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Thing 5: Thinking more Effectively, Critically, Creatively

Dr Simon Moss, Dean of Graduate Research and Emily Keough, Research Development Coordinator, University of Wollongong

a photo of many light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, taken from the perspective of the camera looking up at the ceiling
May you be showered with ideas (Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash)


To enhance their research, budding researchers learn a vast array of challenging skills. For example, they learn how to synthesise the literature, to design the research, to analyse the data, and to communicate the findings effectively. Yet, to develop and to apply these skills effectively, researchers need to think effectively. For example, you are unlikely to complete these research activities proficiently unless you can

  • solve problems creatively,

  • choose courses of action wisely,

  • learn advances in your field rapidly, and so forth.

And yet, you may not have received assistance on how to think effectively. You would most likely have learned how to conduct research but not how to think. This Thing is designed to address this shortcoming and introduces some activities you can attempt to develop the capacity to think. The Thing inspires researchers to think about thinking. These activities might initially consume some time—perhaps a few hours—but may improve your productivity and save days, weeks, or even months in the future.


Please skim the following story—a story that will become relevant later. Note that some of the words are written in bold.

One evening, Samantha sits at her desk alone, turns on her MacBook with the green cover, and begins to work.  Even after she turns on her lamp with a naked light bulb, the room is still dim.  As she begins writing the essay, she reminisces about the time, 10 years ago, that she strolled along the beach with Sam, in Ghana, surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, hoping this romantic walk would last forever.        

This memory evokes a blend of excitement and sadness.  So distracted by this memory, she mindlessly pours milk into a mug of boiling water before dunking the teabag—the opposite to her usual routine.  

As she commences her essay, she wonders how she could cheat instead. To rouse her attention, she clenches her left fist for a couple of minutes and then opens her eyes as wide as possible.  She inspires herself by contemplating the role she would cherish in the future: helping disadvantaged people around the world.   

Once alert, she decides to rapidly list, without judgment, 20 or so concepts she might include—deriving these concepts from her intuition. She cycles between listing concepts without judgment and then combining the best concepts.  Somehow, a few hours later, she has, almost miraculously, completed her essay. 

People often feel their life in general, and their research in particular, are bathed with problems. The following table epitomises the problems that you may experience as you pursue your research.


The researcher cannot recruit enough participants or specimens in a reasonable timeframe.

The biases of participants contaminate the accuracy of measures.

The available equipment is imprecise but the optimal equipment is too expensive. 

The data violate the assumptions of statistical tests. 

The findings deviate from predictions and are hard to explain

The supervisor and graduate researcher do not agree on which methods to use

The researcher cannot fulfill research, family, and personal demands.

Some problems seem unsolvable. Even when you read extensively or consult widely, no solutions are apparent. Therefore, to resolve these matters, you need to uncover a novel, useful solution. You need to be creative.

And yet, many researchers do not regard themselves as creative. They perceive creativity in other people but not themselves. And yet, creativity is a skill that anyone can nurture and cultivate. To illustrate, in the previous story, all the phrases written in bold font epitomise conditions and experiences that foster creativity—such as nostalgic memories of 10 years ago or blends of positive and negative emotions. Specifically, as the following table reveals, research has uncovered three main clusters of practices that tend to foster creativity.


Distance: Practices that instil a sense of distance from the immediate problem

  • Reminisce about memories of the distant past (Van Tilburg et al., 2015).

  • Consider aspirations of the distant future (Forster et al., 2004)

  • Consider how the future might differ from the present (Koh & Leung, 2019).

  • Consider a problem from the perspective of someone else (Polman & Emich, 2011).

Deviance: Practices that enable individuals to deviate from expected norms.

  • Consider how you could break the law or breach rules to solve a problem (Gino & Wiltermuth, 2014).

  • Contemplate matters alone in a dim room—in which you feel unaccountable (Steidle & Werth, 2013).

  • Deviate from your usual patterns or routines (Ritter et al., 2012).

