Several years ago, I went through a phase where I had more article ideas than I could tackle, but all of a sudden, it just… stopped. Just like that.
I talked to a counselor about it, and she made this suggestion: Sit still for five whole minutes. Whatever thoughts enter your mind, gently push them out. Focus on nothing. Do that once a day.
Nothing? I never focused on nothing. My kids were 3 and 1, and I was “home” with them – i.e. at the library, playdates, playgrounds, etc. I was also trying to keep the house clean, make homemade meals, find a little time to work out, and write freelance articles, all (or mostly) during nap times.
But I tried what she suggested. The theory was that I had too much going on in my head, and these five minutes would somehow create a little space for new thoughts.
Lo and behold, the day after I did that exercise for the first time – and let me tell you, five minutes can be painfully long – I had three new article ideas. I realized I hadn’t been giving myself any down time, and clearly I needed it.
But even knowing how effective that meditative practice can be, I still have a hard time quieting my mind. If you, too, have trouble sitting still and thinking about nothing, here are a few other ways you can enhance your creativity.
Increase psychological distance
In a 2009 article in Scientific American, Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman write that scientists at Indiana University at Bloomington (woot!) “have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.”
One study asked participants to come up with as many modes of transportation as they could. Some participants were told that the study was developed in Greece (far), and others were informed that it was developed in Indiana (near).
“As predicted, participants in the distant condition generated more numerous and original modes of transportation than participants in the near condition,” reads the article.
Another study was an insight problem, and the outcome was similar.
So, what does that mean to us? The authors write that thinking about things such as travel, the distant future, and “unlikely alternatives to reality,” as well as communicating with “people who are dissimilar to us,” can expose us to new ideas, thereby “allowing us to think more abstractly.”
“So the next time you’re stuck on a problem that seems impossible, don’t give up. Instead, try to gain a little psychological distance, and pretend the problem came from somewhere very far away,” Shapira and Liberman write.
Physically traveling to a faraway place has the same effect.
Add these to your diet
According to this 2015 article, fruit, chocolate, carbohydrates, alcohol, and walnuts are all beneficial to creativity.
Fruit contains tyrosine, which has been shown to “increase our ability to think deeply,” according to a study conducted at Leiden University, says author Dana Dovey.
Chocolate contains flavonols, which increase gray matter flow for two to three hours, according to another study. But before you get too excited, Dovey goes on to write, “Although the researchers noted that the amount of flavonol they used in this study is not available in commercial chocolate, it still wouldn’t hurt to have a quick cocoa snack before a big day.”
Carbohydrates such as potatoes and oats can help concentration and memory because they provide a quick shot of glucose.
Walnuts are effective at boosting all-around brain function because of their high content of omega-3 fatty acids. Does that mean salmon and other omega-3-rich foods do the same thing? Yes, but it’s best to get the fatty acids from whole, real food sources (not just supplements).
Alcohol manipulates focus in a way that can spark creativity, says Jennifer Wiley, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, according to a 2015 Men’s Health article called “Why Drinking Boosts Creativity.”
“If you’re doing taxes – not such a good thing. But when it comes to puzzles or ‘out of the box’ tasks, relaxation and flexibility – what you’re feeling after a few drinks – can spark creativity,” writes Cassie Shortsleeve.
A Danish brewery created a beer specifically for this. It’s a 7.1 percent-alcohol by volume India Pale Ale called The Problem Solver. Wiley says a person’s creative peak comes with a blood-alcohol content of 0.075.
If you want to figure out how many drinks will get you to that sweet spot, check out this chart. (I suspected 0.075 was not the same thing as imbibing like Ernest Hemingway or Charles Bukowski – god love ’em.)
Get some exercise
I thought exercise would help creativity because it gives your mood a boost, as we all know. But it turns out, the creative increase it gives is independent of any effect on mood, according to a 1997 report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The authors write that the creative uptick is also independent of the kind of aerobic exercise, although “dance was perhaps marginally more effective,” perhaps because it allows the body to move freely.
Sally Koslow, author of How Exercise Makes You More Creative, suggests doing exercise that lets your mind wander – brisk walking, swimming, hiking, running – and not sports that involve strategizing.
Here are some of her other tips:
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes.
- Unless you’re brainstorming on a shared project, exercise alone.
- Bring a notepad or recorder to keep track of ideas.
- Get to work right after exercising.
“Whether your goal is to redecorate your living room, write a report at work, or paint a portrait, working out can deliver fresh ideas and inspiration almost by osmosis,” she writes.
— Want to see what Ray Bradbury, Charles Mingus, Steve Jobs, Sylvia Plath, Pablo Picasso and others had to say about creativity? Read BuzzFeed’s The 23 Absolute Best Quotes To Boost Your Creativity.
— Here’s an interesting article from Psychology Today: Love, Lust and Creativity.