I’ve always made things and come up with unique solutions to problems (in all parts of my life), but I know that for many people they’re just not used to thinking “sideways.” Thinking out of the box is definitely a skill that can be learned, it’s not something reserved just for a segment of the population or for those “artistic” types. I strongly believe anyone can learn to think more creatively about potential solutions to problems, and practice will only strengthen your creative thinking abilities. It’s like going to the gym – anyone can be a bodybuilding beast if they want to put the time and effort in, and no one ever says someone who looks like that just happened to be born like that. Creativity is the same, it just takes some regular practice and soon it will come naturally. In this post I’d like to show some of the things I do to come up with creative solutions to everyday problems.
1. Define the problem
For this post, I’m going to use the example of me needing to have a more comfortable way to work out on the recumbent bike at the gym. The problem was that the headrest was too short for me and the fabric was too smooth – I couldn’t fully rest my head against the headrest and my head kept sliding around when I’d pedal. I can’t handle my head wobbling back and forth, and I needed to be able to completely relax my neck and upper shoulders to prevent pain. I wasn’t able to do that with the design of the bikes as is. I needed to find a solution to the height of the headrest and the texture of the fabric covering the bike.
2. Brainstorm potential solutions
A lot of people think that if there is a solution, it will be obvious and it will come to you right away. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Often the first solutions that you come up with aren’t ideal for various reasons. There were a couple of solutions that I thought of that had to be eliminated right off the bat. These were:
- not go to that gym
- not use the recumbent bikes
- ask the gym to buy a new recumbent bike more suited for me
None of the options above were in keeping with me needing to stick to my workout routine and allowing for the fact it’s a public gym not my private gym. It’s important to keep trying things and keep thinking of solutions (even if not actively, just let the problem percolate in your head for a while).
While riding the bike I tried keeping myself very still so I didn’t rock (which didn’t work and it tired out my neck). Then I tried putting one arm behind my head to cushion my neck a bit and give some more height to the headrest. Hmmm, now we were getting somewhere – I could relax my neck more as my arm was cushioning my head and preventing it from sliding around, but only using one arm was tipping my head a bit to one side and my arm and shoulder were getting sore. I tried using both arms on either side of my head, going up and over the headrest so my head was sandwiched between my elbows. Bingo, the cushioning on both sides prevented any head movement and my neck was able to totally relax. But my shoulders started to ache almost immediately, so I know that wasn’t the perfect solution. But I was on the right track.
3. Narrow down your options
At this point I’d figured out what did work and didn’t work. It’s really important to figure out what doesn’t work about potential solutions, as that will limit your options and help you focus on things that will work. Testing and trialing different solutions will help point out what’s working and what isn’t.
What did work:
- cushioning my head evenly on both sides to allow my neck to fully relax and stabilize my head
- having a little bit of extra height behind my head for it to fully lean against the headrest
What didn’t work:
- using my arm or arms to cushion my head, it made my shoulders start aching almost instantly
- not having any external support and trying to limit my head movement by pedaling more slowly
4. Choose one option
At first, you may have several viable options, and you’re not sure which one would work the best. Don’t think too much about it, just pick one and start to work with it. It will become clear after a bit of trial and error whether that option will work for you.
By looking at what did and didn’t work, I knew I had to have something that didn’t rely on me using my shoulders or arms, and was supportive enough to prevent my head from rocking from side to side. After looking at the shape of the neck rest of the bike, and seeing exactly how much more height I needed, I came up with the idea of using something similar to those airplane neck cushions but vertically to help support and stabilize my head. There were three problems remaining though – how would I make that cushion, how would I attach it temporarily to the bike, and would that even work?
5. Implement your solution and test until it’s right
Once you’ve chosen the option you think is most likely to be successful, it’s time to implement it and test it. Sometimes things will fall into place immediately, sometimes you’ll need to adapt as you go to make it work, and sometimes you’ll need to go one or two steps back to find an alternate solution to try.
As chance had it, I happened to have a gym towel with me that day (some days I wouldn’t bother grabbing one). I tried rolling it up width-wise to see if that would be thick enough to make into a temporary cushion, but it was too thick and not long enough. Then I rolled it lengthwise, folded it in half, and stuck it behind my head. The shape was perfect and it kept my head stable for a few seconds, until it fell out from behind my head because the fabric on the bike was so slippery. I couldn’t keep holding it up with my arms, so I had to wait until I got home to figure out a solution. I got some black elastic I had in my sewing box, and attached the ends to a plastic crocodile clip. I could have just used some string, but I thought it might be better to use elastic as then I could really tighten the strap to hold the “cushion” firmly. When I next went back to the gym, I brought my own gym towel (one of those quick-dry ones) and I’d rolled it up lengthwise and folded it in half, as well as the elastic strap. I put the strap around the neck rest and tightened it, and put the towel cushion under the elastic. When I got on the bike, all I had to do was pull the cushion a little higher so my head was seated right in the centre of the fold, and it was perfect. I could ride and ride and ride and push quite hard, and the cushion barely moved at all and allowed me to completely relax my neck. Now I can train for the 600km battlefield ride me and Coco will be doing in June to raise money for Wounded Warriors Canada, and I don’t have to worry about stressing my neck muscles while training. Chalk up another win for creativity.
So what’s a good story you have about coming up with a creative solution to a problem you had? It could be at work, at home, at the gym, with your pets or your kids…. I’d love to hear about it!