#10 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 3          October 1992 

Creative Thinking—Make It a Habit! 
by Jack Oliver, Ph.D.

Dr. Oliver, a geophysicist, is the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering at Cornell University.  He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and former president of the Geological Society of America and the Seismological Society of America.  Dr. Oliver is author of The Incomplete Guide to the Art of Discovery, (Columbia University Press, New York 1991). 

There is something mysterious about creativity.  We can describe it, admire it, strive for it and experience it, but we can never understand just how or why a certain innovative idea springs up at a particular time in the mind of a particular individual.  Indeed, most people never expect to understand or master that process.  Let's hope we do not, for our world would be far more dreary if we ever fully harnessed the creative process and learned to produce results only on schedule or on demand. 

On the other hand, we can imagine a brighter future if we were able to stimulate the creative process and produce more innovations. Can we, indeed, take action to stimulate creativity? 

Some say "no," that due to their mysterious origins, creative acts can only arise without warning to those blessed by fate.  According to this line of thinking, it's inappropriate or even futile to encourage creativity.

I don't subscribe to such a dismal view; I think investigations in the history of innovation show that we can, indeed, enhance our creativity.  These studies show that creativity is repeatedly associated with certain types of behavior and reasoning.   I do not mean to imply that a simple formula can be derived, or that one technique will work for everybody, or that success is guaranteed.  But based on the historical record, certain steps seem likely to increase your creativity. 


Begin by conditioning yourself to be restless and uneasy about the status quo.  Don't overlook the familiar just because you've seen it so often.  Rather make yourself even more aware of it, then change the pattern slightly.  If you invariably drive to the supermarket along a particular route, try a new one. If your spouse always buys the groceries while you return books to the library, switch jobs.  If you eat a grapefruit like everyone else — one half at a sitting — eat both halves and compare the taste. (This exercise may astonish you!). If you always make a measurement or an evaluation in a fixed manner, change your routine.  Sooner or later I'd bet quicker than you expect breaking your routine will help you invent an improved process or idea. 

Force your mind to see things differently in a new light, from a new angle, from another scale of time or distance, or from the perspective of someone with a different background.  Explore beyond the bounds of your expertise you may have the exact perspective needed by a colleague in another field.    

If you have the germ of a good idea, preserve it by jotting it down immediately.  Then, when you have time, think the idea through until you discard it as worthless or elevate it to the "significant" category.  Great writers often scribble inspired thoughts when they arise, then subject them to the time-honored writer's formula: "l) revise 2) revise and 3) revise again." Consider your idea a rough draft that needs to be polished by a few cycles through the idea-processor.  

Getting Useful Ideas 

Bare bones ideas are plentiful, but the trick is to identify the good ones.  Ideas derive their importance and durability in relation to data, problems and other ideas.  In other words, ideas must be tested against reality.  Good ideas will have two effects.  They will be useful in their original context and they will create surprising, intriguing connections among things that once seemed to exist in separate contexts. 

Divide your thinking into two distinct styles.  One style should promote carefree, blissful dreaming.  Would these compounds rapidly combine if "A" were true?  What wonderful process could we invent occur if "B"  were correct?  Questions like these help you outline the fragile essence of an idea. 

Then, once the idea is fleshed out, energize your analytical thinking.  Test your idea against the data in the most dispassionate, objective manner.  Most dreams deserve to fail, and it's best that you scuttle them, rather than allowing someone else the chance.  

Do not be constrained by the critical side while you dream, but be sure to use those "reality-checks" once the idea has taken shape. In other words, learn to bounce back and forth from dreamer to critic.  

Adapt an idea from elsewhere if necessary.  (Naturally, be sure to give the originator credit in an ethical manner.)   If you admire a new product in another field, immediately try to apply the underlying idea as a springboard for improving something else.  

Creative-thinking Time 

Schedule regular times for creative thinking. I walk to and from work daily, about 35 minutes each way. After many years of following the same route (sometimes I do vary it!), the journey is routine, but I've dedicated the walk as a scheduled time for free, creative thinking, for dreaming, for envisioning what might happen, for devising imaginative solutions.  I jot down my ideas immediately after reaching my destination.  

I also use sporadic, spontaneous times for creative thinking.  At meetings of scientific societies, for example, I'm often so stimulated by news and unconventional events that I have difficulty sleeping.  Those sleepless nights usually produce lots of ideas, some of them quite usable.   

I think the fundamentals for improving creativity are pretty clear from the literature on history's successful innovators.  If this is true, then why not follow their lead — and improve upon their techniques? 

In its essence, my advice is, "to be creative, think creatively".  Don't muddle around hoping for a great idea to strike like a bolt of lightning.  Train yourself to think in ways that have worked for others.  Everyone knows a habit can be acquired through repetition.  Why not make thinking creatively a habit?

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