“It’s easier to think outside the box if you don’t draw one around yourself.” – Jason Kravitz.
Thinking outside of the box involves coming up with new, innovative ways of thinking and approaching a problem. It asks us to use creative thinking to generate new ideas rather than fall back on comfortable and familiar solutions.
You may hear the term “think outside of the box” in the business world often.
Business owners and managers are constantly looking for employees who are free thinkers, who don’t mind coming up with outside solutions. They want someone to bring new ideas to the table because that is how businesses grow and adapt to the changing times.
No matter how developed our technology continues to get, free thinkers and creative minds will continue to be an asset to any team because they can do a lot that computers can’t.
But how do we tap into that creativity, exactly? How do we start thinking outside the box?
One creative thinking exercise hails from a few decades ago and is one of the simplest ways to get yourself to think outside the norm: the nine dots puzzle.
The nine dots puzzle
This nine dots puzzle is a thinking exercise that gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s.
Dots are placed in a 3 x 3 grid, and participants are asked to connect all of the lines with a single stroke of the pen, using the fewest amount of lines possible.
This exercise involves thinking outside the box because it asks us to look at all of our possibilities to solve the puzzle, especially ones that aren’t the most obvious.
It’s also great because there are a plethora of different patterns, or “answers,” to the nine dots puzzle itself.
The circle test
Creativity is usually aligned with how well a person can think outside the box.
A researcher, Bob McKim, came up with an easy way to test this creativity by having participants receive a piece of paper and then draw thirty circles on it.
A timer was then set for 1 minute, and the participants had to take the circles and transform them into every circular, recognizable thing they could think of: oranges, the sun, a road sign, etc.
McKim realized that normal people had about 10-15 ideas before they fizzled out of ideas. However, the more creative people were able to think of innovative ways to use the circles. Some of them used the stacked ones to make snowmen or balloons rather than thinking about each circle being a different object individually.
McKim’s circle test is just one of many ways to test creativity, but it can also be a great exercise to get yourself thinking creatively before you work.
Ways to think outside the box
Next time you are tasked with thinking outside of the box, try some of these tips to get the process started:
1. Ask why
This question can open up the doors to thinking about a project or problem differently.
Often, we are so used to a routine that we don’t question ourselves, our methods, or why no one else has tried a different approach in a very long time. It’s more common to resist change than be the person that tries something different and (possibly) fails.
Although having a fear of failure is extremely common, it’s essential to take those risks and ask why. It can open up doors for more creative thinking that may lead to better results in the end.
2. Try a mind map
Mind maps are a great way to get the gears going in your brain.
You may have used these in elementary and middle school, as they are known as a solution for stunted inspiration, and they are handy because they can be used for just about anything creative.
Mind maps start out with a single idea in the middle of the paper, then as you write each new idea around it, you connect it back to a single thought in the middle.
The lines will branch out on the page as each new thought forms another until you have, essentially, a map of all your thoughts and how they connect with one another.
3. Study someone else
Often, we can find inspiration for new ideas by looking at how someone else approached the same subject.
If you have a friend or family member that is known to be a great thinker or innovator, you can study their ways and try to practice some of them the next time you need new ideas.
The same can be said for people you don’t know; if you have a celebrity or other famous person you look up to, you can search for innovative ways and pull inspiration from them.
When looking for ways to think outside the box at work, you can try to see how others in your industry have dealt with a similar situation and how they overcame it.
You may even find new links between your industry and one that is not like yours that you can gain some useful suggestions from.
4. Don’t set challenging goals for yourself
Although goals are great to have if you’re looking for a concrete outcome to the project you are facing, it’s normal to set goals or milestones along the way, but a lot of times, it puts us in a creative box.
If there is a common, already-walked path from A to B, we are less likely to stray from that path and try something new.
Structured thinking is the opposite of thinking outside the box. Therefore, you should try not to set “hard goals” for yourself at the very beginning of a task.
Try letting the ideas come naturally, even if they’re off the beaten path, and you’re more likely to try a new approach and possibly come up with a different outcome!
5. Ask a child what they would do
Children are great to pull inspiration for new ideas from because they are usually quite simplistic with their answers, which can be helpful in certain situations!
If you’re looking for a new solution or way to think about a problem, try asking a child how they might approach it.
It can also be helpful to think about the concept differently, for example, try to explain the challenges in layman’s terms or as if you were speaking to a child. Simplifying the situation can help to think outside the box, eventually.
6. Start over from the beginning
If you’re used to a routine, it can be hard to think outside the box.
Sometimes breaking up some of the monotony of the way we are used to doing things can help us be more innovative and spark creativity in the way we think. Routine can sometimes trick us into believing what we’ve always done is the best or easiest way to think about something.
Try imagining what you would do differently if you were to start over from the beginning and see what new ideas that may bring to the table.
7. Read a book
“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” -Haruki Murakami.
Reading a book can be a great mental stimulator.
If you’re looking for a way to think differently about a situation you’re facing, it can be helpful to read something outside of what you normally lean toward, as this can also help with creative thinking!
For example, if you’re usually a mystery novel person, try reading romance. If you read mostly fiction, try reading a biography or some nonfiction.
Reading can also be a great way to approach our next tip to thinking outside the box: stepping back.
8. Take a walk or a shower
It can be incredibly helpful to take a step back when you feel stunted in your creativity.
This is often a sign that we are overthinking, which will only lead to frustration, irritation and make us stray further from our ability to think outside the box.
If you’re finding yourself not coming up with great, new solutions to your problems, try thinking about something else for a while. Step back from your desk and take a walk, even if it’s just a lap around your office or office building if you’re at work and try coming back after a few minutes.
Often, this will lead to coming up with a different way of solving your problems because you’re approaching them with a clearer head!
Additionally, many have said that some of their best ideas come while they are in the shower. Take one and ruminate over some ideas that will encourage you to think outside the box.
It can also be helpful to carry a notepad with you wherever you go or take notes on your phone, especially if your best ideas come when you’re doing something else or you aren’t actively thinking about the problem at hand.
If you keep a notepad in your bathroom for shower ideas, though, just make sure to keep the pages dry!
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – George S. Patton.
Those who are capable of thinking outside the box are often labeled as innovators and are a great asset to any team or workplace. Innovative thinkers come up with new solutions to problems and approach tasks in a way that may be off the beaten path.
However, the ability to think of new ideas that go beyond what we are used to isn’t always innate.
It’s important to remember that creativity and innovative thinking does not come easily to everyone. Sometimes it’s a skill that we have to work at in order to get better at thinking outside the box.
Next time you are in a situation where you need to think innovatively, try approaching the situation from the beginning or study others who have done it before to get some inspiration. You can also read a book or take a walk. These activities have been known to give us a break while also being stimulating activities for creativity.
Sometimes our best ideas come to us when we’re doing other things, so remember to take breaks and don’t feel too bad if your “eureka” moment doesn’t happen immediately!