Divergent Thinking: The Mental Muscle Behind Consistent Creativity

Sometimes I feel a little stuck in the mud creatively.

I’ll sit down at my computer to write a new article and nothing seems to flow:

  • Write a sentence
  • Delete sentence.
  • Write another sentence
  • Delete sentence.
  • Take a swig of coffee.
  • Write a sentence.
  • Delete a sentence…

On the other hand, there are those rare days when I can’t write fast enough to capture all the good ideas that are buzzing through my mind. They seem to hit me out of nowhere, at all times of day and situations — in the shower, of course, but also while I’m running, on the toilet, eating dinner, or talking with a client.

Creativity is a roller coaster, and sometimes I wish I could just even it out a bit. Instead of a flood of ideas one day and a drought for the next five, it would be nice to have a modest but steady stream of new ideas every day.

How Divergent Thinking Leads to Creativity

A few years ago, while doing some research for a talk on IQ testing in children, I discovered a concept called Divergent Thinking.

Proposed by the mid-twentieth century psychologist JP Guilford, Divergent Thinking is the ability to generate many ideas or solutions from a single idea or piece of information. It’s thought to be one of, if not the most, important factor in creativity.

And yet, it’s a mostly ignored skill. In school and most workplaces, we’re taught and encouraged primarily to practice Convergent Thinking, which is the ability to take many pieces of information or data and generate one solution. Think of solving a math equation with many variables or generating a report and action plan for your consulting client.

Most of us get lots of training and practice in Convergent Thinking but very little in Divergent Thinking. Which is a problem because our ability to be creative and generate new ideas depends heavily on Divergent Thinking.

But if we don’t practice and exercise that muscle, it’s likely that we’ll suffer the creativity roller coast I mentioned above: Occasional floods of creativity surrounded by large droughts.

How to Exercise Your Divergent Thinking Muscle

Below are five techniques for building your Divergent Thinking muscle and becoming more consistently creative.

Initially, I recommend choosing one and practicing it daily for a week, then try another the next week. Once you’ve got a sense for each one, make a plan for how you want to incorporate them into your life on an ongoing basis. I’ve found that having even a very brief daily exercise in Divergent Thinking makes a huge difference for my creativity overall.

1. The Many Uses Exercise

Pick an ordinary object like a paper clip. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Now try to come up with as many alternative uses for a paperclip as you can.

For example:

  • Power cord organizer
  • SIM card opener
  • Easter egg holder for dying
  • Showerhead de-clogger
  • Bookmark
  • Etc…

What’s really valuable about this exercise is that if you do it enough, your mind starts to do this automatically outside the confines of the little exercises. You start to look at ordinary things from new and unusual perspectives, which is a hallmark of a creative mind.

Learn More: What I call the Many Uses Exercise is really just a version of JP Guilford’s initial test of Divergent Thinking called the Alternative Uses Test. Creative Huddle has a nice article about The Alternative Uses Test and how it relates to creativity.

2. 10 New Ideas

Every day for a week, try to come up with 10 new ideas within a specific topic or category. For example, Monday might be to come up with 10 ideas for a new business. Tuesday might be 10 ideas for a new book. Wednesday might be 10 ideas for a new living room layout. Etc.

A few tips and guidelines:

  • Pick a specific time and place to do this exercise and schedule it. I like to do it right after I’ve worked out as I’m cooling down. Not sure why, but that works for me.
  • Physically write down your ideas. Pen and paper seem to be best, but typing them into a notes file on your phone or computer is fine. Just don’t try and do it in your head.

Understand that actually coming up with good ideas is not the point; it’s the act of generating new ideas that we’re working on.

An extension of the above point is that you don’t want to censor or edit your ideas. Just get them out.

Learn More: This exercise is based on an article and idea from James Altucher on How to Become an Idea Machine. Highly recommended.

3. Daily Headlines

On your way home from work, or at some point in the evening, imagine that your day was a news story in the New York Times. Spend a few minutes thinking of the major events and story arcs of your day, key players and characters, points of drama or conflict, etc.

Then ask yourself: What would the headline be? Try to come up with at least three different headlines each day.

A few tips:

Don’t worry if your day wasn’t actually newsworthy or seems boring (most of us don’t have newsworthy days all that often!). Pretend that it was. Imagine that the entire country is breathlessly awaking your detailed account of that meeting with your accountant and the sprinkled donuts Sally brought to work.

If you’re having a hard time thinking of headlines, go check out the actual New York Times or some other major paper and flip through a few to get a sense for how their headlines are constructed.

Again, writing these down is better than just doing them in your head. Something about the specificity of having to get something down in real words is clarifying.

What’s fascinating about this exercise is that it combines Divergent and Convergent Thinking. Coming up a with a headline involves a good amount of Convergent Thinking — taking many aspects of your day and summarizing or picking out the most important ones. But generating multiple headlines forces you to get divergent again with your thinking.

4. Articles on Trial

If you’re anything like me, you tend to read (or at least skim) a lot of articles online. Most of the time when we read articles, we employ a lot of Convergent Thinking — either we’re looking for the one big idea or takeaway, or we’re fitting the whole article into some pre-existing mental category we have (e.g.: sleep tips).

But reading articles online is actually a great opportunity to practice Divergent Thinking. All you have to do is challenge or question the conclusion of the article (or some aspect of the conclusion) by coming up with one question you’d like to ask the author.

For example, yesterday I was reading an interesting Medium article about the importance of letting go of our past selves in order to continue to grow and seek out new experiences and idea. That’s a compelling idea that makes a lot of intuitive sense.

But then I thought to myself, “Wait, obviously we can’t leave all of ourselves behind! How do we know which parts to leave behind and which parts to carry forward? So I left a comment asking the author what he thought about that.

