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Do These 3 Brain Exercises to ‘Stay Mentally Sharp and Solve Problems Faster,' Says Stanford Creativity Expert

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Creativity is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the better you'll be at coming up with innovative solutions and ideas at work.

One of the most effective ways do this is to train your brain to see and notice opportunities. Often you can find needs or problems hiding in plain sight all around you, and once you notice them, you can put your thinking skill to work and tackle things that really matter. 

As a director at Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (also called "the d.school"), there are three powerful exercises we teach our students — each one has its own unique way of training our brains to think smarter, stay mentally sharp and solve problems faster:

1. Shadowing

When you're trying to bring fresh thinking to an old problem, shadowing helps you observe a context and the behaviors within that context without the constraint of preconceived ideas. 

Start by picking someone whose experience you want to understand, then spend a day following them around and doing everything that they do. 

You might get the most inspiration shadowing a non-traditional expert. It could be the maintenance person in your office building who knows the hidden rhythms and needs of the community. Or someone who just started a job with your group and has an unbiased perspective on what your culture is like.

Reflect on your observations at the end of the day. Question them and find opportunities for positive change and action:

  • What was the most memorable experience of the day? Why?
  • What surprised you?
  • What delighted you?
  • How did your experience differ from your expectations?
  • What did you discover that is related to your goals?
  • What is something you can do to learn more about your insights?

2. Seeing

At this very moment, you are processing an incredible amount of information. Your brain is constantly protecting you from information overload by filtering what you register. But learning how to control your filter can help you pay closer attention and see what others might miss.

Find a photograph, preferably a shot that captures scenes of everyday life; you want a lot of details, multiple subjects in the frame, and some ambiguity about what's happening.

Photo c/o: Rodrigo Abd | AP

Now answer the following questions:

  • What's going on in the picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What else do you see?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?

Repeat. And again. And again.

Consider keeping a journal and doing this exercise a few times a week. Practicing often will help you understand how much detail is part of your daily life. Background detail is what makes the world feel vivid and real — a quality that you want to imbue all of your creative work.

3. Studying the solution that already exists

Originality is wonderful, but it doesn't mean you have to shy away from building on others' ideas. When you try to come up with new concepts in isolation, you're unaware of what's already out there and your ideas are less likely to be new. 

Come up with an analogue for the problem you're trying to solve. How has someone else solved a problem similar to yours, but in a different context?

Let's say you're a parent trying to think of ways for your child engaged and focused during study hours. What kind of challenges come up? Dealing with repetition, boredom and distractions. What other activities have similar facets? Unless you're a passionate runner, one that immediately comes to mind is exercise.

Luckily, there's a huge industry that specializes in finding solutions to get people exercise. Some examples: the rise of aerobics in the 1980s or the more recent popularity of cycling classes.

Then conduct some research: Read articles, interview existing customers or call up some companies. Find enough information to take a crack at the following questions:

  • Why did the solution work?
  • For whom?
  • How do you know it worked?
  • What are people able to do now that they couldn't before?

Apply some of those learnings to your problem. What jumps out of your research as the most interesting? Use your insights as the starting point to explore new ways to tackle your problem and come up with approaches that fit your context. 

*Guiding questions for seeing come from Visual Thinking Strategies by Abigail Housen & Philip Yenawine.

Sarah Stein Greenberg is the executive director of the design institute at Stanford University, known as the D.school. She is also the author of "Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways." Follow her on Twitter @steingreenberg.

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