Creative breakthroughs come from connecting thoughts that don’t obviously belong together
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As the world hunkers down to weather a pandemic, many of us are having or choosing to work from home. It’s disruptive, yes, but there may be welcome side-effects. Less commuting, maybe. More Zooming in pyjamas, definitely.
And more time to wander.
I know wandering isn’t a normal feature of working life; all heads-down, think straight, hit the target and hurry direct to the next deadline. But I want to suggest it should be.
Wandering - both physically and mentally - is a key to thinking differently and solving problems more creatively. And now, when the whole world seems to be ‘out of office’ is a perfect time to practise.
Here are seven techniques you can try. And you don’t need to go any further than the street outside your house.
They’re what we’ve learned from Street Wisdom, our social enterprise that’s spent the last seven years helping people all over the world get extraordinary inspiration from the ordinary city streets through our free physical and virtual guided WalkShops.
Give them a try and if and when you return to the workplace, do take them with you.
In a stressed normal day, we look but don’t see. If you don’t believe me sneak a glance at the people walking past you in an average street. They seem preoccupied, right? And their eyes are glassy, turned inward, disconnected with their environment.
Three ways to change this:
Look Up as you walk down the street. You’ll be amazed what you’ve been missing as you hurried through your day
As you look ahead concentrate on what’s at the side of your vision. This broadens your awareness
Blink frequently and each time you do, imagine you are taking a retinal photograph of what you’re looking at. This helps you be both more observant and appreciative. When you look, there’s beauty everywhere.
Change of Pace
Go for a walk at the pace you’d normally set off at. After a minute start to slow - right - down. Move your limbs slower, breathe slower, blink slower. And when you think you are going slow-go slower.
Life on the street will carry on its normal velocity but notice how your experience changes when you choose to set your own tempo, rather than run at everyone else’s.
15 Minute Flâneur
We are not trained to wander. On the contrary, from school onwards, we’re encouraged to be purposeful, get straight to the point, talk, think and act in a direct manner.
Letting ourselves wander - mentally and physically - is hugely productive but it can be tricky to override our conditioning. Here’s a super simple way. Choose a point that’s five minutes; walk away from your front door. And then take fifteen minutes to get there.
Take a circuitous route, maybe. Dawdle. Let yourself be tempted into the side roads by something - or someone - that excites your curiosity. Become a contemporary flâneur in 15 minutes.
Problem-solving is part of most jobs. And it’s typically done in the workplace. Sitting in front of a computer or in a meeting. Which is odd because science tells us we are usually more creative when our bodies are moving. Our intelligence is located throughout our anatomy, not just the head. This break in the business routine gives time to do things differently.
Next time you’re facing a tough question, close the laptop, stand up and head outside. (Change out of your pyjamas first!) Take the question for a walk. Just let the question sit at the back of your mind and put your attention on all that’s happening around you…the sights, sounds, smells…all the richness we typically screen on out when we’re in ‘work mode’.
Treat what’s around you as stimulus. Let your mind make connections between the environment and your question. Imagine answers are everywhere. And I think you’ll find they are.
Not From Around Here
One key to creative thinking is to be able to see the familiar in fresh ways. A simple way to practise this is walk out of your front door - (whoa I haven’t given you the instruction yet) - and when you do, imagine you are a visiting tourist walking along the street for the very first time.
Get curious, just like a visitor would. Look twice. Ask questions. What do they call that? What is that for? Why did they build that building where it is? What’s the story behind that street name?
You’ve done it a thousand times on holiday. Now imagine you’re a holidaymaker in your own street. You’ll find yourself noticing far more than you do usually: The wonder in the everyday. Every day.
A sign, a sound, a symbol.
Very often creative breakthroughs are about connecting thoughts that don’t obviously belong together. That’s why staring at the same ideas, hour after hour, on a laptop rarely works. To practise this, first bring a question to mind.
Then, repeating the question to yourself, walk down the street and look around until a sign draws your attention. Could be a street sign, shop sign, advert. Anything that jumps out at you. Do the same with a sound. And then a symbol. Could be a picture, an object, a design. Don’t overthink it. Just go with your instinct.
When you have all three ask yourself how these elements could together be the answer to your question. The puzzle solving, code-breaking part of your mind will love it. And you’ll be surprised at how this helpfully disrupts your day-to-day thinking.
“Answers are everywhere” we like to say at Street Wisdom. And so are teachers. We avoid strangers at the best of times. And current anxieties could just increase our ‘social distance’. But, what we’ve learned countless times in Street Wisdom events, the passer-by we typically ignore is often a wise person with the answer we need.
So, when you are out in your street, looking for solutions, just consider sharing your question with a stranger, (keeping your distance of course), and see how they can contribute to your thinking. Doesn’t matter if they don’t know anything about your field. Very often it’s the total outsider who has the most helpful insight.
Just one thing: if they do offer you something valuable, obviously no hugging for now, a palms together will suffice.
If you’d rather not leave your home right now, the techniques below will work in a garden or, if you don’t have one, the average kitchen. The street isn’t the magic element, your perception is. And you can download the Street Wisdom Wanderguide to help you on your way.