To make this exercise specific, once a day for a week, leave a comment on one article you read online, asking a question that challenges the conclusion of the article. As a bonus, offer a potential alternative of your own to the conclusion the author offered.

5. Automatic to Alternative Thoughts

As a therapist, one of the first little techniques I try to teach people who are struggling with their mental health is to identify their Automatic Thoughts.

Automatic Thoughts are quick, habitual thoughts we have in response to specific events or situations:

  • Your boss says, “Hey Jones, stop by my office later today when you get a chance.” And the first thing that runs through your mind is, “Uh oh, did she not like that report I just submitted?”
  • A blue Chevy cuts you off on the freeway and your first thought in response is “What an A$$hole!”
  • You get a package in the mail and instantly think to yourself, “YES! My new jacket’s here!”

In the case of something like anxiety or depression, Automatic Thoughts are problematic because they’re often unrealistic or overly negative and get people caught in vicious cycles of negative self-talk.

But even outside of mental health struggles, Automatic Thoughts can be problematic because they’re often not very original or new. And so often we keep thinking along the lines of our first thought without questioning it at all.

A great exercise in Divergent Thinking is to A) start to notice your Automatic Thoughts, and B) get in the habit of generating alternatives to them.

At least once a day, try to catch an automatic thought, then pause and jot down 3–5 alternative thoughts that also fit the situation. In the above example of the boss calling you into their office, some alternative thoughts could be:

  • I’m due for a raise, so maybe she’s calling me in to discuss that?
  • She wants to see if I’d be interested in taking over some of Katie’s responsibilities before she takes off on maternity leave.
  • Maybe she wants to gab about the Cowboys losing on Sunday?

Learn More: Shane Parrish has a great article called Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Lessons on Thinking which talks about this idea in more depth.

If you’re interested in learning more about divergent thinking, especially in education, check out this excellent article from USATestPrep.


Add Yours

I wonder what made you to write this article, is it perhaps of bordom, is it because you reach a time in your life you felt you not moving forward or you noticed that life is not worth living or when reading about divergent thoughts this could help others who had stuck in in life?

Hey Wilfred, mostly the latter. A lot of what I write about involves taking commonly held practices or advice and looking for exceptions. In this case, most of us are taught to think convergently for much of our lives. And while it works well most of the time, there are areas of life like creativity that often benefit from Divergent Thinking as well. I’ve also found in my work with clients, people who are stuck in negative thought patterns along with depression and/or anxiety also tend to benefit from exercises in Divergent Thinking.

I really enjoyed your article. I use divergent thinking when I ‘am told’ that I ‘don’t have that many choices’ to solve a problem. I ALWAYS have choices, and choices beyond THOSE choices. I like to explore the craziest sounding choice I can come up with just to prove that it isn’t that crazy after all. It makes me feel better?.

Thanks for the engaging article. The paper clip exercise reminds me of improv games from Whose Line is it Anyway? My question: If you were limited on time which exercise(s) would you prioritize? Lastly do you think combining mind mapping would improve the process or does it support convergent thinking?

Good questions!

Push comes to shove, I think I’d go with the 10 New Ideas. If for no other reason than, in addition to being a good exercise of Divergent Thinking and Creativity, I also just really enjoy it and find it motivating and energizing.

I think mind mapping can definitely be supportive of Divergent Thinking!

I often have this problem where i get stuck the time i need to reply people for certain bad comment and later on i think of alternative comments that i should have made. And i regret for not responding quickly often. Is that something related to the excercise no. 5 ?
I have been struggling on mastering the talent on instant reply to the people when needed. Please pour your thoughts on this. Thnks.

That’s an interesting question! I hadn’t thought about it before, but yes, I imagine it would help at least somewhat in your situation.

Would love to hear back eventually if you give it a try and it works!

Actually, I loved to generate new ideas (each time there’s a problem in my daily routine with my friends or partner). But each time I gave my ideas, it always rejected because my ideas were kind of joke (although some of them was a joke, just some). Based on my experienced, wasn’t it better to think in Convergent Thinking rather than Divergent Thinking?


I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. Even in creative work, we need the ability to think convergently. The trick, I think, is to be practiced in both and able to apply each as needed by the context.


Negative thoughts could also be controlled by trying to speak whatever you are thinking and speaking in your inner self that will i believe automatically converted into some good opinion which is more acceptable socially in practice and will bring positivity and prosperity…thank you

Interesting never thought of Divergent Thinking, now I know there is an actual name for it. Timing was great, message ready to be heard. As a leader working with quite a few individuals who go to the “automatic thoughts” this is helpful.

Thank you for the interesting read with tangible take aways. I think especially in Belgium, where I’m from, we are mostly taught convergent thinking as this is what is expected from us. I will definitely start with an exercise to train my divergent thinking!
A question: are you also a speaker within this subject range?

Hey Nick,

This is awesome man! But what if your first thought is still your final thought after the alternatives? But understand logically the first thought is wrong?

I have dislexia and Divergent thinking is my day to day. Team leaders hire me for creativity or innovation workshops and one thing I constantly see is leaders trying to foster innovation but have a company culture that prevents innovation. When there is no trust or faith on the organization, engagement is low and the willing to offer creativity is also low.

I love that comment, “I have dyslexia and …is my day to day”. It’s like the criticism that’s aimed at the author, the future author who was told, “their spelling was poor and so they would/couldn’t be an author”, mostly told in the good old days.
Their poor spelling was only an insignificant obstacle to their outstanding imagination imho. But, but people were discouraged. The perfect spellers were playing it too safe, and unfortunately innovation ie creativity had a long slog ahead in the education system.

Such an informative article. I wish I learned this earlier in my life. I think it would be a great idea to implement and encourage BOTH types of thinking habitually as well as through controlled environments like the education system from an early age.

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