Recently, I found myself finishing off a jar of peanut butter and going through my typical routine of extracting the last remaining ounces by scraping the sides of the jar with a short butter knife, banging my knuckles on the glass container, and grunting with concentration -- as I have done for my entire life.
While I struggled to keep my composure, my young son handed me a rubber spatula from the drawer and said, "Here, try this." It worked brilliantly, and I was slightly embarrassed that after so years of doing the same activity, I had not thought of this remarkable workaround before.
I am sure many of you have had similar moments of epiphany, engaged in a regular routine for years only to randomly discover -- after seeing or hearing about it -- a new and better way of completing a task or solving a problem.
In his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson points out that one of the biggest obstacles we have to gaining these "ah-ha" moments is homeostasis, the tendency to default to what we find most comfortable. Ericsson, who was the original thinker behind the "10,000 hour rule" popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers: The Story of Success, goes on to use doctors as examples of this phenomena, in that doctors in some fields with years of experience often turn out to be less qualified than their younger peers who are still learning and open to new and innovative techniques and practices.
Ericsson emphasizes that in order to break out of homeostasis and encourage new and creative ideas, we need to only to break out of our comfort zones. It turns out that this is not as difficult (and terrifying) as it may seem.
I am guilty of falling into comfort zones. I enjoy engaging in activities in which I excel more so than those I have less ability. This may seem reasonable, but if you are not challenging your brain and forcing it to make new connections, it will not grow.
Consider setting a "Quarterly Resolution". Every quarter (or even month, if you are ambitious), set a goal to learn something new really well. Remember, you can learn almost anything with a YouTube video these days, so all it requires is your time and willingness. At the beginning of this year, I set out to finally learn and solve the Rubik's Cube -- my best time is now 1:55.
Break a routine.
Without a doubt, routines are great, especially when it comes to sleep. On occasion, however, breaking from a routine and forcing your brain to mentally stay tuned to an activity can spark a new idea or creative thought.
You do not have to break an important habit to have an impact. Take a different route to work, use a different exercise routine (or just exercising in general), or cook a new meal. Anything that breaks a mundane routine and requires you to focus on what you are doing forces your brain work and learn.
Learn an unfamiliar topic.
Today, there are countless learning opportunities online, from Udemy to The Great Courses, that offer any number of courses in any number of topics. There are also numerous podcasts that address everything from business to history to culture.
Instead of listening to content on a subject with which you may be familiar, consider taking on a topic you know nothing about. How was the U.S. built during the late 19th century? What is string theory? What is Reiki?
Read a fiction book.
We are so inundated with content, news and information, it can actually hamper rather than improve our creativity. Breaking away from the mental grind with a casual read (or audio book) forces your brain to think imaginatively.
Set aside a time each night or a couple of nights a week (yes, a routine) so that you can turn off your phone notifications, ignore email and allow yourself the indulgence of a book that has nothing to do with your every day life. One that I have been enjoying, The Underground Railroad: A Novel, by Colson Whitehead.
Engage with children.
I will be the first to admit that children's ideas are often shallow, incredibly naive and even sometimes terribly frightening (not too much unlike ideas from some of my friends). What children offer, however, are fresh ideas, unaltered by predetermined paradigms or expectations. While many of these ideas may never amount to more than the Crayola sketch they start as, their simplicity may be just what you need to sort through a complex issue.
Remember that the point of all of these activities is to force yourself out of your comfort zone and force your brain to think. By doing so, in areas and topics that you are unfamiliar or even outright ignorant, your mind will begin to create connections and patterns that build on each other. Ultimately, you may find that these connections lead to a unique idea or an effective new solution.
Or you may simply get introduced to the rubber spatula in your kitchen drawer.