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Senior Correspondent

Do you want to be more creative but sometimes you hit the wall too quickly and your ideas stop flowing? Read about this study first and I’ll follow it up with some tips to help break through the block.

Many psychologists, including me, have believed that the unconscious plays a role in creativity and when the mind is at rest (as long as you have done sufficient work before you rest your mind), new ideas or solutions will become available.

To test this idea, a very recent creativity study gave subjects two minutes and asked them to list as many novel uses as they could for an everyday object (in this case, it was a chair but it could be a pencil, hair dryer or other common object). This is a common, fun exercise for anyone – you don’t need to be participating in a research study to try it. Usually, creative people come up with more novel uses than less creative types.

In Gallate et al (2012) study, these subjects were then given a math test to occupy their conscious minds. After that busy activity, the participants were told to do the creativity test again. Half of the subjects had been previously warned that they would repeat the creativity test; half were surprised. Those who were surprised by the second test of creativity didn’t improve very much. Those who had been warned came up with more than twice as many novel ideas the second time.

The conclusion: one group had time to allow their unconscious to work on the problem; therefore they created more ideas.

This study suggests that unconscious processing is important while ideas are in formation. For the members of the group who knew they’d be doing the task again, their unconscious processes were busily was working away in the background thinking up more solutions as they performed other tasks.

Here are some ways to use this information to enhance your creativity:

  1. Simply taking a break from your project is NOT the answer. When will you return? It helps your mind to know that you will return to your problem.
  2. Prepare yourself to return to your problem by looking at various solutions/ideas for your project or problem. This preps your self-conscious.
  3. Plan – You can build project breaks into your schedule. Make them short, 1/2 hour, not a day.

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