To be successful, businesses need innovation, and that requires creative thinking. Former advertising agency creative director Jack Foster says ideas are the “wheels of progress,” and warns that without them “stagnation reigns.”
“There’s never been a time in all of history when ideas were so needed or so valuable,” he writes in his book How To Get Ideas. “We live in an age so awash with information that at times we feel drowned in it, an age that demands a constant stream of new ideas if it is to reach its potential and realize its destiny.”
Sounds good, but some days the lightbulb just doesn’t go off. Fortunately, it’s possible to become more idea-prone, and some of the exercises that take you there also take you outside of the office.
A lot of us get great ideas in the shower, but a bath does the trick, too, says Paulette Kouffman Sherman, psychologist and author of The Book of Sacred Baths: 52 Bathing Rituals to Revitalize Your Spirit.
“Studies in floatation (a type of therapy that involves floating in a chamber filled with a saline solution) have shown increased creative scores for college students and the like during floatation, and many writers and artists attest to having more inspiration near water,” she says. They include prolific screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote while in the tub, and Agatha Christie, who liked to eat apples while soaking.
If you can’t afford a trip to the spa or a weekend beach retreat, your bathtub will work just fine. Kouffman Sherman says her daily bathing ritual involves meditation and has helped her write 21 books.
“Many creativity experts say writers need an incubation space before they write and this involves getting out of their ego and critic,” she explains. “Sacred baths allow you to do so. I would release my ego, worries, and blocks, and understand the higher purpose of what I wanted to say and how I was being of service. This was an incredible gift to me and made my creative work flow.”
Ideas are all around you every day if you just take the time to stop and look, but many of us tune them out, says Tina Seelig, author of Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World.
In her course on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship at Stanford University, Seelig sends her students to a local shopping center and has them look at stores with fresh eyes.
“We put together a detailed lab for them: Is the door open or shut? What is the font of the store’s name? How long does it take for someone to come and greet you? How high are the ceilings? What are the floors made of? What’s the soundtrack? What does it smell like?” she said in an interview with Fast Company. “Observe the world with really acute focus.”
When you pay attention to the little things that are around you, you can recognize problems that can be turned into opportunities.
In a study that sounds like it came from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, researchers at the University of British Columbia held brainstorming experiments in three environments to measure the impact of noise on creativity. Participants worked in near silent environments that registered about 50 decibels, loud environments at 85 decibels, and medium-noise environments at 70 decibels. The mid-range spot–about the noise level of a coffee shop–turned out to be just right when it came to doing creative work.
Moderate background noise creates just enough of a distraction to force people to think more imaginatively but isn’t so loud that it causes you to lose your focus. “Instead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution, walking out of one’s comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas,” write the authors in Journal of Consumer Research.
Mark Zuckerberg is known for his walking meetings at Facebook and there’s a good reason why: Putting one foot in front of the other is linked with idea generation. Researchers at Stanford University found that the act of walking boosts creative inspiration, whether it’s done inside or out.
The study involved experiments that gauged creative thinking within four different conditions: walking indoors on a treadmill, sitting indoors facing a blank wall, walking outdoors, and sitting outdoors. Researchers measured participants’ “divergent” thinking, or the ability to generate new ideas. Creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.
“Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking. We finally may be taking a step, or two, toward discovering why,” study coauthor Marily Oppezzo said in an interview with Stanford News. “We’re not saying walking can turn you into Michelangelo, but it could help you at the beginning stages of creativity.”