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Tips to think more creatively in the office

Business people writing on paper

If you’re feeling in a rut creatively, you may want to re-examine some of your daily habits, including your morning routine and your office set up. Being creative requires a certain atmosphere and mood, which you may be unwittingly sabotaging. Here are three tips to get your creative juices going.

Time your creativity to your body clock. Some problem-solving is accomplished by slogging through the details, but other problems require that “aha” moment, when the solution—usually a creative one—pops into your mind.  Surprisingly, this type of creativity doesn’t come when you’re at your mental and physical peak—the morning for morning larks and the evening for night owls.  

A study, published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning, found subjects had a higher rate of creative problem solving during their non-peak time of day. During this non-peak time, your executive function is at a lull, allowing random and creative thoughts to drift into your mind. The research suggests that people are more creative when they’re slightly distractible, unfocused and maybe even a bit groggy.

Creative problem solving requires more attention to access your broad knowledge base, a phenomenon that is more likely to occur during non-peak times, when your thoughts meander more, according to the researchers.

So if you’re a morning person, you may want to tackle your creative tasks late in the day when you’re feeling a lull. It’s a good idea to carve out some unstructured time to sit back in your desk chair and ponder aimlessly. If you’re a night owl, then linger in bed or in the shower in the morning, with the radio or TV off so you’re not bombarded with distracting information—and let your mind wander.

Don’t read the headlines or watch gory video clips. If your home page or news feeds alert you to the most dramatic stories of the day—the head-on car crash, the Facebook murder or a devastating fire, you may want to steer clear of the internet first thing in the morning.  Sad news can sap you of creativity, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science. In the study, subjects were shown either sad or happy videos and then tested for creative thinking. Those who were exposed to the sad videos were less able to solve problems creatively than those exposed to the happy content.

"Generally, positive mood has been found to enhance creative problem solving and flexible yet careful thinking," said Ruby Nadler, an author of the study. So rather than watch compelling but depressing stories in the morning before launching into your work, watch a cute kitty video or a dancing baby video or those twins toddlers conversing in baby talk. A good laugh will do more for your creativity—and your mood!

Think outside the box—or cubicle:  Some of the metaphors to creativity may in fact be more literal than you think. Researchers hypothesized that acting out metaphors about creative thinking like “think outside the box,” or “on the one hand, then on the other hand,” or “putting two and two together” would actually make people more creative. This theory was based on the idea that abstract concepts can become closely tied to physical sensations and experiences. 

For example, studies have shown that holding a warm beverage increases people’s perceptions of a stranger as having a warm personality.  In this experiment, each participant was seated either inside or outside of a five-by-five-foot cardboard box. The two environments were the same in every other way, and people in the box didn't feel claustrophobic. Those who were outside the box performed better on a creativity test than those inside the box. Literally thinking without physical constraints may have helped remove mental barriers to creativity, the authors wrote.

In another experiment, some participants were asked to join the halves of cut-up coasters before taking a cognitive test. The coasters were a physical representation of "putting two and two together." People who put the coasters together showed more convergent thinking, a type of logical thinking.  

In other experiments, subjects also did better on creativity tests after “walking freely” rather than walking in a straight line, and examining things in one hand or the other.

The study suggests that you may need to get outside your cubicle or office, take an unstructured walk, rather than pacing back and forth in your office, move a ball or other object from one hand to the other, or otherwise embody some of the metaphors of creativity and deep thinking.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including "Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility." Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.