Want to Boost Your Creativity? All You Need is Psychological Distance.

Wallowing on a beach in Bali waiting for inspiration to strike and soaking up the rays is hella relaxing, but it isn’t always a practical problem solving technique – not even for those of us who work from the road. According to a growing body of research, creative projects feed on travel. So how can you boost your creativity to tackle the challenge you’re facing?

Create psychological distance. The best part is, it works even if you don’t have time to pack and go.

How Focus Cramps Creativity

Construal Level Theory states that the closer you are to a problem or challenge the more concretely and less abstractly you tend to think about it. This makes sense. A problem that’s literally in your face demands immediate, focused attention because its consequences are sure to impact you and those you’re closest to. It’s no surprise that such a problem feels more ‘real’ and ‘immediate’ than one that’s distant and unlikely to affect people we care for.

We think of ‘focusing’ on something as shining a mental spotlight on it, but neurochemically, the process is more like turning the lights out everywhere else. To focus on one thing we have to ignore everything else. Switching off our reactions to outside stimuli is a learned behavior that all of us develop (and eventually master). The ability to focus is an early predictor of success in children. Those who can focus well perform better at school, learn more quickly and are able to delay gratification. However, intent focus is also along the lines of a rear naked choke for your creativity. Once it’s lights out for the imagination, you’re free from the appeal of distractions like, ooo… shiny

…but you’re momentarily less creative as a result.

 A Travel Mindset Makes You a Better Problem Solver

It’s even been demonstrated that psychological distance can have an impact on the creativity of your approach to specific challenges. In one study, a group was told that the task they were about to complete was developed by a team in far off California, while another group was told that the same task was developed on campus nearby at Indiana University. The control group was simply handed the task and given no information about its origin. Those that believed that the task had come from a distant location had more creative thoughts and insights and came up with more solutions than the other groups.

So simply putting some distance – real (by hopping on a plane or taking a walk – walking has other awesome benefits too), or psychological (by changing your setting or simply thinking about a problem from the role of a distant observer) – between yourself and a problem can help foster a travel mindset to make you more creative problem solver.

Just remember: psychological distance doesn’t come with a suntan.