Polman and Emich had research participants do the following three things:
- draw an alien for a story they were going to write themselves or for someone else’s story. The aliens people sketched for others were more creative than the ones they drew for themselves.
- come up with gift ideas for themselves, for someone close to them, or for someone far away. The result: The more distant the recipient, the more creative the gift.
- solve the following problem:
A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?
Polman and Emich say the principle at work is something called “construal-level theory,” which in simple terms means that we think in more abstract terms about distant problems (or problems belonging to distant people) — and thinking at a more abstract level produces more creative solutions.
Based on these findings, Daniel Pink suggests these three ideas to more effectively solve problems:
1. Trade problems with someone. When you get stuck, stop hammering away at the problem and find a colleague to swap with.
2. Solve problems on behalf of someone else. Create some psychological distance from your project by pretending that you’re doing it on behalf of someone else. Use your imagination here: the “other person” could be the woman across the hall, a relative, or a stranger halfway across the world. The farther away, the better.
3. Put some distance between yourself and your project. Writers know something magical happens when you put your manuscript away in a drawer. When you come back to it a week or a month or six months later, you have a fresher, more creative perspective on the work. When you can, build some slack into your deadlines and try putting your work out of sight for as long as you can manage.
I believe that if these strategies can work for adults, they can also successfully be applied by students.