How to Think Outside the Box: Don’t Be a Square, Be Creative

We’ve all heard the expression ‘thinking outside the box,’ but has anyone ever bothered to tell you how? Read on to awake your creativity.

Let’s face it, we’ve all been told how essential thinking outside the box is, either by our teachers or our bosses. However, they always, coincidentally (funny how that works out), forget to inform you exactly how you should develop said “out of box thinking.”

Before I go on and tell you my tips for developing creative thinking, I’m going to tell you why thinking outside the box is important, and how it can help you at university, work, and even in everyday life. I’m also going to mention the cons of creative thinking that no one bothers to tell you.

Why is thinking outside the box important?

Think outside the box text on torn brown paper

Thinking outside the box gives an edge to your ideas; it allows you to go beyond assumptions and to view problems and puzzles with fresh inquisitive eyes. This limits the possibility that you will overlook solutions. Naturally, this can be very advantageous.

Think about it, how many times have you head butted the wall (or the person next to you) when you came to realize that the solution was always right in front of you, but you missed it somehow. Or how many times have you read about ingenious ideas and thought “how on earth did they come up with that,” – well you can be that person.

Going through university with ease

For all the students out there, we’ve all been told great grades are dependent on if you can think outside the box, if you can find creative perspectives to either arguments or problems. Thinking outside the box increases the quality of your solutions, as it allows you to find simpler solutions or even just new ones. This becomes essential if all the solutions previously proposed are not fully fixing a problem.

Your lecturers or teachers also want to see if you have the ability to think up solutions in new ways, because it shows that you are able to apply your reasoning to unrelated and novel puzzles. This means that you will be able to solve issues in everyday life, as opposed to solving problems in the sterile environment of your classroom.

Work becomes a breeze

Your superiors see you in a way that’s very similar to how teachers view students. Your boss wants to see if you can come up with solutions to all sorts of problems that come up. In fact, during interviews you are assessed to see if you can think outside the box. If the interviewer deems that you can, it gives you an advantage over other applicants.

Everyday life becomes easier to manage

Thinking outside the box in everyday situations makes your life easier; as it helps you streamline your life. For instance, it helps you orient yourself in new environments or helps you avoid danger. I recently heard that a comedian avoided being mugged by a drunken man by wishing him happy birthday.

This confused the mugger and allowed the comedian to slip away. This is a great example of thinking outside the box in everyday situations.

The unthinkable cons of thinking outside the box

einstein caricature

People will think you’re crazy. Think Einstein and his impossible theories. The man was a genius, but people, as they often do, thought he had lost his mind. As I read this lame excuse to avoid thinking outside the box, the only thought going through my mind is “who the hell cares what people think.”

You go out there and you flaunt your impossible theories! You embrace the fact that people are pointing and staring at you, and then you revel in the fact that you were right all along. I sense maniacal laughter at this point.

Either way, the payoff of being right is huge, so don’t let people put you down. You go, you. Also remember, just like people thought Einstein was crazy, you too may think someone’s ideas are insane.

Always remember to objectively look at the information provided to you, and to form your opinion only after you have carefully examined the evidence, also be sure to alter your opinion as new evidence arises.

Alright, pull up your socks and sit up straight; it’s time to listen (that sounds pretentious, you can listen if you want to).

How to think outside the box?

The process of thinking outside the box isn’t a difficult one. It only requires some self-reflection, elimination of assumptions, and creativity.


Let’s begin by thinking back to a moment when we were trying to solve a problem, but even though the solution was right in front of our faces, we failed to see it. We need to examine our thought processes that unintentionally prevented us from attaining the solution.

I’ll give you a simple example. I recently went to Thailand, and while I was there, I required an adapter for my phone charger, seeing how my phone is my lifeline (even though I still dropped it in the ocean…oops). I had forgotten to buy one at the airport and I didn’t know how I would get my hands on one while I was staying at the hotel.

As I was looking at the power point, I realized that it was an international power point, in fact, the very first one I had ever seen. My thought process went something like this.

  1. An international power point means that I can fit my Australian adapter into it.
  2. But I didn’t bring my Australian adapter, and without it, I can’t plug in my Australian phone charger (bangs head repeatedly against wall).
  3. I don’t need my Australian adapter; I can just plug my phone charger directly into the international socket.

You see how that second thought is completely useless and head to wall frustrating. The reason step two occurred is because I was so obsessed with the need to find an adapter that I was forcing the adapter to be part of the solution when it clearly wasn’t needed.

My obsession was formed because I assumed that, regardless of the situation, I would require an adapter in all scenarios. If we can learn to identify these assumptions and eliminate them, then we are on our way to thinking outside the box.

The problem, however, lies in the fact that we can’t and we shouldn’t eliminate all assumptions, assumptions have their special place in our lives. For instance, if you made a doctor’s appointment the week before, you would go to that appointment with the assumption in mind that you still have an appointment.

