Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. 

We’ve sat, staring hopelessly at a blank screen, not even a flicker of an idea coming to mind. We’ve paced the room, racking our brains for something (anything) to present at tomorrow’s big meeting. 

It’s incredibly frustrating, this loss of creativity. Isn’t it? Yet most of us just keep staring at that screen, waiting for an idea that’s never going to come.

After all, what else can we do? As it turns out, there are more than a few ways to jumpstart your creativity. Let’s take a closer look.

1. Brainstorm on a walk 

It might sound simple but taking a walk is one of the best ways to inspire creative thinking.

Take it from Marily Oppezzo, a behavioral and learning scientist at Stanford University. In one of her experiments, she asked people to come up with creative ideas for everyday objects while either sitting or walking.

She found that the walking group did almost twice as well as the sitting group. Interestingly, the group who walked and then sat also did well; they were still creative afterward.

The implication Oppezzo draws is that you should go for a walk next time you need to brainstorm. She has five tips to help get the best outcome possible:

  1. Pick a problem to brainstorm ahead of time. You need to intentionally think about different perspectives on the walk, not just wait for ideas to come to you.
  2. Choose a physical activity that works best for you. It doesn’t have to be walking; it can be running, riding a bike, vacuuming, etc. The key is that it doesn’t take a lot of your attention. 
  3. Aim to come up with as many ideas as you can. Remember, there are no bad ideas when you’re brainstorming!
  4. Speak your ideas out loud – do not write them down! Writing them down acts as a filter in and of itself. Oppezzo recommends using your earbuds and recording through your phone.
  5. Don’t keep walking until something comes to you. Go on a normal walk and whatever comes out, comes out. If no good ideas come to you today, try it again tomorrow.

2. Practice slow-motion multitasking

Slow-motion multitasking? What kind of nonsense is this?

Those were my first thoughts when I tuned into the Ted Radio Hour with Guy Raz and Tim Harford. However, given my undying love for Ted Talks, I decided to give it a chance. I’m sure glad I did because it turned out to be spectacularly enlightening. Here’s the gist… 

Slow-motion multitasking is having several important projects on the go, simultaneously.

Tim Harford

Now, if you’re like me, this sounds counter-intuitive. Creativity and multitasking don’t mix, right? We need to be able to focus to produce creative work, we need to be in the zone.

The problem is we’re thinking about the wrong kind of multitasking. We’re thinking about the fast kind, the kind that leaves us feeling scatterbrained and unproductive. As Harford explains, “We’re used to lapsing into multitasking out of desperation. We’re in a hurry. We want to do everything at once. If we were willing to slow multitasking down, we might find that it works quite brilliantly.”

This slow kind of multitasking, then, doesn’t mean focusing on multiple things at once. It means moving a project to the back burner when you’re stuck and starting something new.

Harford referenced a research project that examined the personalities and working habits of 40 leading scientists. The project sought to figure out how some scientists were able to continuously produce important work throughout their entire lives. 

They found a pattern showing that the top scientists continuously shifted topics during their first hundred published research papers. “Do you want to guess how often?” Harford asked. “Three times? Five times? No. On average, the most enduringly creative scientists switched topics 43 times in their first hundred research papers.”

Harford believes there are three reasons why slow-motion multitasking works.

  1. When you switch out of a problem where you’re stuck, the new context helps you forget your old wrong answer. This unlocks your mind to new ideas.
  2. Different areas “cross-fertilize” each other. In other words, what you learn in one area helps you see new things in another.
  3. It provides you with an outlet when you’re stuck, allowing you to move onto something productive and return when you’re ready.

3. Let your mind wander

Daydreamers tend to get a bad rap in our hyper-productive society. However, with more and more research connecting daydreaming to higher-level brain activity, they just might get the last laugh. 

According to research published in 2009, for example, the brain areas that allow people to solve complex problems actually become more active during daydreaming. Not less.

“Mind-wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness,” says Kalina Christoff, psychologist at the University of British Columbia.

“This study shows our brains are very active when we daydream — much more active than when we focus on routine tasks.”

Kalina Christoff

This tells us that instead of hunkering down and trying to squeeze an idea out, move on to something else. Wash the dishes, catch up on paperwork. Pick any task that doesn’t require much thought and let yourself drift away. Your mind will go right on figuring out the problem but without you nagging it to death. (Apparently our minds don’t like to be micromanaged either…)

Cristoff explains, “When you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal — say reading a book or paying attention in class — but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life.”

The Last Word

So, the next time you’re staring down that blank screen, don’t just sit there. Shake things up! Go for a walk, start a new project, daydream. Let your mind do it’s thing. Those creative juices should be flowing in no time.