NASA creativity coach: Ditch these ideas-blocking thought patterns

"To truly get past a creative block, you need to start thinking about your thinking," writes Chris Griffiths, creativity coach for the likes of Apple Disney and NASA.

by Chris Griffiths
Last Updated: 04 Oct 2022
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Food for thought

Nothing can inspire panic quite like creativity – or more aptly, the lack of it. We’re more aware than ever that applied creativity is crucial to business success. In fact, in a post-pandemic world where automation is projected to take over countless jobs, creativity is no longer a buzzword, or an optional add-on – it is integral to business survival.

This message has been relayed from the highest quarters. Innovation, creativity, and critical thinking are all among the top assets listed by The World Economic Forum as skills of the future.

Of course, knowing that creativity is important doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to come by. That’s not because creativity is difficult, but because people are scared to truly engage with it.

Often creativity is characterised as something elusive, a strike of inspiration which is bestowed by the muses on high. However, with the right systems in place, it can be as consistent as your water tap – turn it on, and out the ideas pour. But to truly get past a creative block, you need to start thinking about your thinking.

If you’ve ever said any of the below, it’s time to ditch these bad habits, and lay the tracks for a new kind of creative cognition.

“This idea is best”

When faced with a problem, we tend to favour our own suggestions. How would you feel if someone challenged the quality of one of your ideas? Even if your idea didn’t seem all that great a second ago, suddenly you feel compelled to defend it. After all, who likes to be wrong?

This phenomenon is known as “selective thinking” – and this thinking trap can literally colour the way we see the world. For example, have you ever noticed how referees always seem to be against your team? It’s no coincidence, your personal biases act as a filter on the world around you.

Needless to say, this can put you in serious peril when it comes to ideation and problem solving. The good news is there are a few different ways of addressing it.

The first is to be aware of it. The second is to make sure you’re paying attention to all the facts – are you prioritising some over others? And remember, despite our conditioning in society, sometimes there isn’t always just one right answer.

“Just do something”

Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, once described the human brain as a “get-out-of-the-way machine” – in other words, we’re more naturally prone to reaction than strategy. Reactivity is a scourge on creative thinkers everywhere. Even people who consider themselves pros at innovative thinking can be thrown off when an emergency crops up out of nowhere.

Knee-jerk urges to just do something is called “reactive thinking” – and they can be hard to resist, but resist you must. I think most of us know that we make our best decisions when we’re calm, and while it might feel counterintuitive to take a pause when something major has just dropped in your lap, that’s exactly what you must do. Taking the time to analyse situations fully allows you to respond appropriately, saving on cleaning up bad decisions further down the line.

“We’ve always done it this way”

On the whole, humans are not fans of a shake-up. For many, routine is the bedrock of most of our daily lives. We associate change with danger, and routine with stability. But unfortunately, an aversion to change can be dangerous, too. Assuming that what’s always worked for you will continue to do so is a recipe for disaster, which is why I call this bad thinking habit “assumptive thinking”.

In 2020, we all experienced just how fragile our assumptions can be. Who could have believed that within a matter of weeks there’d be almost no cars on the roads, and the majority of the workforce would be working remotely?

The good news is that when you begin to recognise and remove your assumptions, a whole world of possibility rises to meet you. By seeking to break rules, and flipping conventions, you can recognise your assumptions and open yourself up to more ideas.


Chris Griffiths is a keynote speaker on learning creativity, author of The Creative Thinking Handbook and founder of ayoa.com, the mind mapping app transforming education, businesses and inclusion.

Image credit: Getty Images

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