Friday, August 07, 2009

Ten Tools For Creative Thinking

Creative thinking is a skill we can learn and practice as we go through our daily routines. Every problem, stress, or conflict is an opportunity to experiment with a new approach or attitude. Here are some tips for tapping that internal resource:

1. Improv-It: Improvisation is the art of making things up on the spot, but making them up within the form of a game or specific instruction, such as "tell us about your day as if you are the world's most depressing newscaster." Improv games stimulate creative energy by engaging the right-brain's orientation to novelty within a set of rules that supply the left brain's search for order and organization. Some ways to do this in daily life include: have a conversation with your kids in which each person's sentence has to start with the next letter of the alphabet, e.g. "All of us can play this game," "But what if I can't think that fast?" "Come on, just try," etc. At the next work team meeting, have a conversation using only questions, or one where the next person has to use the last word of the person who just spoke.

2. Do the opposite. When Seinfeld's iconic loser George Costanza attributes his misery to having followed his instincts and decides to do the opposite of his own best judgment, he meets previously unattainable women and lands a job with the New York Yankees. When we choose to approach a situation from a completely different direction than what is ingrained and habitual we experience a degree of uncertainty that triggers the right-brain to search for a new and previously untried response. While we may not realize sitcom-perfect reversals of fortune through use of this technique, we will be gaining a psychological strength that increases our ability to size up unfamiliar situations quickly and respond effectively.

3. Feel the love. Creativity is positively associated with joy and love and negatively associated with anger, fear, and anxiety. A 2006 study[i] showed that positive emotions literally expand our field of attention so that we perceive a greater range of choices and are less inhibited about trying them out, part of a growing body of knowledge about the ways that positive emotions promote a creative perspective on the problems of life.

4. Observe synchronicities. True story: In 1981 I spent several months in Australia, where for awhile I had no job, little money and few friends so spent a great deal of time reading and writing at the library (because it was free). The journals of New Zealand short story writer Katherine Mansfield became a source of strength at that time of great uncertainty, after I stumbled upon a quote attributed to her that spoke to my immediate situation: "Risk! Risk anything!" she wrote. "Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth." Fast forward to 2001. I write a one-woman show titled Whistling In The Dark about that experience of stepping into uncertainty, and while the show is running at a club in Manhattan I open the Sunday New York Times Book Review section and find a review of a Katherine Mansfield biography that had just come out. The article's title? "Whistling In The Dark." Synchronicities are these kinds of events, co-occuring in ways that have meaning to us but are not causally related. They connect us to intuition, the internal GPS that guides to choose rightly even when the world around us does not approve or understand.

5. Go Within. Maintaining radio silence with the world around us for a period of time makes us more attuned to our inner world where insights, observations and ideas form. No texts, no twitters, no exceptions. Our field of awareness - generally crowded with the pressures and stresses of getting things done - needs a chance to disconnect from incoming messages and pressures so that the less structured, seemingly random inspirations and intuitions can bubble up. A busy schedule may take precedence over carving out a piece of quiet, but even a drive to pick up the kids at soccer can be an opportunity if we turn off the radio, breathe slowly at the red lights, and listen.

6. Act as if. Changing a role changes the frame through which we view a situation and opens up a range of new possible responses. New ways of acting follow new ways of thinking, but mental habits take time to change, and as the pace of life escalates we are likely to encounter situations in which we need to take action quickly. We can "rehearse" for this very real possibility in the course of daiy life by choosing a different role than we usually take in a familiar situation. Talkative and outgoing in a group situation? Practice being the quiet listener or appreciative audience. If the kids' fighting tends to trigger a desire to referee or add to the tension with more yelling, view it through the lense of a sportscaster observing the action but detached from it.

7. Go With The Resistance. Some people complain about things they will do nothing whatsoever to change, and yet we give them our heartfelt attention and counsel. Some people constantly, often insistently, offer advice we neither asked for nor need. Add to those any other of the ingrained personality quirks, the kind that make us feel resentful and drained, and think about this: resistance is futile. We waste precious emotional energy and space in our head trying to change other peoples' behavior, energy we should instead dedicate to creating our lives and engaging with our passions. Give a superficial "thanks, I'll think about that" to the advice-giver, a surface empathy to the complainer, and get on with something real.

8. Daydream. When stressful problems need to be addressed, it may seem natural to force ourselves to concentrate and focus on them until we work them out. But new research shows that possible solutions to the more complex problems we are dealing with are more likely to emerge into consciousness when we let our minds wander. [ii]

9. Reframe negativity. Creativity is a kind of psychological "muscle" that, like physical muscles, becomes more reliable and ready to take things on through training and repetition. We develop it by relating to adversity the way a body-builder relates to weights, as providing the resistance necessary to tone and strengthen a specific set of muscles, i.e., a dominant co-worker likely to grab credit for the team's hard work can be viewed as a much-needed catalyst for growing our own self-assertion, a draining relationship the stimulus for locating and expressing stronger personal boundaries. By reframing our response to the negative people and situations that are beyond our control to change, we remove their power to control us and become more resilient to the harmful effects of stress.

10. Get Discontented. A common theme that comes up in my training seminars and networking workshops is the disconnect so many talented, successful people feel from their own passions, especially when their work life has no avenue for their expression. One way to re-discover our internal drives is to notice what news articles and stories elicit a strong emotional reaction within us, and follow those feelings. Ask "what is it about this that gets me fired up? What part of me is activated by knowing this is going on?" Our abandoned passions and gifts are right next to our discontents, so follow the feelings until inertia is no longer an option.


[i] G. Rowe, et al, "Positive Affect Increases The Breadth of Attentional Selection" Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2007 104:383-388; published online before print December 20, 2006, doi:10.1073/pnas.0605198104

[ii] K. Christoff, et al "Experience Sampling During fMRI Reveals Default Network Amd Executive System Contributions To Mind Wandering" Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, May 26, 2009 vol. 106 no. 21 8719-8724

By Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP

Jude Treder-Wolff, author of Possible Futures: Creative Thinking For The Speed of Life, (Lifestage Publications, 2009, is a Licensed Certified Social Worker, Registered Music Therapist, and Certified Group Psychotherapist in full-time private practice providing individual and group psychotherapy and addiction treatment, and President of Lifestage, Inc. a consulting company providing training seminars for professional and personal growth, health education, and stress-resilience. As Director of Clinical Services at the YMCA Family Services, she supervised professional and support staff at an community-based agency providing addiction prevention and treatment services, and as a consultant has designed and implemented training seminars for mental health agencies - including Pederson-Krag, Options for Community Living, YMCA Family Services, Suffolk County Dept. of Mental Health, among others - and organizations such as the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Therapeutic Recreation Association, National Association of Social Workers, American Music Therapy Association, and American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama, as well as courses for the State University at Buffalo Summer Institute Continuing Education Courses for addiction treatment professionals. She has been published in The International Journal of Arts and Psychotherapy Special Issue on Addiction and Special Issue on HIV/AIDS, Music Therapy Perspectives, Clinical Social Work, and Recovery Press and has been interviewed for articles about creativity and stress-resilience that appeared in New York Newsday, Woman's Day, L.A. Times, and The Three Village Times. She served as editor of The Psychodrama Network News, the official newsletter of the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama from 2001-2007, and currently writes an e-newsletter titled Lives In Progress which is archived online at

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