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October 31, 2018

Most Halloween traditions are exclusive to October 31st. Paint your face like a unicorn in July and you’ll probably get some strange looks. Call in sick with a candy hangover in March and you’ll land in your boss’s office. The one exception: pretending (at least in your mind) to be someone else.

Coined by psychiatrist Srini Pillay, “psychological halloweenism” is the act of mentally “dressing up” as a creative person—say, an architect, painter, or founder of a startup—and acting as someone in that role would. The practice can trigger your own creativity, explains Pillay, helping you get out of your own head and unstuck from your typical way of doing things.

Psychological halloweenism is the act of mentally 'dressing up' as a creative person.

“This kind of intervention may seem counterintuitive when you're aiming for greater self-connection,” writes Pillay. If you want to tap into your creativity, shouldn’t you be more in tune with your own personality? “But because this exercise stimulates the imagination, it stimulates the brain's unfocus circuits,” he says. “And these circuits ‘scoop up’ the less defined, more instinctual, and intuitive aspects of who we are.”

Pillay points to a 2016 study in which two psychologists tasked their subjects with coming up with as many uses as possible for a common object, such as a brick. But while they brainstormed, the study participants had to pretend to be either eccentric poets, or rigid librarians, while a control group just acted like themselves. Those who behaved like the poets didn’t just think of themselves as more creative—they actually were more creative, coming up with more uses than those who adopted the mindset of an unbending librarian, and those who stayed the same.

The takeaway: Creativity isn’t a fixed trait that some have while others don’t, but rather a “malleable product of context and perspective,” according to the study authors. Pretending to be someone else, and in doing so adopting the mindset of that other, creative person, can make your own work and choices more creative.

Creativity isn’t a fixed trait that some have while others don’t, but rather a 'malleable product of context and perspective.'

Think about it: How many times have you set out to start a project, only to tell yourself that you’re not creative enough? How many times have you admired someone else’s work, or decisions, or personality, and wished you could be the same way? Turns out, it’s just a matter of playing pretend.

Next time you're stuck on a problem—whether it’s writing a story, creating a presentation, or even the best way to tackle all those Saturday to-dos—think of someone whose creativity you admire.

Next time you're stuck on a problem think of someone whose creativity you admire.

Maybe it’s Solange, who turns expectations on their heads and does things—and music—her own way. Or perhaps it’s J.K. Rowling, who invented an entire universe out of thin air. You could be Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Martin Luther King, Jr., setting out to be the change you wish to see in the world. Or maybe you’re Banksy, using paint and a shredder to poke fun at the world you already see. Put yourself in an astronaut’s shoes. Imagine you’re Julia Child. The point is, you have hundreds (thousands!) of options, and you don’t have to just pick one.

Once you have someone in mind, “put on” their personality, as you would a costume. If you picked Solange, for example, channel her voice in your head. Feel her confidence and her outside-the-box approach. Her sense of self-worth and individuality.

Then, turn to your task with that fresh perspective. Take note of how you changed—did you think outside your typical MO? Were your brainstorms or artwork more creative? Your problem-solving more efficient?

Remember, you may be borrowing someone else’s personality, but any progress you make and creativity you uncover? That’s all you.

Read next: Your Self-Consciousness Is Killing Your Creativity

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