Thinking Outside the Box










It may sound like a cliché, but thinking outside the box calls us to open our minds to thinking in new ways.  The anticipated outcome is that we discover creative solutions to challenging problems, or we find a renewed sense of optimism toward a project that had previously seemed daunting.  Working in higher education is no different from other professions insofar as it is oftentimes easier to fall into inside-the-box thinking.  How often do we “recycle” a program from last year because it is simpler to redo or update an established event, rather than create an entirely new and innovative program?

Those of us on The Jersey Alliance Executive Board are currently tasked with re-imagining the traditional higher ed and student affairs conference.  In planning our first annual conference for February of 2012, we are challenged with rethinking our customary ideas about professional development and content delivery, and we are daring ourselves to think outside the box.  But how exactly do we do this?  Even though we are compelled to challenge the status quo, actually doing so may be easier said than done.   Just like when the same boring fitness routine causes our bodies to stop reaping the optimal benefits of exercise, our brains need to be tested to think in new ways so that it can produce fresh and innovative ideas.

I have compiled some helpful tips for thinking outside the box, for getting out of mental ruts.  Whether you are part of a team that is confronting a major project, such as planning a conference, or you are working individually on a difficult assignment that needs a serious makeover, make an effort to stretch your ways of thinking.  Here are a few exercises to help flex your creative muscles and prevent in-the-box mental atrophy!

Work backwards.  The brain has certain pattern-making habits that can hide other ways of thinking.  Working backwards helps identify patterns that would not otherwise be apparent.  Start with a goal and think backwards through the steps needed to reach your goal until you get to where you are now.

Ask a child for advice.  Children say the darnedest things… and sometimes that’s what we need to hear!  Presenting a problem to a kid can actually help us think in unconventional ways.

Write a poem or draw a picture.  Don’t worry – no one is going to read your poem or rate your drawing!  But tapping into your right-brain thinking can shift your thought processes in creative ways.

Invite randomness.  Embrace mistakes and allow for random input to be incorporated into your projects.  (Have you ever heard the story of how Post-It Notes were a product of a “mistake?”)

Last but not least, think for yourself!  After all these tips about how to think outside the box, the best advice is to come up with your own ideas and solutions!  Be uninhibited in your brainstorming and feel completely free in your own way of thinking.  This might be the most important part of thinking outside the box.

If you have your own tips for creative thinking, feel free to post them to this blog.  In the meantime, good luck with whatever projects, tasks, and assignments are before you today.   You never know, you might surprise yourself with your own mental dexterity.

NOTE: Some of the above tips for thinking outside the box were found at the following websites:

Submitted by Maya Bley, Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs, College of Saint Elizabeth


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