Problems—by their nature—disrupt our current path. They put a roadblock right in the middle of the way we’re doing things. We’re productively doing work until our computer breaks. Or our relationship is running smoothly until there’s a big fight. Or our day is going well until twice the work gets dumped on us. Problems sideline our plans and can make us feel like we’re backed into a corner with only two options—either push harder with what we were doing, which requires flexible thinking, or completely retreat and give up.
In our world today, the roadblocks are only increasing. According to Leonard Mlodinow, author of the bestselling book Elastic: Unlocking Your Brain’s Ability to Embrace Change, everything from technology to politics to cultural norms is changing at lightning speed. The way we used to do things may be hitting roadblocks left and right.
So, elastic or flexible thinking is one of the most important skills in our modern era. To solve problems, we need to be more flexible in the way we think about situations.
What if there are more than two options for every problem? What if, instead of running into the wall or retreating, we could go around the wall? Or climb above it? Or get people to help us move it?
No matter what problem you’re facing in life, flexible thinking can give you a wider lens on the situation and come up with creative solutions that still meet your goals, even when problems arise.
Here are five ways you can adapt flexible thinking strategies to solve your problems.
1. Focus on the Overarching Goal
Thinking becomes narrow and rigid the more specific we get. If we’re focused on the tactics or how to solve a problem, we narrow our lens and block out a lot of more effective and more creative solutions.
The trouble is that most of us confuse our goals, our strategies, and our tactics. And that confusion keeps us stuck.
- Goals are “why” we are doing this in the first place—the ultimate thing we want to get
- Strategies are “what” we’re going to do to get that goal
- Tactics are “how,” specifically, we’re going to take action to accomplish the strategy and get the goal.
For example, let’s say I want to get a promotion at work. I’m really clear that it’s a top-level goal that feels important to me.
So, I come up with a whole bunch of strategies, including demonstrating my performance to my boss, taking on more leadership roles, and networking with other leaders in the company. Some specific tactics I might take to demonstrate my performance might be sending my boss quantitative reports on the impact of my work and taking on a few more projects.
But what if one of those projects falls through or fails? It may seem like a big problem, but if I keep the overarching goal in mind, I can realize there are endless ways to get a promotion. And I can go back to other tactics to demonstrate my performance—or even other strategies, like networking with other leaders in the company.
The opposite of flexible thinking is rigid, narrow thinking where we get obsessed with the one way or tactic to accomplish our goals.
But if we can clarify what the overarching goal is—why we’re doing that tactic—then we widen our scope to see the bigger picture and can usually come up with new strategies or tactics that still help us accomplish our goal.
There are many paths to every goal we have, no matter what it is. So, if we feel stuck in any way, chances are our thinking has become really narrow, and we need to focus back on the overarching goal.
2. Take Your Mind Off of It
Albert Einstein, one of the most creative and flexible thinkers out there, was known for a very unique process of thinking. He would think critically for long periods of time, and then he would take time off to play violin and not think about his work at all. Somehow, when he went back to his work, he’d be able to connect dots he couldn’t have seen before.
Einstein called this process “combinatory play”—essentially combining some unrelated skills that allowed one part of the brain to rest and form connections while you were doing something different and activating a different part of the brain.
And Einstein wasn’t the only genius who valued taking their mind off a problem to come up with a solution. Nobel Prize-winning scientists are 2.85 times more likely than the average scientist to have an artistic or crafty hobby.
So, when you’re stuck with a problem and just can’t find a way around it, take some time off to try something else—especially something you’re passionate about. The rest time may allow your brain to form new connections and think more flexibly about the situation so you can come up with a creative solution.
3. Look to Outside Sources for Inspiration
Most of our decisions are made from a narrow lens of the examples all around us—whether it’s how our parents did things, the “industry standard” in our field, or our past patterns and behaviors. So, if our usual solutions aren’t working for a current problem, it’s time to widen our lens and look outside a little bit.
In the book Blue Ocean Strategy, authors Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim advocate for creating “uncontested markets” by looking outside of a business’ industry to draw inspiration from unorthodox places.
For example, Cirque du Soleil solved the problem of the dying circus industry by drawing inspiration from Broadway plays and Las Vegas performances with dramatic lighting, music, and themes, alongside sleek and sophisticated branding. While almost nobody would pay $100 to see a traveling circus, Cirque du Soleil tickets are regularly sold at that price point.
But drawing outside inspiration for flexible thinking isn’t just reserved for the world of business. New workout routines are created by combining dance and aerobics. New diets are discovered by studying different cultures.
In newly every facet of life, the solution to rigid, narrow thinking is taking a look outside the current norms and standards to draw inspiration from what others are doing—and then combining things flexibly or creatively.
4. Journal or Brainstorm Your Ideas
When we’re looking for the solution to a problem right in front of us, we tend to pare down choices to the most logical and familiar ones. But if we’re trying to engage in more creative and flexible thinking, then we actually want ideas that aren’t our normal, tried-and-true.
Journaling and brainstorming take the pressure off from finding the one perfect solution because we’re no longer in critical thinking or analysis mode. We’re in pure ideation mode, just accessing the unfettered creativity. And that means we’re pretty going to get a lot of duds, but we’re also going to get a lot of creative, flexible thinking that doesn’t happen when the pressure is on.
Pressure creates narrow, rigid ideas because we can’t take risks or contemplate something new if we feel we only have one option. But when we give ourselves space to explore hundreds of options, chances are we’re going to open up to new ideas and new inspiration.
And research backs up that journaling can unlock right-brained creativity and intuition that we wouldn’t have accessed otherwise.
So, next time you’re stuck on a big problem, pull out your journal and just start writing about the challenge and potential solutions for 30 minutes. You’re likely to be shocked by the creative, flexible insights and ideas you come up with.
5. Bring in Diverse Voices and Perspectives
If we want to change our narrow thinking, we have to widen the network of who we’re talking to and getting support from.
We all have different experiences—and, therefore, different perspectives based on those experiences. A lawyer is likely to look at a problem one way, whereas an engineer is likely to look at it an entirely different way. And that’s why diversity is so important. The more diverse your workplace, social circle, or community, the more flexible and creative your ideas will be—simply because you’re getting feedback from many different perspectives that you wouldn’t have recognized otherwise.
When you’re feeling stuck or like you can’t find a new way to solve a problem, consult with someone with a totally different voice. For example, if your sales team is having a problem at work, see what the marketing or product development departments think of it. Or if you’re struggling to communicate with your spouse, consider couple’s counseling with a therapist or clergy.
If we keep talking to the same people and spaces, we’re likely to begin to narrow our thinking and, therefore, have less flexible and creative ideas. But if our ideas are constantly being challenged or if we’re constantly introduced to new perspectives, we’re a lot more likely to become more flexible thinkers and find creative solutions we never would have discovered otherwise.
The Bottom Line
When we engage in flexible thinking, we can bend what previously felt like an immovable situation. Roadblocks and challenges actually become fodder for innovation and push us to become more creative. And instead of fearing “problems,” we can see them as opportunities to make things better—for ourselves, our families, our colleagues, our customers, or our communities.
By focusing on the overarching goal, (temporarily) taking our mind off the problem, looking to outside sources of inspiration, journaling and brainstorming, and bringing in diverse perspectives, we can become more flexible thinkers and solve most problems that come our way.
In our fast-paced, ever-changing world, flexible thinking is quickly becoming one of the most important and prized skills to possess. No matter what problems arise, you can handle them with ease if you’re just a little flexible and creative.
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