or draw on memories of a faraway place.


Change up your routine.

Psychology Today reported that Dutch study participants who prepared their breakfast sandwiches in reverse order had a more productive brainstorm than those who made them their usual way. “If you want to get into a creative mindset, do your normal routine in a completely different way,” cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, said after analyzing the research for PT. “Write with your other hand. Moonwalk backwards on your way to work. Eat something new for lunch. Smile at strangers. Be weird. With your brain re-shuffled, you’ll be in a better position to be creative.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest