How to Unlock Your Full Creative Potential at Work

There’s value in coming up with new ideas — and then letting them marinate before pursuing them.

Stanislav Salamanov/ Getty Images
Stanislav Salamanov/ Getty Images

The idea of living up to your potential, especially at work, can feel daunting. We’re constantly trying to do well at our jobs, and we’re often expected to execute quickly, but the resulting pressure can be stressful, and can hinder our ability to be creative. Instead, we’re actually more creative when we produce several ideas at once, then step away or take a short walk, allowing ourselves time to ruminate, according to a new study from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin and the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Stimulating a large quantity of ideas does not result in creativity right away,” Steven J. Kachelmeier, Ph.D., the study co-author and Randal B. McDonald Chair in Accounting at The University of Texas at Austin, tells Thrive. “Rather, it takes a period of rest, or what creativity researchers often call ‘incubation,’ to transform an initially large number of ideas into an eventual advantage in truly creative ideas.”

Coming up with your next big idea doesn’t have to feel stressful, Kachelmeier says. According to the study’s findings, here are the three best ways to unlock your full creative potential:

Don’t wait for a burst of inspiration

People often assume they’ll come up with their best ideas when they get a spontaneous burst of inspiration, so they wait for that moment instead of actively brainstorming. According to Kachelmeier, this waiting period is a common mistake. “People often wonder if it helps to push themselves or if it’s better to just relax and wait for inspiration… Our research suggests that both elements are necessary,” he says. Kachelmeier also adds that it’s important to start brainstorming, even if your ideas aren’t fleshed out yet. “The first stage is to find the incentive to work hard and drum up ideas, even if they are not particularly good at first,” he says. “One needs to prime the pump to get the engine running.”

Map out your ideas, then take a break

This step is the most important, according to the researchers’ findings. Kachelmeier says it can be helpful to crank out a large volume of potential creative ideas, and then step away to rest — even if the concepts you’ve come up with so far are not yet concrete. The researchers suggest going for a long walk, taking a hot shower, or unplugging from your devices for a few hours in order to truly separate yourself from your thoughts. Once you return to your work, you’ll feel the creative drive to flesh out your best ideas. Plus, even the most successful companies operate on this brainstorm-rest pattern. “[Successful] companies push their employees to work hard while also providing opportunities for rest and reflection,” he says.

Acknowledge the meaning behind your work

Experts have spoken about the importance of finding meaning in your work, but when it comes to boosting our creativity, Kachelmeier says this same inner drive is equally as important. “Think about the times that you struggled trying to solve a problem. You worked very hard, but without success. Then, maybe a couple of days later after taking a relaxing shower, the solution comes to you,” he notes. Kachelmeier says your incentive to create — and the meaning and purpose that gives you — combined with this vital period of rest, is what truly unlocks your potential. “The point is that neither the work nor the relaxation are sufficient for creativity,” he concludes. “To unleash creative potential, our research suggests that both are necessary.”

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