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5 Ways to Break out of Mental Rigidity

In the annals of ancient wisdom, lies a tale involving the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi that imparts a profound lesson on human cognition and creativity.

The story revolves around a man named Huizi, who received a batch of large gourd seeds as a gift from a king. These seeds grew into colossal gourds, yet proved impractical for conventional purposes (such as containers or utensils) due to their size. Disappointed, he smashed them.

Zhuangzi criticized Huizi's lack of imagination, asking him, “Why didn’t it occur to you that you could turn them into a big raft to float around on the rivers and lakes, instead of lamenting how they’re too big to use as spoons?”

Huizi, it turns out, was afflicted with Functional Fixedness, which refers to our tendency to perceive objects, designs, or goals in a narrow and rigid manner, limiting our ability to recognize alternative, creative applications.

Huizi's misstep, however, is not an anomaly.

In various facets of our lives, we encounter similar mental hurdles that prevent us from recognizing the full potential of what we have at hand. It might be an innovative solution to a persistent problem at work, a novel perspective on an artistic endeavor, or an ingenious approach to everyday challenges.

Here’s how to break out of the mental straightjacket of Functional Fixedness:

1. Cultivate a ‘Beginner's Mind’: As renowned Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few.” A Beginner's Mind encourages individuals to approach situations with openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions. By shedding assumptions about how things should be, we free ourselves to see things as they are and imagine how they could be. Not surprisingly, research shows that children outperform adults on divergent thinking tasks.

2. Get shifty-eyed: An intriguing tip originates from Elizabeth Shobe's research on eye movement and creativity. Participants were asked to generate unconventional uses for common objects after either moving their eyes from left to right for 30 seconds or simply staring at a wall. The result? The eye movement group produced significantly more and higher-quality ideas. This effect endured for nine minutes. The underlying idea is that eye movement facilitates communication between the brain's left and right hemispheres, a catalyst for practical creativity.

3. Do something different: It’s Friday afternoon and you're asked to solve two problems that require creative thinking. Which approach do you take?

A) Spend the first half of your time on the first problem and the next half on the second.

B) Alternate between the two problems at a regular predetermined interval (e.g. every five minutes).

C)Switch between the problems at your own discretion.

Turns out, while most people pick C, research shows that the most successful option is B. This is true for both problem-solving and ideation. Why? Task-switching (the boogeyman of productivity) refreshes our thinking and reduces cognitive fixation. When people remain focused on a single task, they’re often unaware that their thinking has become rigid and repetitive. Task-switching shakes off that fixed mindset.

4. Re-define your goal: Sometimes, fixedness stems from a rigid definition of a goal. For example, which goal is more likely to inspire ideas?: ‘Increase customer Net Promoter Score by 5%,’ or ‘Turn customers into fans.’ By casting a wider net, you open up new avenues for creative thinking. When stuck, ask: What's the essence of this problem? How might we cast a wider net? How might we redefine our goal? Abstract it, then unleash ideas.

5. Look to outside industries: The Reebok Pump came from studying a blood pressure monitor. Ultrasound machines were inspired by the echolocation of bats. NASA studied origami folding to design a compact and deployable space array. In fact, research shows that the farther we are from our own industry, the more original our ideas become. To break free from fixedness, draw inspiration from industries or fields unrelated to your own. Platforms like Wazokucrowd and OpenIDEO host thousands of problems, solutions, and product concepts, serving as fertile ground for sparking creative insights through analogy.

So, the next time you find yourself facing a seemingly unsolvable problem or grappling with the limitations of a familiar tool, remember the gourd seeds that could’ve been makeshift rafts. Embrace the beginner's mind, shift your perspective, alternate tasks, redefine your goals, and explore the world through the eyes of other industries.

You'll breathe new life into old ideas, revitalizing your creative capacity and unlocking a world of possibilities.

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