1. Determine what the box is. Your "box" is your normal way of doing and looking at things. Far too often, a person’s usual way of approaching life is to simply accept the status quo. Such an attitude can lead to falling into a rut, which in turn can stifle any interest you might otherwise have in changing your routine or how you handle your life. This choke point can be particularly devastating intellectually. One effective way to avoid such a mentally suffocating situation is to adopt a mind-set to always look for a better way in everything and to believe that one exists.
2. Challenge the assumptions that underlie your life. One of the best ways to start thinking outside of the box is to first identify and then challenge the assumptions that encompass your way of thinking inside the box that is your life. To consciously guide yourself down new pathways of looking at things, it is imperative to have a reasonable starting place for change. One such point is being aware of what you take for granted and being open to new ideas.
3. Avoid being in a routine. An active open mind is similar to a muscle - it needs to be exercised every day. You can exercise your mind sporadically or you can exercise it on a regular basis. To a major degree, the critical issue is your level of commitment. Either you have the personal discipline to make thinking outside the box an integral part of your life or you don’t.
4. Focus on the value of finding new ideas. One of the first steps in understanding the value of discovering new ways of looking at things is dismissing the idea that "there’s really nothing new under the sun." On the contrary, the world changes daily. Looking for and finding new ideas are not a waste of time. Rather, it can serve as the creative catalyst to enhance your life with new possibilities, new explorations, and new solutions.
5. Don’t be afraid. Fear, apathy, and indifference can turn a creative person into an in-the-box thinker. These factors also can serve as insurmountable barriers to testing your assumptions and applying your imagination to expand how you look at things.
6. Explore the absurd. One of the most effective ways to break up the rigidity that characterizes in-the-box thinking is to explore the highly unusual. Such a creative-thinking technique can dismantle conventional thinking patterns and stimulate new ways of looking at things. It also can lead to new ideas and concepts that otherwise might not occur if you were thinking about things in your usual way.
7. Listen to others. The ability to listen is one of the most important attributes that a person can possess. Contrary to the old saying, "what you don’t know can’t hurt you," what you don’t know can hurt you - particularly when it comes to thinking outside the box. At a minimum, your ability to tap into the feedback, ideas, suggestions, and possible solutions from others is compromised when you don’t listen well.
8. Accept more than one solution. In reality, most situations and problems can have more than one solution. Too many people believe that THEIR solution is THE only solution to a particular set of circumstances. Most situations, however, involve a multiplicity of issues, rather than a single problem and, likewise, entail a multiplicity of potential solutions. Having an open mind, being creative, and recasting a specific problem in a variety of ways can lead to a number of possible solutions - all of which can be helpful.
9. Use your brain. To think outside the box, you must be a critical thinker. You shouldn’t do something in a particular way just because that’s the way you’ve always done it or the way everybody else does it. Rather, you should apply critical-thinking means to help you solve problems, consider new information, or process new ideas. Truth be known, using your brain is the underlying basis for being creative.
10. Make time to be creative. Although everyday creative people tend to create as a matter of course, most individuals who opt to be creative need to make a conscious effort to see the world in new ways and need to be open to do things differently. Such an effort requires a commitment of both energy and time.
James A. Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a freelance writer and consultant in sports medicine. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Peterson was director of sports medicine with StairMaster. Until that time, he was professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy.
Copyright 2010 by the American College of Sports Medicine.