Last Updated on July 12, 2020
“You’ve got to think outside the box.”
This is a cliché that nearly everyone is familiar with. And if you’ve spent your career working in strategic planning departments or engaging in corporate brainstorming sessions, this phrase may have been directed to you time and again.
But just what does it mean to think outside the box?
Well, the proverbial “box” refers to a mental comfort zone, where we tend to tackle problems using time-tested solutions. As we age, our brains develop a higher affinity for stale routines. We become more inclined to taking the paths of least resistance while solving problems.
Thinking outside the box simply implies engaging your mind in a more creative manner. When you think outside the box, you let your creative juices flow, and are able to visualize a problem or situation differently from how you normally would. People who think outside the box aren’t afraid of taking the paths less travelled in their quest for success.
But thinking outside the box doesn’t have to be a strategy that you deploy only to “extraordinary situations.” Instead, it should be a routine practice; a habit that you nurture throughout your life and career. If possible, you should “explode the box” and come up with a new one altogether. That way, you’d have totally freed yourself from the mental fetters that prevent you from visualizing situations from a deeper perspective.
So, how do you go about thinking outside the box? That shall be the focus of this post.
10 Ways to Think Outside the Box
1. Consult the Opinion of Someone Unfamiliar With the Problem
One of the tips to help you nurture the culture of thinking outside the box is to approach someone who is unfamiliar with a problem and solicit their opinion about it.
Imagine you’re the leader of a strategic planning committee in your organization and you’ve been tasked with the mandate of brainstorming ideas on austerity measures. But no matter how hard your team tries to generate ideas, you keep hitting a snag. It’s convenient to consult other departments that are somewhat related to planning. But if your very own team can’t seem to make any progress, how will they?
So, maybe it’s time you should approach those people you don’t expect to have the slightest idea of how to go about the problem, such as the janitors or deliverymen. Just listening to them give their opinions may trigger your own creativity. As they say, “sometimes help comes from unfamiliar sources.”
2. Explore Opposing Views
Another way to think outside the box is to explore a problem from the opposing side of the argument. You may think that your views and opinions about a situation are rational and objective. But other people may also have valid counterarguments. Therefore, it pays to listen to opposing opinions and beliefs.
Those conflicting views don’t necessarily need to influence your actions. You might even succeed in pointing out flaws and consistencies in them, which is an excellent starting point. Remember that the goal is to explore all possible angles to a problem before adopting the most suitable solution to it.
3. Search for Random Inspiration
There are numerous places where you can seek random inspiration. For instance, you might consider studying another industry. That includes reading books or magazines in an unfamiliar genre. You may discover that a problem you’re grappling with isn’t unique to your company or industry. And in the process, you’ll pick up a few lessons how other industries succeeded in dealing with the problem.
Religion is another excellent place where you can find random inspiration. Religion allows you to connect with your higher power. During those moments of divine reflection, you’ll appreciate the harmony between the physical and spiritual realms, and how easy it is to live through some of life’s mysteries. In the process, your mind will expand and see problems from a broader perspective.
4. Aim for Quantity As Opposed To Quality
This may sound counterintuitive, as we’ve always been encouraged to focus on quality and shun quantity. Well, that old, wisdom isn’t so relevant as far as thinking outside the box is concerned. In creative thinking, you’re supposed to generate as many possible solutions to a problem as you can. List down all manner of ideas, no matter how ridiculous or impractical they may sound.
After brainstorming a maximum number of ideas, proceed to subject them through a funnel and sieve them separately, based on relevance and viability. At that point, you can now start thinking in terms of quality.
5. Think Smart…Not Hard
Many people instinctively believe that thinking outside the box is thinking too hard. If you challenge your team or friends to come up with investment ideas, you’ll be surprised at how fanciful, technical, and sophisticated most of those ideas will be. But strange as it may sound, many of life’s complex problems require simple solutions.
So, you don’t always have to think too hard. Start simply and exhaust all the average solutions before working your way up. Remember that thinking outside the box is taking the route less traveled. And that may just imply prioritizing the average solutions that no one else wants to consider.
6. Take a Trip in Nature
Nature is one of the most effective therapeutic remedies for a cluttered mind, and there are plenty of studies to back that up. Taking a walk in nature improves your concentration and clarity of thought, enabling you to approach a problem with a more sober mindset.
The great thing with taking a trip in nature is that you don’t necessarily have to go on a long trip. A short hike or trek in your neighborhood or at the local nature park is all it takes to refresh your mind. The conventional wisdom is to go on this trip alone.
7. Work Backwards
Our brains are naturally wired to analyze problems from the cause-effect point of view. In working backwards, you try to break away from this traditional way of conceptualizing a situation by first focusing on the “effect” aspect of the problem.
If you’re trying to generate ideas on how to save for your dream home, start by visualizing how the home will be. Then, think backwards on the concrete steps you need to take to actualize your dreams. One notable benefit of working backwards is that you always have clear goals you’re working towards achieving.
8. Work Within Defined Parameters
Thinking outside the box is synonymous with having too much freedom. However, that shouldn’t always be the case. It’s important to set parameters within which to focus your ideas. Having boundaries help to boost your memory and creativity by adding more depth and breadth to your ideas.
One excellent way to work within defined parameters is to use a listicles approach. If you’re looking to diversify your income channels, you’ll come across hundreds of seemingly-viable passive income ideas. But the most prudent way to establish the merits of those ideas is to bundle them into lists of, say, 3, 5, or 10.
9. Use Idea Generation Techniques
There are scores of idea generation techniques that you can use to think outside the box. The three notable ones include brainstorming, freewriting, and mind-mapping.
You’re probably already familiar with brainstorming, where you sit down and come up with as many ideas to your problem as you can. As you transfer those ideas from your mind onto a piece of paper, you consequently create more space in your brain, allowing newer ideas to come in.
Freewriting is more or less similar to brainstorming, only that you gather ideas while working towards a specific deadline.
Lastly, mind-mapping involves starting by writing a central idea in the middle of a blank page, and circling it. You can then branch off the main theme by building smaller but relevant ideas around it.
10. Reward Creativity
As obvious as this may sound, it’s strange to observe that not many people reward creativity. Rewards are incentives that give you the impetus to continue thinking creatively. Each time you’re done brainstorming ideas and those ideas happen to help solve a problem at hand, never miss a chance to reward yourself. And there are numerous ways to go about it.
You can treat yourself to your favorite meal, go on a weekend trip, or just engage in any pleasurable activity. The reward doesn’t even have to be tangible. Sometimes, you might just look back to your achievements and thank yourself for having been able to think outside the box.
Contrary to popular perception, thinking outside the box doesn’t necessarily mean racking your brains to solve a problem. By practicing the simple yet practical tips we’ve discussed in this post, you’ll gradually nurture the culture of creative thinking.