  • Observe pictures that epitomise deviance, such as photos of punks (Pendry & Carrick, 2001).

Dissonance: Practices that blend conflicting experiences

  • Experience ambivalent emotions—a blend positive feelings and negative feelings (Fong, 2006)—including nostalgia.

  • Integrate diverse concepts.

  • Complete multiple tasks simultaneously for a while (Kapadia & Melwani, 2021).

Diverse reminders: Practices in which you are exposed to reminders of diversity or creativity

  • Skim a diversity of ideas rapidly (Clapham, 2001)

  • Expose yourself to nature or other green objects (Lichtenfeld, et al., 2012).

  • Expose yourself to a naked light bulb, associated with insights (Slepian et al., 2010).

  • Clench your left fist for a few minutes (Goldstein et al., 2010).

  • Open your eyes widely (Friedman et al., 2003).

Although vaguely interesting, these insights are more helpful if integrated into a practical set of recommendations. So, the following table presents a sequence of activities you could initiate to improve your capacity to solve research problems and obstacles creatively.   


Develop a database of insights—insights that could spark creative solutions in the future.  

  • First, use Excel or another tool in which you can store and categorise insights.

  • See the example below.

A screenshot of an Excel table, with four columns: insight, details, relevance, source

  • Second, prompt a generative AI tool, such as Chat GPT, to list some insights that could be relevant to your research or career—such as “Can you list 20 novel but useful perspectives, practices, or principle from recent thinkers that could benefits health researchers?”

  • Third, record some of these answers in the spreadsheet, in a similar format to the previous example.

  • Fourth, recall some people in your past who you really admired.  Attempt to remember and record some of their insights or perspectives, even if roughly.  This exercise is useful because nostalgia can foster creativity. 

  • Fifth, gradually record other insights you hear or read.

  • Sixth, over time, rearrange these insights into clusters.  For example, the first five insights might revolve around management.  The next three insights might revolve around resilience and so forth.

  • This exercise not only uncovers some helpful perspectives but also directs attention to overarching categories—a mindset that tends to promote creative and flexible thinking (Friedman et al., 2003).

Design an environment that encourages creativity 

  • If possible, organise a workspace that feels safe and comforting—perhaps with a familiar blanket, a calming incense, or similar materials.

  • The environment should feel as private as possible.

  • Round, circular rooms are especially likely to foster creativity (Wu et al., 2021). 

  • Second, embed objects that have been shown to promote creative or insight—such as a naked light bulb, green objects, or a picture that epitomises rebellion.   

Skim your database before you brainstorm and blend possible ideas to solve problems

Now suppose you want to solve a specific problem, such as how to recruit more participants.

  • First, to improve creativity, skim your database of insights as rapidly as possible and identify which insights could be relevant to this problem.  

  • Second, transcribe 15 possible solutions, even if these solutions are unlikely or zany (Litchfield, 2009).  Some, but not necessarily all, these solutions might emanate from the insights you have skimmed.

  • Third, consider how each solution could be more effective if you violated some law, rule, or custom.  This exercise may then unearth some insights on how you could modify the solution, but lawfully and ethically.   

  • Fourth, attempt to blend some of these 15 possible solutions together—to enhance their originality, efficiency, or utility.  

  • Fifth, consider the opposite of various features of your solutions.  Whenever people consider the opposite of some feature, the capacity to solve a problem improves significantly (Bianchi et al., 2020). 

  • Sixth, imagine discussing these possible solutions ten years from now, perhaps in a speech, in which you have been granted a leadership role.  When people consider the future, especially in a position of power, they are more likely to uncover creative ways to improve their solutions.  


These activities, designed to foster creativity, can help you solve a range of problems. But other activities may be necessary to solve a particular subset of challenging problems, called paradoxes. Specifically, in life generally, and in research in particular, we often need to reconcile two conflicting approaches. For example, the following table presents some common paradoxes in research settings.

