How to think outside the box

Saturday, August 5, 2017

How to think outside the box


It is so easy to get so close to a problem you can’t see a solution. In fact, this is probably how we live much of our lives. We’re inside a frame of reference and can’t see the picture we’re a part of. In this episode of the House of Hacks, Harley and Diane chat about ways to break out of the frame and think outside the box. Mostly this is about shifting our perspective. It can be hard to do but there are some things we can do to make it easier.

This is the second of a new video content type called Maker Musings. These will be occasional episodes where we go meta, get philosophical and talk about the process of creating projects and making things rather than the actual doing.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Associate link)

TED-Ed talk on Creative boundaries.

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For a written transcript, go to How to think outside the box.

Music under Creative Commons License By Attribution 3.0.
Intro/Exit: "Hot Swing" by Kevin MacLeod at


Imagine what it'd be like if you could always be thinking outside the box. Today at the House of Hacks, we're going to talk about how you can do this.


Hi Makers, Builders and Do-it-yourselfers.

I'm Harley, your host for Maker Musings. This is the second episode on this series. And again I'm joined by my lovely wife Diane and we're going to be talking today about thinking outside the box.

Thinking outside the box means approaching problems in new and innovative ways. Conceptualizing problems differently and understanding your position in relation to a particular situation in a way you never thought of before.

So what you're saying is, it's sort of ironic in that it's a cliched way of to think of cliched situations in ways that aren't cliched.

Yes, that's it.

So what are some ways to start thinking outside the box?

So, one way is to educate yourself in areas that are outside your area of expertise. The idea is to get more information from different perspectives.

A couple ways of doing this would be like to go learn a religion that's not your own. That doesn't mean necessarily that you have to believe it, but just learn about it so you can kind of get other people's perspectives on how they approach the same problem but may approach it differently.

Another way would be to read a genre of fiction that you don't normally read. If you normally read romances, go read a western. If you normally read westerns, go read some sci-fi. You know. Something like that.

Again, a lot of times, they all have kind of the same story lines in terms of heros and having problems that they're trying to solve and growth of the hero but they're going to approach the situations differently and from a different perspective. So it's just kind of a different way of getting a new way of thinking about the same type of problem.

So, that's one way, what's another that you could use to kind of kick-start yourself to thinking outside the box?

Well, one way is if you're like me and you normally write you notes out, instead of writing them out, just sketch or doodle them.

Another way would be to... well, I like to draw and I've gone through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and they had a wonderful suggestion in that book that actually tells you to turn your subject matter that you're drawing upside down. And what happens is your brain no longer interprets the subject but rather see... your eyes start seeing the shapes and so your brain is working a little bit differently from either... from the right side of the brain rather than the left side of the brain.

Another way to do that would be to work backwards. For example, when I was learning how to play the piano, I would always start from the beginning of a piece and I would always really learn the beginning of the piece and get so frustrated because I could never get to the end of the piece because I was making so many mistakes in the middle of the piece and having to start over and going back to the beginning. Well, my instructor told me to actually start at the very back, or the last measure of the piece and just add one measure at a time and then you get to the point where you can add four measures at a time and work backwards. You know. A phrase at a time until you get back to the beginning and by the time you learn the beginning you know the whole piece.

So that would be a way of getting a different perspective on the problem and forcing your brain to think differently.

Another way of kind of doing that same kind of think is to just talk about it. And I think there's two ways you can talk about it.

You can either talk about it with another person who's an expert in the field. While you're both experts in the same field, there's going to be areas where they have experience that you don't and areas where you have experience that they don't. So in talking about it they can bring just kind of a different perspective but still with an understanding of the domain.

Another way you can talk about it is with somebody who has no clue about the situation. A complete neophyte. Again, because you're trying to formulate and think about the problem in a way that you can explain it to somebody that doesn't understand the situation, doesn't understand the domain, sometimes that allows you to break out of fixed ways of thinking it and switch to new ways that allow you to see the problem differently. It's kind of interesting, this is so common in programming that there's actually a term called "rubber ducking" and the idea is... the idea comes from someone who had a rubber duck, you know, that you have, play with in the bath tub. He had on sitting on top of his monitor and whenever he got stuck on a problem, he'd just start explaining the problem to the rubber duck. And a lot of times he'd have a breakthrough in understanding the problem.

So do you have another way of kind of thinking outside the box?

Right. I've gone through a bunch of books on how to write songs and one of the examples that the author talked about was actually setting limits on yourself. So for like music, try to write a song using only three notes. Or try to write a song using only one chord. Just set limits that are... they're not so restrictive that they condemn you if you don't make them or if you break out of the limits but what happens when you actually set the limits is you're forced to actually think about ways to do things differently in music, or any other topic, that you would not have thought of had you not had the limit on yourself.

So another way of applying that would be like if you're into photography, limiting yourself to a single lens. Just take one prime lens out with you on a photowalk. Or also another way would be if you're doing nighttime photography, do nighttime photography for one photo shoot without any light. So you're forced to use the existing light. Or conversely, take a flash with you and you have to use the flash during daylight hours. That'd be another way of kind of thinking about the problem differently.

This is something setting up creative boundaries and TED-Ed actually has a good video on this on their channel. I'll leave a link to it down in the description.

Harley, can you think of any other ways to inspire creativity?

Yeah, the last thing I think that we'll cover today is going out and doing something physical. Just take a break from the problem. Go out take a walk. Go for a run. Go work out at the gym. Something like that. Just to let your subconscious mind be able to work on it without your conscious mind being involved in it. So you're thinking about something else, doing something physical, getting the blood flowing to just kind of break out and be able to approach the problem from a different perspective.

But don't forget to take your journal or your cell phone so that you can make notes while you're out doing something physical.

Absolutely. We talked about that in the last episode, where have a way to write down your ideas when they do come. That's a great point. Great point.

So that's it for this episode of Maker Musings.

I hope you enjoyed it. If you have any ideas for future topics of Maker Musings, leave them down below in the comments below.

Until next time, go make something.

Perfection's not required. Fun is!