Thinking Inside the Box

More than likely you’ve heard the phrase “thinking outside the box.” It’s usually in reference to coming up with a “big idea.”

With good intentions, this phrase is meant to inspire and get people to think about innovative ways of doing something. Buuut if we’re given too big of a space to think, it’s actually harder to come up with new ideas.

Here’s an example I found to help illustrate this point:

Suppose I tell you to invent the next big thing in electronics. You’ll probably end up thinking of things that are most salient in your mind related to electronics. Oddly, because you have so much room to move, your brain zeroes in on the most conventional ideas.

Now, when you have more context, and I tell you to come up with a new kind of phone charger that works well for people who like to switch between using the wall outlet and the computer as a power source, it suddenly feels easier. In fact, you might have an idea right now.

While this restricts your freedom, it also defines the problem so you don’t have to.

It frees up mental resources to work on just the important stuff: coming up with a creative solution.

Another example is when we ask someone where they want to eat. The choices can be paralyzing, so we create boundaries by saying, “Well, what kind of food sounds good? Italian, Mexican, Chinese?” By choosing and narrowing down the cuisine, suddenly a whole list of options comes to mind.

Fascinating, right? Placing parameters on the task or “thinking inside the box” prevents the mind from getting stuck – or flying away. Neither are good places to be.

So next time you’re tasked with coming up with ideas, instead of “thinking big,” give yourself guardrails. Draw lines around that box and then go to town!

One more piece of inspiration…

This terrific article has several examples of productive creative restraints – and even challenges us with some exercises like the “six word memoir” that you can try yourself. No matter what, have fun creating.

Cheering you on, always,



2 comments on “Thinking Inside the Box

  1. I love this! In my writing class today, I actually said to one of my students “ In writing, there are times when you are asked to write in the box and then it’s important to stay inside and not fall out of it !” He was having difficulty organizing his thinking.. .the light went on and he finished the task. He did, however, keep his ideas that “fell out” in his notebook for another time when he may need to “mine” for new ideas. I will definitely try the six word excercise with my students! Thank you for sharing~ you are so talented and wise sweet Kate! Love you lottle!
    “Blessings definitely play hide and seek”

    • What a great story! And I love that you gave him a place to park his ideas for another time. I’m sure that helped him focus on the task at hand. So smart. Love you a lottle, too!! 😉

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