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Five ways to think outside the box

People who can think outside the box often experience successes that others don’t, and see fewer limitations on their growth, potential, and options. Here’s how you can develop a more unconventional thinking style.

Words Dr Alice Boyes. Illustration Elin Matilda Andersson, Makers MGMT.

Surround yourself with creative problem-solvers

Who do you know who does things differently? It could be someone who went overseas for fertility treatment to save cost, someone who has abandoned consumerism and is investing 70 per cent of their income so they can retire at 40, or someone who teaches themselves to do handy-work from watching YouTube videos. A lot of the ways we think, feel, and act are socially contagious. The more you surround yourself with people who get things done in novel and creative ways, the more that thinking will rub off on you. Make friendships with people who aren’t bound by conventional thinking and who habitually pull off unorthodox solutions in many areas of their lives.

Find tiny creative solutions

The more success you experience applying creative solutions, the more it will become your default mindset to look for them. It doesn’t matter what area of your life you start with. As a jumping off point, look for ways you can utilise items that are typically used for one purpose for a completely different purpose. Once I bought curtains that were too heavy for standard curtain rails so I used cheap-as-chips electrical conduit tubes to hang them. To have this brainwave, I needed to stop looking in the curtain rail section and wander around the rest of the home improvement store until I spied what might work.

Become a ‘minor expert’ in many areas

Creative thinking often involves taking a conventional idea from one domain and applying it in another domain, where doing so isn’t normal. To think of novel ideas, you often need to be immersed either in the domain you’re taking the idea from, or the domain you’re applying the idea in. Therefore be prepared to read up and to ask your network curious questions. So that you’re immersed in more, diverse areas, try to become “a minor expert” (author Gretchen Rubin’s term) in a wide variety of topics.

Read or listen to material you’re not immediately drawn to

In my book The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I mentioned that when I’m perusing a podcast I generally like, I sometimes listen to the episode I’m least naturally drawn to. Particular topics tend to attract those who have similar personalities, experiences and thinking styles. This can lead to a homogeneousness of ideas in that area. If you occasionally choose content you’re not interested in, the person who created that content is likely different in thinking style to you. This can open you up to a new realm of ideas and perspectives.

Go around a problem rather than attempt to surmount it

People sometimes get brain-lock due to a particular obstacle standing in the way of what they want to do. The person finds themselves endlessly ruminating about how they could overcome that roadblock. If you find yourself stuck in this thinking loop, consider going around the problem instead. For instance, you want to do something that your partner isn’t interested in and you find yourself fixating on how to convince them or do it in a way they’ll enjoy. Instead you could look at versions that don’t involve your partner’s participation (but won’t hurt your relationship). Or, perhaps something you want to do costs $X and you’re fixated on how you can get $X. Instead, try looking for a solution that only involves 1/10th of $X. See if that thinking shift generates novel ideas that will bypass your money issue.


Dr Alice Boyes is author of the books The Healthy Mind Toolkit (2018) and The Anxiety Toolkit (2015). aliceboyes.com

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