Most of the time this assumption holds true, you don’t double check every facet of your life. The key is to identify which things we should and shouldn’t assume.

Allow yourself to daydream

pastel goth eyes

Try to think of the problem as a story that’s playing out right in front of you, as if it’s happening to someone else. Try to use methods that you have found help you to absorb information. For instance, I am a visual learner; I don’t seem to be able to figure things out when I can’t see them.

I used to get lost all the time, and found it very hard to figure out where I was going, if I had a map it would be fine, therefore, I would constantly check in with my phone.

I found that by constantly mentally visualizing where I was, I could figure out how to get somewhere, even if I hadn’t been there before. These are called cognitive maps and you become better at visualizing your location with practice. But how does this factor in with thinking outside the box?

Well I don’t need to look up city maps or check in with my phone anymore. I can create shortcuts to a place I haven’t been to before, because I can predict that by going down a side street I don’t need to walk around the entire block. Thinking outside the box is about creativity, but also about creating simple and easy solutions.

However, if you are more of an auditory learner, then try imagining a voice with clear instructions or talk out loud.

If you don’t know which kind of learner you are, then take this test.

Keep your creativity sharp

As I mentioned before, creativity is an important part of thinking outside the box, and just like with any skill, you need to keep it sharp. You do this by completing puzzles, games, brain teasers etc.

These games are designed to help you learn how to think outside the box.

Rubus puzzles
Brain teasers

The underlying processes required to solve these puzzles are the same that will provide you unique solutions at work or university… plus they’re fun.

Listen to the ideas of others

Remember how before we mentioned that we become amazed when we hear about some ingenious ideas, and how we have no idea how people came up with them. Well, you should listen to the ideas that these people think up. By listening to them and exposing yourself to these people, you start to absorb their mentality and way of thinking. Think of yourself as a sponge.

Ask people for advice

3 girls at the bar

There is nothing wrong with asking people for help. Their different perspectives well help you view things differently, and possibly help you solve a problem because you changed your original perspective. The advice itself may be useless, but you’re after the way they think, not their actual ideas.

Adopting new perspectives is key to thinking outside the box, as multiple perspectives allow you to mentally test out which possible solutions work, before submitting them to your boss or personally testing them out.

Take your time

Try not to stress out, take your time when thinking about problems. Think deeply about puzzles, and don’t feel as if you have to go with your first idea. Remember, it’s ok to completely throw out ideas.

We are looking for quality not quantity.

What to do when you’re stuck on a problem

Change your space: By simply changing which room you’re working in, or going outside and changing the scenery, you can gain a new and fresher perspective. This works because when we are constantly in the same space we habituate to our environment.

When we change that environment our brains are able to pick up new stimuli, which translates to ‘new space = new ideas.’

Exercise: I don’t mean you should ditch your work and go to the gym, but just walk around and stretch your legs. This will help you relax, as you become more and more stressed when you can’t figure out a solution right away. This goes on to limit your creativity when attempting to solve a problem.

Take a break: Sometimes this can be difficult to do, especially if you are on a deadline. However, the time you’re worried about wasting when taking a break is equally wasted when you’re sitting there stressing out and making no progress.

A break will give your mind a rest: watch a mind numbing episode of something and have something to eat and drink. You might appear to be doing nothing from the outside, but your brain is still working under the surface. By relaxing you’re allowing your mind to push the solution into your consciousness.

I will leave you with my favorite example of thinking outside the box

There was a merchant that owed a money lender a large sum of money. The money lender proposed a deal, that if he married the merchant’s daughter, the debt would be forgiven. Both the merchant and the daughter were horrified by this proposal.

The money lender then said that he would pick up a black and white pebble from his garden and place them in a bag; the daughter would then randomly choose one. If she picked the black pebble she would marry him and the debt would be forgiven, if she picked the white one she would not marry him and the debt would still be forgiven.

However, if she refused to pick, her father would be thrown into prison. She then saw the money lender sneakily place two black pebbles into the bag. She had three options:

  1. She outs the merchant.
  2. She refuses to pick a pebble.
  3. She sacrifices herself by picking a pebble and marries the money lender.

However, she chose to pick a pebble, and then “accidentally” dropped the pebble back into the garden. She apologized for being so clumsy, and said that if he looked inside the bag, he would be able to tell which she had picked, as it would be the opposite of the one left over.

There you go ladies and gentlemen, that is thinking outside the box.

Leave a comment about some out of the box solutions you have come up with, or if you need help figuring out how to use your learning preferences to enhance your out of box thinking. Looking forward to hearing from you.

About the author


I love to read and follow up on social justice issues. In my spare time I like to sew and make jewelry while watching crime shows. I would have to say at heart I'm a free spirit with a sense of adventure.

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