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This Science-Backed Brainstorming Method Proves You Always Have More Ideas Than You Think

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Breaks are part of our creative culture. Expert after expert has proclaimed that breaks can fuel your creativity, especially if you go for a run or a take a hike without a map.

But depending on the nature of your task, the best thing you can do for your creativity may be to not take a break. A new study by professors at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management strongly suggests that it’s important in any creative endeavor to fight through blocks or fatigue.

“Our sense is people leave some ideas on the table and stop prematurely, out of some sense they’ve exhausted the creative process,” says Loran Nordgren, an associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. Nordgren conducted the research with Brian Lucas, who worked on the study as a Ph.D. student at Kellogg and is now a faculty member at the University of Chicago Booth School.

In their experiments, they asked participants to brainstorm creative ideas during two short intervals—between five and 10 minutes, depending on the activity. After the first interval, they asked participants to predict how many ideas they would generate during the second interval. By asking this question, the researchers could compare participants’ predictions about how many ideas they would generate with the actual number of ideas they ended up generating during the second interval.

For example, in one of the experiments, 24 students brainstormed dishes to serve at Thanksgiving. These students predicted they’d think of 10 additional ideas during their second interval. They wound up generating 15. In other words, they underestimated what they’d accomplish if they stuck with the task.

What was more, the ideas they produced during the second interval were much more creative. First-interval ideas included ho-hum staples like turkey and mashed potatoes. By contrast, second-interval ideas included out-of-the-box concepts like turkey-shaped waffles. In addition, the second-interval ideas received higher ratings for originality from a panel the researchers recruited to rate the ideas.

In another experiment, some participants performed a high-creativity task—for example, brainstorming uses for a cardboard box—while others performed a low-creativity task, like solving simple math problems. The cardboard box group dramatically undervalued the importance of persistence. For their second interval, they estimated they’d produce six more ideas; in actuality, they produced 10 more. By contrast, the math group only slightly undervalued the importance of persistence. They estimated they’d generate seven more solutions during their second interval. They ended up producing eight. 

This experiment suggests that persistence is even more important in a creative task than a non-creative task. The reason? Creative work is nonlinear. You’re never quite sure how close you are to a desired outcome or solution. How much progress you’re making is rarely clear, the way it is when you’re performing a linear task, like completing a set of questions.

With non-creative, linear tasks, Nordgren believes that participants have a solid sense of the importance of persistence. After all, it stands to reason that if you solve eight math equations in a first five-minute interval, that you should be able to solve at least eight more of comparable difficulty in a second five-minute interval. But with a creative, nonlinear task, Nordgren says, “people think they’ve exhausted the process and devalue persistency.”

Interestingly, the researchers also asked 45 sketch-comedy group members to brainstorm possible endings to a scene. One setup read: “Four people are laughing hysterically on stage. Two of them high-five, everyone stops laughing immediately, and someone says: “ __.” For their second interval, the comedians estimated they’d come up with an average of five ideas. As it turned out, they produced six. The professors believe their relatively accurate prediction stems from their familiarity with the creative process. And yet, even a population of creative participants still slightly underestimated the effect of persistence on their output.

The takeaway from all this is simple: If you reach a point in your task where you feel stuck, disregard that feeling and fight through it. It’s an inaccurate feeling—and you shouldn’t listen to it.

That’s not to say you should work around the clock. Nordgren believes that breaks can certainly be beneficial for bigger-picture creative tasks—ones where you’re trying to develop a key insight, as opposed to ones where you’re brainstorming or list-making or compiling possible solutions. For bigger-picture tasks, breaks can allow your subconscious mind to mull the problem, and the “set shifting” of doing a different type of work—like playing with LEGOs—can yield surprising bursts of insight and perspective.

In other words, the researchers are hardly suggesting that you become a workaholic and never take breaks. Rather, they want you to recognize that you can push yourself harder, in many short-term circumstances where a creative effort is required. And if you do push yourself harder, the results of your persistence are likely to surprise you.

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