Dean Keith Simonton’s research shows that the key to successful creativity is quantity. The most exceptional creators are known for their sheer volume of ideas. But if you’re used to pondering for hours and finally coming up with a single, precious idea that you’re scared to tweak for fear you’ll lose it…how do you loosen up and start more ideas flowing?

Think Different

Each day, select a common household object. Pick one from this list, or just look around the room:

Paper clip
Coat hanger
Refrigerator magnet

Once you’ve selected an object, get a piece of paper and give yourself five minutes to list as many unusual uses as you can for this item. For example, a brick can be a doorstop, a paperweight, a weapon… Or it can be a pedestal, a mud scraper, a hammer, a window prop, a meat pounder, a platform, a drain cover… Come up with ideas as quickly as you can; don’t stop to think about whether they’re any good, or whether they’re unusual enough. Don’t edit yourself at all. The key is to come up with a long list of ideas.

This technique exercises the part of your brain that’s responsible for divergent thinking—the term psychologists use when you generate multiple possibilities. Divergent thinking got its name because your mind “diverges” to explore a broad range of possibilities. It’s the opposite of what most tests measure, convergent thinking—which occurs when you’re asked to “converge” on the single, right answer. Creative people are particularly good at divergent thinking.

Look back at your list of unusual uses. One measure of creativity is the length of your list; your ability to generate a long list is what psychologists call fluency. But that’s not necessarily the best measure of creativity, because your ideas might be very common. In fact, when researchers ask people to generate unusual uses in the laboratory, the same ideas keep coming up. (When I started to think about a brick, I thought doorstop and paperweight—not terribly original.) So a second measure of creativity is how many rare ideas you think of. Psychologists call this originality, and it’s an important component of divergent thinking. It turns out that people who generate the longest lists wind up having the most original ideas—and this is why quantity of ideas results in greater creativity. You push past the obvious.

Another possibility is that all the ideas on your list are pretty similar to each other. If all of your brick ideas are types of weapons—a projectile, a bomb, a knife—that’s less creative than if you come up with a broader variety of ideas. So psychologists also use this “unusual uses” technique to evaluate flexibility—defined as how many different idea categories your ideas span.

All three aspects of divergent thinking—fluency, originality, and flexibility—are important to creativity. But in one experiment after another, researchers have found that all three are highly correlated, meaning that the surest way to greater creativity is simply to come up with the most ideas possible. The longer your list, the likelier it is that some of your ideas will be original, and that you’ll break out of the safe confines of a single category.

Here’s another technique that will increase your divergent thinking ability. Roll a six-sided die, and use the number that comes up to select one of the following questions:

1.How would the world be different if you had two thumbs on each hand?
2. How would the world be different if no one died—everyone lived forever?
3. How would the world be different if there were five sexes?
4. How would the world be different if gravity stopped for one second each day?
5. How would the world be different if people no longer needed or wanted sleep?
6. How would the world be different if both men and women could have babies?

Imagine how that world would be different from ours. Get a piece of paper, and list as many specific facts about this alternate universe as you can. The most important thing is the length of your list—force yourself to keep going, and generate as long a list as you can. Don’t slow down by thinking too hard about whether any one fact is a good idea or not—just keep writing ideas. Your list should have at least ten items, but if you’re good at imagining, you might come up with many more.

As with the unusual uses technique, this technique exercises your brain’s ability to generate lots of ideas. The value of these techniques is that they get you into the habit of generating ideas, and they also help you practice keeping going even when you feel stumped. We’re all conditioned, in school and work, to think critically about every idea that occurs to us. But if we’re critical too soon (see Chapter Seven), we silence the creative parts of our brain. So, avoid thinking critically, and don’t stop. What usually happens is, just as soon as you’re sure you’ve run out of good ideas and you’re only writing lousy ones…a really good idea will pop into your head.