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Can Random Connections Help You Think?

Are you stuck in a thinking rut?

We are hardwired to notice patterns in our day-to-day life, which is generally a very useful adaptation - it helps us get through our day efficiently, without constantly having to reinvent the wheel.

But of course, when you are trying to solve a problem and have gone through all the usual ideas, it's great to have a way to interrupt this default 'pattern-seeking' thinking style. That's where random connections come in.

Many creative thinking experts rate 'connecting the previously unconnected' as THE essential element of creative thinking, even as the definition of creative thinking.

Here are some principles of connecting:

Read widely: Why not buy a magazine you wouldn't normally consider, or surf the web and see where you end up?

Talk to people in different fields: Share your dilemma, pick their brains for new perspectives, or just find out what are the big questions in their field.

Try something (anything) new: Anything will do - drive home a different way, swap music collections with a friend, cook a new dish, take a course.

Step sideways, see it from another angle: What would the Dalai Lama do here? How would Kim Kardashian solve my problem? If I were a fish, how would I handle this?

Curious to try some random connecting? Here's a technique I teach in most of my workshops and talks, because it's really simple but very effective:

Grab a book, one with lots of words - a dictionary or other thick book is ideal. Open it to any page and select a random noun (choose something that can be seen or touched - for example, 'umbrella' or 'butterfly' - rather than an intangible thing or a concept, such as 'psychology'). Or pick a picture book, and do the same thing but with an image. Another way is to close your eyes, turn around and then open them again. What is the first object you see?

Use your word, image or object to start off a mind map or a brainstorm about your problem. How could you connect your problem and this new thing?

For example, say you wanted to find ways for people to keep their keys safe when they go swimming. You've thought of all the obvious things such as Velcro® pockets and taping the keys under the car.

  • You open the dictionary and see the word 'telephone'.
  • You could tape your key to the back of your phone
  • You could use your phone number for a code for a keyless safe deposit box in the surf club (so you don't just swap one key for another...)
  • You could pay your young cousin to mind your keys and meet you at your car when you call them on your phone
  • You could keep your key on a ring round your neck - yes, this one isn't about 'telephone', but telephone might lead to ring which might lead to key ring and then to chain around your neck...that's how it works sometimes!

First ideas are usually pretty rough, even silly. But one of them might spark a line of thought that leads to something clever and practical. At the very least, it can free up your mind and send it along fresh channels of thought.

Why not give it a try?
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