As academics, we focus on literature and fact. We see what has been done and make extrapolations of what could be done in the future. We search for the ‘next step’ that will move our field forward. But often, what’s more important, is being able to flex your creativity muscle to ‘pivot’ your research to find something entirely new and innovative.

Here are 40 ways to help stretch your creativity muscle:

  1. Aim for innovation, not just improvement. In academia, this often means stop relying on over-extensive literature reviews and look beyond small changes/improvements.
  2. Write down all your ideas. Begin to highlight the ones with promise. Never not write something down for fear of having too many half-baked stupid ideas.
  3. Take a closer look at anomalies and paradoxes. Things that are just accepted without proof. Common sense is based on the knowns, not the unknowns–and it’s the unknowns that we are hunting.
  4. Recognize opportunities to get into the weeds. Sometimes, the minute inconsistencies and mismatched details are vastly important for theoretical developments.
  5. Realistically, but critically, challenge orthodoxies. Don’t dismiss an idea just because it do not fit within a prevailing paradigm of explanation.
  6. Start the chase at the end of the hunt. Find where others have left off–look for unstated assumptions or unknown consequences, and use that as your jumping-off point.
  7. Poke holes in limitations of methods. Find avenues not previously explored.
  8. Steal shamelessly. Problems are not new, only your adaption is new. Steal shamelessly–find a good idea that’s worked in another field and find a way to apply it to your own field.
  9. Read up-to-the-minute. Journal articles are often years out of date, abstracts are closer to the here and now, but blogs and conference papers are often a better reflection of the immediate state of the research field.
  10. Get better at making friends. Collaborations and following those close to your field is important.
  11. Setup alerts. Let instant alerts from social media tell you when relevant work is published. Set up a rule to send these alerts to a special folder. Read this folder once a week.
  12. Cross-pollination works. Try picking up good ideas from all disciplines. Look outside academia by working with different clients, practitioners and consultants who can all generate innovative perspectives.
  13. Newbies as the best questions. Sometimes, the person who has no idea what is going on will ask the most original question because they are less inhibited.
  14. Break self-imposed mental limits. Without realizing it, your education and experience has ‘taught’ you specific barriers. Overcome this by writing down your first impressions immediately.
  15. Follow the rabbit-hole. Don’t get caught up on one single idea for too long in your brainstorming sessions. Don’t keep things in the back of your mind–keep following and writing down every lead.
  16. Peer-pressure is real. Protect new, young, and hopeful ideas from criticism.
  17. Push your ideas a little further each day. Develop and mold your ideas by using analogies, metaphors, and sketches. Push the envelope with repeated imaginative explanations.
  18. Put ideas in a slow-cooker first, then critique. Don’t immediately critique your own ideas after a brainstorming session. Let them sit and simmer for a bit and try to develop them a little further before throwing them out.
  19. Put the puzzle pieces together. Can all your ideas, your haphazard sketches, be brought together to make a systematic path? How do they fit together? Can you pivot into a new direction?
  20. Follow the ups and downs. As with all things, you’ll need to unlearn what you thought you knew before you can see what is truly happening. Follow the ups and downs and remain creative and flexible.
  21. Attend a local TED Conference. Seriously, it’s the best decision you’ll ever make.
  22. Join a forum or listserv and be an active member. 
  23. Teach someone else something you’re not used to teaching. Preparing to teach is the best way to learn a new subject and stretch your brain!
  24. Write a bucket list. Post it somewhere public, like your office door.
  25. Arrange a lab or division retreat. 
  26. Talk with the innovation center or the quality improvement division. Somewhere in your organization is an individual whose job it is to be innovative, strategic, and spearhead improvement initiatives (hopefully). Find that person and take them for coffee.
  27. Learn to recognize burnout. Create a strategy to deal with it that works for you.
  28. Use the Pomodoro Technique when you don’t feel like working. 
  29. Clean your efiles. Create new folder called “New Folders” and begin to create an entirely new file structure. Slowly move all your existing files into the new system.
  30. Rewrite your job description. Take examples of those in your field, from specialists, include your own goals and a mission statement. Share it with your boss or mentor.
  31. Clear distractions by overhauling your office. Spend a day completely cleaning out your office, rearranging the furniture, changing the desktop photo and layout.
  32. Overhaul your personal routines. Routines allow your brain to stop focusing on the minutia and being looking at the more creative.
  33. Listen to an audiobook in the car, or music in your office. Find a way to switch-up and fuel your auditory senses.
  34. Switch your snack preferences. Throw out that junk drawer in your office and fill it with dark-chocolate kisses and roasted almonds.
  35. Do an escape room experience with the smartest people you know. Be the dumbest person in the room sometimes. Surround yourself with the smartest people you know and find an excuse to get them all together in the same room. Dinner parties are not dead!
  36. Read Sherlock Holmes. Seriously. No one is better at deduction and you will rewire your brain to look for patterns and the un-obvious.
  37. Take a shower. Seriously. 72% of people have new ideas while in the shower. Seriously.
  38. Think macro. Zoom down to the smallest details every so often, don’t focus only on the big picture. Make a macro photograph that background on your computer screen to help you remember.
  39. Learn a new language from someone, personally. Do you have a friend who speaks another language? Setup coffee with them and only speak the new language. Listen to the daily news in the new language. Stretch your brain muscles.
  40. Make an info-graphic for your research. It’s super fun and there’s loads of free software available to help you design the poster.

Read more from Patrick Dunleavy on “Becoming more creative in academic work – a menu of suggestions” at https://medium.com/advice-and-help-in-authoring-a-phd-or-non-fiction/becoming-more-creative-in-academic-work-eaba76c5d075.