Paradox in research settings

Should you socialise tonight or answer work emails?

Should your research only incrementally and marginally extend past studies or should you attempt to introduce a revolutionary change?

Should you participate in communities of practice in which members share ideas or should you work alone?

Should you share your ideas to seek feedback or protect your ideas?

To solve these paradoxes, you may need to complement the activities that foster creativity with exercises that are specifically designed to help you reconcile dilemmas. For example, you could

  • identify some activities that both conflicting approaches share—and then modify the approaches to maximise so they depend more on these shared activities,

  • prioritise one approach, such as incremental change, in a subset of circumstances and prioritise the conflicting approach, such as revolutionary change, in other circumstances,

  • introduce adjustments to one approach that maximise the benefits of this approach but negligibly affect the benefits of conflicting approaches. 

Exercise 1: Identify, and then magnify, overlapping parts

To illustrate one of these exercises, suppose you need to decide which of two conflicting approaches to pursue—such as a comprehensive, prolonged technique or an expedient, shorter technique to analyse transcripts from interviews. The following table outlines these two approaches. Perhaps just skim this table. 

Comprehensive approach:
Reflexive thematic analysis 
Expedient approach:
Rapid analysis
  • First, peruse and read the data in detail several times, and record initial thoughts.

  • Second, assign codes—one to five words—to summarise propositions or sentences.

  • Third, identify overlapping or related codes to uncover themes or recurring patterns.

  • Fourth, review the data and codes again to evaluate and refine these themes.

  • Fifth, write a few sentences to define the essence or features of these themes and collate data that illustrates these features.

  • Sixth, translate these themes into a meaningful and unified narrative.

  • First, read the transcript of a few interviews, while you record initial impressions.

  • Second, identify key topics—either from these transcripts, research questions, or past knowledge.

  • Third, for each participant, copy and paste each answer into the relevant topic.

A table with three columns: interview, likes, dislikes

  • Fourth, iterative deleting words, phrases, and sentences that are redundant—converting full sentences or clauses into smaller codes or phrases—but still retaining important quotes.

  • Fifth, summarise the data that remains.

So, which approach should you adopt? That is

  • the first or comprehensive approach may generate more accurate insights,

  • the second or expedient approach will save considerable time,

  • how can you resolve this dilemma?

First, transcribe the key parts—such as the actions or characteristics—that correspond to each approach, like the previous table. In the following figure, the squares represent distinct actions.

twelve coloured squares in the middle of the image; on the left of the coloured squares is a person holding her head in front of a laptop; on the right of the coloured squares is a image of three people laughing.

Second, identify the parts that overlap between these approaches. That is, the two approaches might share some actions or characteristics. For example, to conduct either approach in the previous table, researchers need to 

  • identify key topics or themes,

  • determine which responses correspond to each theme.

In the following figure, the rectangle signifies shared activities across the two approaches.  Specifically, the colours of each approach, and hence the corresponding activities, are similar but not identical. 

twelve coloured squares in the middle of the image; the four coloured squares at the bottom are placed in a rectangular;  on the left of the coloured squares is a person holding her head in front of a laptop; on the right of the coloured squares is a image of three people laughing.

Finally, somehow modify the approaches to magnify or prioritise these shared parts, actions, or characteristics. The following figure represents this principle.  

twelve coloured squares in the middle of the image; the four coloured squares at the bottom are placed in a rectangular and appear larger than other squares;  on the left of the coloured squares is a person holding her head in front of a laptop; on the right of the coloured squares is a image of three people laughing.

The next box illustrates an attempt to modify thematic analyses to magnify these shared actions.   

  • You could prioritise your attempt to identify key topics or themes—a common feature of both approaches.

  • For example, when you code segments of data, you could attempt to choose overarching categories, such as “likes” rather than “enjoys swimming”.

  • Hence, you can identify potential themes or topics more rapidly than do proponents of thematic analysis.

  • Perhaps you may code only a few transcripts to identify themes—and then complete the fourth, fifth, and sixth phase of thematic analysis.

