Do you find yourself staring into the wall in your office or lab hoping for solutions and ideas to jump out? It is hard to find inspiration by looking at the same things over and over again. The process of thinking should not be confined to your workplace or lab bench. Similar to listening to the same old radio station, you need to change your settings and get out of your office. Start changing your surroundings. Go to the library, a coffee shop, a museum, the park or even a walk in the woods or on the beach. There are many benefits to getting away from your regular place of work.

Resetting Your Playlist
By leaving the place where your mind is grinding the same problem over and over, and changing you surroundings, you give your brain a break and a chance to reset. For me, the best is a short walk; getting some fresh air is like starting with a blank sheet of paper. I find it lets my thoughts settle and then I can start inviting new ideas. The changed settings help me obtain new insights and come up with fresh solutions.

Avoiding Interruptions
It is not uncommon to get a continuous flow of interruption in your office: people stopping by to chat, a key instrument that somehow only you can fix, requests for new committees or meetings, all stacking up on a to-do list that needed to be done yesterday. It seems that rare commodity- concentration- is becoming harder to gain each day. I find the largest disruption to my concentration is the internet which delivers a constant stream of e-mails and instant messages demanding instant attention. If you are changing your surroundings and  leave the lab to get some serious mental time, make the conscious decision to go to a space with no internet access, or if you bring your laptop- to not connect. Finally, that ubiquitous cell phone needs to have reminders turned to mute. But the hardest challenge? Making the choice to not look at your iPhone or Android for two hours. Go ahead, I dare you. Doesn’t it actually feel good changing your surroundings?

Micro Resets
Let’s face it, as often as you would like to get some real concentration time, it is difficult to carve out 3 hours to go to a park or coffee shop. What to do? Maybe in between meetings, take a different route. Or take the same route, but put on your headphones and choose a favorite song- while you walk the music will help you see common settings in a new way. Another concept is what I call mind-twister. Take the problem you are trying to solve, and freely choose one word (such as “tornado”). What are possible associations between the problem and the word? Tornados have a vortex, played a starring role in “The Wizard of Oz”, are unpredictable, spawn off smaller tornados, etc. If my problem is that I don’t have enough grant money, then I might consider: What am I doing that is sucking up most of my money (the vortex)? Are the grant applications I have submitted been too safe (be more unpredictable)? Can I leverage my colleagues by seeing if they might be interested in performing some of the experiments (spawning)? As for the Wizard of Oz- well maybe that is what I should watch tonight with pizza (hey-I didn’t say it would always work!). In a later post, I will take a look at different mechanisms to generate ideas and help you get through mind-blocks.

You might want to take a peak at one of my former blog posts for a list of other suggestions I have for increasing your creativity.

Leave a comment of where you go to find inspiration or a place to think, how often you do it and what changing your surroundings does for you.