Ranging from a few short minutes to a little bit longer, these exercises help us get back in the mindset we had before the pressures of everyday life squeezed us dry. Here are a few of our favorite exercises, excerpted courtesy of publisher Adams Media, from sections with titles like “Divergent,” “Lateral,” and “Emergent.”
Become a Secret Agent
When you imagine yourself in situations that rely on creativity, you allow your brain to come up with solutions and answers in ways that don’t have to rely on reality. We see this in children all the time: When they aren’t sure of how something works, or when they’re simply bored, they use their imagination to come up with solutions. As author and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson explains, “. . . young children are wonderfully confident in their own imaginations. Most of us lose this confidence as we grow up.”
The more difficult the situation is to manage with our imaginations, the more creative we’re likely to get, which is why pretending to be a secret agent for a day can be a strong motivator for thinking creatively.
Your challenge: Spend the day acting like a secret agent. Nobody can know you’re an agent (that’s the “secret” part), so your mission is to make it through the day without blowing your cover. Your goal throughout the day should be to act as suave and dangerous as you imagine a secret agent would be, without blowing your cover. This book will now self-destruct in 10 seconds.
Create an Idea Chain
We tend to think only in terms of ideas that are related to one another, which can often lead us to thinking in a repetitive cycle. Thankfully, there are ways of breaking our cycles of thinking. An idea chain is one such way. To create an idea chain, first think of two related words, writing them down with a sizable space between them. Then, focusing on the first word only, write the next word that comes to mind right next to it. Keep writing words like this to create a chain connecting the first word to the last word. For example: if you wanted to do something fun today, your chain might start like this: “Fun ______ ______ ______ ______ Today.” By the end of the exercise that same chain could look like this: “Fun Dance Celebration Birthday Cake Today,” which could lead you to the idea of having a faux birthday celebration for fun today.
Your challenge: Write down something you want to do today, using only two words and leaving a large gap between them. Look at the first word and write next to it the first thing that comes to mind. Then think of related words for the second word, repeating the process until you reach the last word.
Research from New York University and Tel Aviv University has shown that you’re more inclined to think creatively when you imagine yourself removed from a problem or situation. Imagining yourself in the mind of somebody else, for example, is a simple way to trick your brain into seeing things in new ways. The act of people watching is one way to do just that.
As you watch strangers, you can imagine how they might handle a situation. That thought process allows for ideas that would otherwise be unrealistic or limited by your personal way of thinking. After all, you might not act a certain way, but a stranger could. Imagining how a stranger might act makes it possible for you to think of more radical and imaginative ideas than you might be used to, simply because it’s not you acting them out, but someone else you’re watching.
Your challenge: Go to a public place, like a shopping center or university library, and quickly write a short story for some different people you see walking about. Combine the different traits and actions of your “characters” into one compelling story.
Go for a Walk
Walking in an open space encourages creative insight by activating the parts of your brain associated with free thinking, according to science. One study from Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford Post Doctoral Scholar, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, demonstrated that the simple act of walking can dramatically increase your thinking ability. Walking allows your brain to get into a mode of thinking that’s ideal for creativity: not too focused, but not too wildly free either. As Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow . . .”
Your challenge: It’s simple enough to go for a walk. This challenge is to find somewhere you can go that is open (without a ceiling) and preferably green with shrubs or trees (for added mood benefits), and walk for a minimum of 10 minutes.
Change One Thing
We tend to fall into routines easily. Day in and day out, we do, say, see, and think more or less the same things repeatedly. We lose sight of how each small piece of a whole affects the outcome. One exercise you can use to break routine and see things in new ways is to change the aesthetic elements of something you encounter on a regular basis. For example, imagine what would happen if your keyboard were 1,000 times bigger, or if your hands were 1,000 times smaller.
Imagining what would happen if you changed one thing you do on a daily basis—and thinking about how that change would affect everything else—is a clever way to conquer seemingly impossible scenarios and consider how even the smallest thing you deal with impacts everything else you do.
Your challenge: Imagine what would happen if something in your life—your computer, your hands or eyes, your clothing, etc.—changed aesthetically (if it were much bigger, or smaller, or a different shape). Act out how you would behave if the change were real.
Draw Thirty Circles
Bob McKim, once a lead at the Stanford Design Program, created a challenge in the ’70s that helped students get over the initial hesitation they had around drawing. McKim would hand students a sheet of paper and tell them to draw the person sitting next to them in 30 seconds. By tasking students with creating a drawing in just 30 seconds, McKim found that students wouldn’t have time to critique their work, which often led to more creative solutions. A similar exercise used by product design studio IDEO is to take thirty circles drawn on a page and try to make something tangible from the circles (by only drawing inside each of them individually) in just 3 minutes.
Your challenge: Using a single sheet of paper, draw thirty circles of about the same size each (they don’t have to be perfect circles!). Set a timer for 3 minutes, then draw inside of the circles to make as many different objects as you can: a wheel, looking down on a coffee cup, a button, and so on.