Learning and understanding

Thus far, this document has outlined a few exercises and activities that can improve specific thinking capacities, such as your ability to solve problems creatively and your capacity to resolve paradoxes.  But these activities do not necessarily enhance your capacity to learn, to understand, or to apply complicated principles, such as mathematical formulas.  In contrast, other activities have been shown to improve the capacity of researchers to learn, to understand, and to apply complicated information, such as advanced mathematics.  The following table outlines these activities (for other helpful activities, see Park & Brannon, 2013).

Details or justifications

If you need to understand complicated information that includes symbols—such as mathematical equations—first trace these symbols with a finger, pen, or some other device (Hu et al., 2014).

  • After people trace symbols with a finger, pen, or some other object, the information does not feel as unfamiliar later. 

  • Therefore, individuals feel more confident they can learn this information, enhancing both their concentration and understanding of this material.

If you need to learn complicated information, permit yourself to display gestures that correspond to this information somehow (Novack et al., 2014). 

To illustrate, if you need to learn some mathematical formula, you could 

  • shift both of your hands in the same direction when the formula implies that two variables are positively associated with each other—and shift both of your hands in opposite directions when the formula implies that two variables are negatively associated with each other,

  • you could execute a karate chop whenever two parts of a formula are separate from each other, and so forth.

Of course, you would display gestures that only you understand.  Regardless, these gestures have been shown to improve understanding. 

Before you attempt to learn complicated information, contemplate your key strengths, talents, values, or aspirations (Martens et al., 2006).

  • After people consider key features of their identity—such as their values, aspirations, strengths, or talents—they become less vulnerable to criticisms from other people or other challenges.  

  • Similarly, if people approach a problem or task boldly rather than hesitantly, their confidence and performance tend to improve (e.g., Kawakami et al., 2008). 

Pod discussion

  • What are some other obstacles that you experience in your research—and what cognitive skills could help you address these obstacles?

  • What are the cognitive skills that typify the most productive researchers?

  • What opportunities or resources could you utilise to develop these cognitive skills?

Simon Moss is the Dean of Graduate Research at the University of Wollongong. He is a registered psychologist and endorsed in organisational psychology. Since 1998, Simon has worked extensively in management consulting, especially in the fields of leadership, change management, collaboration, and conflict resolution. For example, he was also a cofounder of Zenith Professional Development, a company that collated every scientific discovery that contradicts prevailing management beliefs and practices.

Emily Keough is a Research Development Coordinator at the University of Wollongong. Her research revolves around experimental psychology, ranging from investigating the role of expression recognition ability in social functioning to exploring ways to reduce harmful weed and pathogen spread in Kosciusko National Park.


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Hu, F. T., Ginns, P., & Bobis, J. (2014). Does tracing worked examples enhance geometry learning? Australian Journal of Educational & Developmental Psychology, 14, 45-49.

Kapadia, C., & Melwani, S. (2021). More tasks, more ideas: The positive spillover effects of multitasking on subsequent creativity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106, 542–559.


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Koh, B., & Leung, A. K. Y. (2019). A time for creativity: How future-oriented schemas facilitate creativity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 84.


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Pendry, L., & Carrick, R. (2001). Doing what the mob do: Priming effects on conformity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31, 83-92.


Polman, E., & Emich, K. J. (2011). Decisions for others are more creative than decisions for the self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 492-501.


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Wu, Y., Lu, C., Yan, J., Chu, X., Wu, M., & Yang, Z. (2021). Rounded or angular? How the physical work environment in makerspaces influences makers’ creativity. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 73, 101546.

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Mar 22
Rated 4 out of 5 stars.

Interesting post! Just wanted to note that Gino & Wiltermuth (2013) (link: has been withdrawn recently - so not so sure whether the evidence does support that dishonesty can lead to greater creativity!

Apr 03
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What an interesting development... I've let Simon know and he is having a think about it :)

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