Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” What does it take to create ‘new thinking’? Can we just decide to think differently? Does it take a stimulus or new conditions? I mentally reviewed the times when I had made a breakthrough in thinking, performance, or perspective – or, when I had solved a tough problem that had been nagging me for a time. I found that a combination of things leads me to new thinking.
First, I have to maintain my health. This doesn’t mean being crazy obsessive about it, but does mean eating well (seek lean and green) and doing regular exercise (more steps are better). Additionally, I need to get sufficient sleep. The older I get, the more I realize the true value of a good night’s sleep. When a person is sleep deprived, the first brain functions to go are problem-solving and creativity – exactly what is needed for new thinking and breakthroughs. This foundation may not create new thinking by itself, but without it, new thinking isn’t possible.
Secondly, I have two completely different approaches – one for problem-solving new thinking and one for creative new thinking. For problem-solving, if I just keep thinking about it Ð I might get to a different solution but might not. At best it is a slow way for me to get to a different solution. A faster route is to stimulate my brain to think differently – putting in different inputs to get different outputs. This can be as simple as taking a walk or doing a different activity or changing my surroundings – anything that exercises a different part of my brain. When I am working on a difficult technical problem, one of the best ways to get it solved is to play the piano. When playing, I am completely present and in the moment. Then, when I return to the problem, my brain has to shift back, almost like re-reading a database. When it shifts back, it does so with a different perspective. I also use different surroundings, like arriving at a new meeting location 30 minutes early. The new sights and sounds are new inputs and stimulate new output thinking.
For creative new thinking, open space is needed to form, shift, and evolve the new idea. Only by lifting my head up from the weeds can I see trends, rhythms, and overall patterns. So creating regular open space is essential Ð especially in my increasingly connected life. I wonder how much of our open space, and perhaps creativity, we have given up in the name of connectedness. It is getting difficult to have time just with our thoughts – unless you deliberately plan and take the time. This makes vacations and regular breaks during the work week even more important. My vacation goal is for at least 10 days of vacation at a time — I don’t decompress until I have been on vacation for at least 3 days. For the work week, I plan out how to deliver my work in four days whenever possible. This leaves Friday for open space, recharging and creativity. It also keeps me disciplined and focused – avoiding the trap of work expanding to fill the time available.
My ideal new thinking situation is to change both my environment and plan open space at the same time. Each year, for the last 12 years, I have attended a Women’s Leadership Retreat in Vail, CO. I used to arrive the night before the retreat started and leave just after it ended. Several years ago, I decided to try something different. I now arrive three days early for the retreat and don’t plan out the time. The new environment provides new stimuli and I use the unplanned time as open space to think about what breakthroughs I want, personally and professionally, for the next year and what do I want to create next. I come away feeling relaxed and having produced a higher quality of thinking than if I had just stayed in my office and ‘kept cranking’.
Edward De Bono once said, “You cannot look in a new direction by looking harder in the same direction.” So give yourself a new direction – give yourself a break, change your environment, introduce yourself to new stimuli, and give yourself some open space! There is no downside and who knows what creative, breakthrough results will come out of it.