Your brain is bursting with ideas, and most of them are … weird. You only have to recall the wonderfully bonkers notions of your childhood. Like the time you wanted to teach octopuses to count past eight. Or when you drew a missing poster for your mother’s lost voice. Or when you “invented” a cardboard machine to turn clouds into cotton candy.
As you grew older, your cognitive filters—the security guards of the mind—probably began to police your thoughts more tightly. They began locking away the stranger ideas in your subconscious and only let the more conventional ones pass into the forefront of your mind. Sometimes this is a good thing. Even conventional thoughts can be overwhelming at times. But when your cognitive filters become too restrictive, they can disconnect you from the less-than-ordinary ideas that may solve otherwise intractable problems.
Theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow offers three strategies for relaxing your cognitive filters to give your brilliant ideas time to shine in the spotlight of the conscious mind.
- New ideas emerge when we have an open mind.
- Avoid anything that might focus your mind on its analytical, or “rule-following,” framework. Turn off your phone or remove it from the room. Don’t multitask. Do one thing at a time.
The reason your brain can’t multitask is the same reason your lungs can’t breathe underwater. It simply wasn’t built for the job. Its design allows it to maintain a conscious focus on a single problem or point of interest.
What people mistake for multitasking is what psychologists call task switching. This is when people shift their attention from one task to another. The transition is rapid—so rapid that people mistakenly believe it to be instantaneous—but such juggling takes its toll on your cognitive abilities, especially when you’re managing multiple high-stress situations.
That’s because every task switch requires mental effort. You have to disengage from the current task, move your attention to the new one, boot up the appropriate mode of thought, process the relevant information, and then act on it. It’s a whole neurological ordeal.
And while one switch may seem inconsequential, perform enough of them and your brain can tire to the point that you can’t engage with your creative side.
As Mlodinow advises, that means you need to manage your distractions. But that also entails managing expectations. You can’t be free of distractions if, for instance, your friends and colleagues expect immediate replies to their texts and messages. Under such circumstances, the expectation becomes a distraction.
You must set clear boundaries. In the example above, you can do this by communicating when you are available, closing notifications when you aren’t, and scheduling specific times for replying to the day’s missives.
Give yourself time
- Dedicate full days—or more—to open-ended play. For many of us to be imaginative, we need to relax our minds. We need space to explore our ideas.
A tight time limit poisons elastic thinking. The pressure to get things done (and quickly!) pushes you to get it right the first time. This stress cramps the mind’s ability to play, make connections, or try inventive solutions. When there’s no room for error, there’s no room for experimentation—only the ever-looming deadline.
By giving yourself space, you remove those stressors and relax your mind. And like a muscle, an uncramped mind is not only more pliable but far less painful to use. It can bend in the directions you need, stretch to make surprising connections, and work longer without giving way to exhaustion.
Move past your fear of failure
- Get used to failing. Get used to being wrong. Worrying about looking stupid inhibits your thinking. It can kill unusual ideas—many of which will be bad, some of which might be great.
- Being wrong actually makes you look smart and self-assured. Only a confident person can be wrong and not care about it.
If a time limit poisons creativity and elastic thinking, then fear of failure will kill them outright. Unusual ideas can sometimes leave a mess, especially when they’re the bad ones. But if you fear the untidy, unseemly results of failure, you won’t be willing to try ideas, including the great ones.
How do you move beyond the fear of failure? Mlodinow’s first two strategies—eliminate distractions and give yourself time—are a good place to start.
Another is simply to fail. Try a survivable, low-stakes activity you know you’ll likely fail at because you’ve never done it before: ax throwing, an improv class, baking a souffle, and so on. And when the ax bounces off the target, your zinger goes un-zung, and the souffle slumps from the oven, you should recognize that it’s not the end of the world. You can try again to improve. Or you can try something else. Your call.
The point is to grow acclimated to failure so you can better process it in the present (by laughing it off and admitting your mistake) and develop a healthier, life-long relationship with learning (by developing a growth mindset). As Mlodinow said, this won’t make you look stupid or incompetent. Quite the opposite. It’s often the people who try to hide their failures and unusual ideas that seem to lack self-assurance.