Staring at a blank piece of paper. Stuttering to a stop halfway into a project, not knowing how to keep it moving. Hitting a dead end that you didn’t see coming. We’ve all experienced that stomach knot of panic when you have no idea what to do next.
Lucky for us there are at least four things to try:
Take a hike.
You’re more likely to brainstorm new ideas if you get moving. Walking, specifically, since it doesn’t take as much of your attention as running or riding a bike, and you need at least some of your brain power to think.
Marily Oppezzo is a behavioral and learning scientist at Stanford University, whose TED talk focused on the benefits of moving instead of sitting. Her study tested four groups of people, giving them two 4-minute sessions to brainstorm new uses for a house key.
Those that sat for both sessions only came up with about 20 original ideas. Those that walked for one or both of those sessions came up with almost twice as many. And those that walked first were still pumped up enough from the walk that they didn’t lose their creativity when they sat for their second session.
So for your next brainstorm session, try going for a walk first.
Oppezzo recommends a steady but comfortable, not too-fast pace. Don’t get hung up on your first ideas so that you can come up with lots more. And don’t forget to take your phone along to record ideas as you walk.
Multitask. But slowly.
According to Tim Harford (economist, author, journalist with the Financial Times), almost all those we consider geniuses worked on multiple projects simultaneously.
They just weren’t multitasking out of deadline desperation like we tend to.
Charles Darwin was bored by his medical education at the University of Edinburgh and began to study taxidermy. His diary chronicling his 5-year journey on the HMS Beagle is then what established him as a geologist. But it was the distribution of the fossils and wildlife he collected during that trip that allowed him to conceive his theory of natural selection in 1938.
It took him 20 years to publish that theory, however.
During those years he studied those birds and tortoises from Galapagos Islands, along with other plants, earthworms, barnacles and many more organisms. Plus he published three books and got married.
He also discussed his concept of natural selection with other scientists, eventually publishing the theory in 1858, then his book On the Origin of Species in 1859.
Interesting Darwin fact: it wasn’t until he published “The Descent of Man” in 1871 that he ever used the term “evolution.”
Don’t be afraid to change gears when stuck.
Harford also pointed out in his TED talk that those geniuses averaged a change of topics 43 times in their first 100 papers. They had no problem with setting one topic aside for awhile and turning to something else.
That change of context was an outlet – a way to reduce stress when they were stuck. It not only provided a cross-fertilization of ideas, but also a way to cross-reference concepts. All of which helped them realize when they had a wrong answer, or were headed down the wrong path.
Albert Einstein may have put out four of his most famous papers in just one year, but he was prolific for all of his career, covering topics from atoms to refrigerators.
Amazingly, he is credited with publishing more than 300 scientific papers. Plus 150 non-scientific ones. And in 2014, various universities and archives released even more Einstein’s papers – over 30,000 unique documents.
If you want to find a different way, start somewhere different.
In 1975, Keith Jarrett played a concert in Köln, Germany unlike any other concert he had given.
On a piano that was unplayable.
As a jazz musician, Keith Jarrett was known for improvisation. But he was also a perfectionist at heart, even going so far as handing out cough drops to audience members that interrupted him.
When he arrived at the Opera House, he found they had mistaken a backup piano for the grand piano he specified. Tinny at the high notes and weak in the lower register, even the pedals did not work well. Jarrett refused to play, and waited for his ride to take him away. It took non-stop pleading by the 17-year old concert promoter to get him to change his mind.
Jarrett decided to go ahead, but have the performance recorded as a cautionary tale – “here’s what happens when you don’t have the right equipment.”
Then Jarrett did the amazing. He concentrated on the middle keys. Used repeating phrases and rolling left-hand rhythms to replace the bass notes.
He adapted his style to the limits of the piano.
That recording meant to be a cautionary tale? It turned into the best-selling jazz piano album of all time.
Still stuck? Click here for even more things to try.