Have you ever noticed that we spend most of our lives looking for ONE right answer? Think about it:
- In school, we take multiple-choice tests where we are asked to choose the ONE right answer and we solve math equations by finding ONE solution.
- In the workplace, we’re asked to generate ONE report with ONE action plan for our clients.
- In life, we are encouraged to choose ONE career path, ONE spouse, and live our ONE best life.
I’m not suggesting there’s necessarily anything wrong with the above list. It simply means we get a lot of practice with what psychologists call convergent thinking. We regularly take many data points and synthesize information to come up with one solution. But we lack practice with divergent thinking: the ability to generate many ideas from a single piece of information. And just like any muscle, if we don’t exercise our divergent thinking muscle, it could atrophy.
Both types of thinking are necessary for improving mental health, reducing anxiety, and attaining our goals. But divergent thinking is especially crucial for our ability to be creative and generate new ideas. Fortunately, there are some quick and easy ways to get your divergent thinking muscle in shape.
Journaling to Exercise Your Divergent Thinking Muscle
The best way to exercise your divergent thinking muscle and get your creativity flowing is to grab your journal and give yourself the headspace you need to expand your mind. And resist that self-critical voice that says you’re too anxious to think in new ways. Anyone can benefit from playing with these three journal prompts. Let’s dig in!
1. The Many Uses Prompt
This prompt is an easy way to jump start your mind. All you need to do is look around the room and choose an ordinary object like a toothpick. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Then write down as many alternative uses for a toothpick as you can think of.
- Muffin, cake, and brownie tester
- Touch up paint applier
- Markers for different types of food at parties
- Cleaning implement for removing the gunk around buttons on computers or remote controls
- Tiny tent pole
If you practice this exercise enough, you will notice your mind doing it automatically while you’re in the office, sitting in traffic, or waiting at your doctor’s office. What’s really valuable is that you will start to look at ordinary objects from new and unusual perspectives—the hallmark of a creative mind.
2. “Your Day” Daily News
At the end of your day, spend a few minutes imagining your day as a news story in the New York Times. Think about the major events and plot lines of your day. Describe the key players and characters. Don’t forget about the dramatic moments and points of conflict.
Then come up with at least three different headlines to describe your day. Get as creative as you like with this exercise. The goal is to settle on ONE headline that encapsulates everything of note. Imagine if you did this every day for a whole month. Re-reading the headlines would be a great way to take a mental snapshot of your month.
A few tips:
- Don’t worry if your day seems boring (most of us don’t live newsworthy days that often!). Pretend that it was newsworthy and have fun with it! Imagine the whole world is anxiously awaiting to hear what happened with the HVAC repairs at home and whether your upcoming event sold out.
- Having trouble coming up with headlines? Check out the actual New York Times or your favorite news source to get ideas.
- Remember, writing these down is better than just trying to do them in your head. There’s just something about having to get specific enough to write something down that really makes your brain work hard (in a good way!).
What’s valuable about this exercise is that it involves both divergent and convergent thinking. Having to generate multiple headlines each day means you have to get divergent with your thinking. But, then, getting down to a single headline to sum up your whole day requires synthesizing several aspects of your day—convergence.
3. Re-Thinking Your Automatic Thoughts
When we struggle with anxiety or poor mental health—and all of us struggle with it at some point in our lives—it’s often because our minds are filled with negative automatic thoughts. These quick responses pop into our minds during specific events or situations:
- Your supervisor stops by your office and your mind starts spiraling, “Oh no! What deadline did I miss? Is she going to ask me to redo that report I submitted? I’m sure that client complained about my tone in that email.”
- Someone cuts you off on the highway and you think, “What an A**hole!”
- You sit down to open your INBOX in the morning and your first thought is, “Let’s see what mess I’ll be cleaning up today.”
Automatic thoughts are one symptom of mental illness. But even outside of diagnosed mental health struggles, automatic thoughts can be problematic because they represent a fixed mindset. We almost never question these first thoughts, but they are often overly harsh, negative, and unrealistic.
A good exercise here to develop mindfulness is to start noticing your automatic thoughts and then get in the habit of using divergent thinking to generate alternative thoughts. You can do this by trying to capture a negative automatic thought at least once during your day. Then, pause and jot down 3-5 alternative thoughts that also fit the situation.
The next time you see your supervisor heading your way, consider some alternative thoughts:
- “My coworker complimented me the other day. She probably mentioned it to my boss too and now my boss wants to show me some appreciation.”
- “I’ve been thinking about applying for that promotion. I bet my boss wants to encourage me to go for it.”
- “She probably wants to discuss increasing my responsibilities while Mary is out on maternity leave.”
- “Maybe she wants to invite me to her Superbowl party.”
With as much time as we spend looking for the ONE right answer in life, we could all use a dose of expanding our minds to think about the many possibilities. The more we practice divergent thinking, the more automatic it becomes.
Daily journaling is a huge part of living a Conscious Strong™ life. When we expand our minds and get beyond our negative, one-way thinking, we are Conscious Strong™! Try each of these three prompts for a week and see which one works best for you.