How to Actually Come Up With Your Next Big Idea
Whether we’re artists or engineers, architects or corporate executives, work usually involves presiding over a steady stream of problems that require a steady stream of solutions, a daunting hamster wheel of idea generation that intimidates even the best of us.
As a result, the creative process that turns those challenges into opportunities tends to invoke fear, self-doubt, exhaustion, and, very occasionally, sheer genius.
No matter what, we all find ourselves asking: Why is that some people seem to possess an uncanny ability to come up with one great idea after the next, when the rest of us spend years of our lives staring at blinking cursors and filling Moleskine pages with half-baked business plans?
What we need to do is demystify the creative process and acknowledge that technique, practice, and sheer self-awareness hold the keys to becoming an active and successful idea generator.
Understanding how we unleash our creative abilities (getting creative vs. being creative) is a vital part of our identity, and ultimately our professional — and personal — success hinges on this knowledge.
Here are 32 practical ways to help apply rigor to your own pursuit of inspiration, get creative, and finally become a master idea generator.
STAGE 1: PREPARATION
1. Schedule time for idea generation.
“If it doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get done,” so set aside 30-60 minutes a day for brainstorming. The brain is a muscle and, like all muscles, its abilities are strengthened through consistency and repetition.
2. Designate a physical space.
Holding brainstorming sessions in a specific location places structure around your creative work. Structure sends unconscious signals to the brain that it’s time to come up with ideas.
3. Ensure a criticism-free environment.
Your mind needs to know it’s in a safe place, free of criticism from itself and others, in order to come up with ideas. If you’re brainstorming in a group, set ground rules to make sure every idea is accepted in the initial stages. If you’re brainstorming on your own, watch for a subconscious fear of coming up with bad ideas that confines your creativity. As Seth Godin says, “You can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones.”
4. Keep an idea diary.
Track all of your unfiltered ideas in one place. Also maintain an “observations” section that catalogs the problems you survey in your life and society, which may help trigger ideas later.
5. Redefine the problem.
Research has found that the most creative people spend time examining a problem from multiple angles before trying to come up with possible solutions. Identify your problem, then rephrase it in as many ways as you can before you begin.
For example, when I need to write a new article, I don’t start until I’ve re-worded my topic 3 or 4 different ways. I also practice telling other people what I’m writing about, which helps synthesize and clarify my focus.
6. Assess the competition.
Research who else is currently tackling this problem and how they’re going about it. Make note of what you like and dislike about what’s currently available. Use their examples as inspiration, and think of ways to improve what’s already being done or mix and match solutions to form a better hybrid solution.
7. Don’t ignore the how.
Austin Kleon quips, “Every artist gets asked the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ The honest artist answers, ‘I steal them.'” Remember, you may have the same idea as someone else, but you have not executed it before. Great ideas can emerge from doing something old in an entirely new way.
8. Understand your area(s) of expertise.
Your expertise may be hard to identify simply because you’re used to being good at it or it’s an inherent part of your life experience. Inventory your work experience, hobbies, personal identity (being a woman, student, parent, traveler are forms of expertise), or areas of intellectual interest (what do you spend a lot of time reading or thinking about in your spare time?). Take time to physically draw out what you know and map relationships between your various groups of knowledge.
9. Venture into weirdness.
Stretch the brain muscle by exposing yourself to topics, people, and places you instinctively find odd. Pick up a book on extraterrestrial phenomena, watch a documentary on Russian prisons, have lunch with a professional scuba-diver or museum curator, go to a networking event for video game developers, download a completely random podcast, walk through a college campus, or drive to an unfamiliar part of town. You’re priming the mind for creative work by simply feeding it a richer diet of information.
10. Travel for inspiration.
A radical change of environment provides a huge creativity boost, prompting the brain to forge new connections as it digests the influx of diverse experiences and unfamiliar sensory information.
Not only is travel exciting, but a study by Angela Ka-yee Leung and Chi-yue Chiu of Singapore offers scientific evidence that multicultural experiences actually improve a person’s creative ability in the long-term.
11. Simply have more experiences.
Steve Jobs is famous for saying, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something… And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
Maria Popova, creator of the popular site Brain Pickings, calls this process “combinatorial creativity.” She says, “In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.”
If creativity comes from using disparate knowledge to join disparate experiences together, then it’s obvious: we merely need to have more material to work with.
STAGE 2: GENERATION
12. Aim for quantity over quality.
Once you’re ready to begin, you want to start by coming up with as many ideas as possible. The man who created the concept of brainstorming, Alex Osborn, wrote in his book Applied Imagination that “quantity breeds quality,” or rather the greater volume of ideas you can generate, the greater likelihood that one or more of them will be worthwhile.
13. Purposely try to come up with stupid or outlandish ideas.
Osborn also famously said, “It is easier to tame down than to think up.” In other words, you can figure out how to make it feasible later, so think up as many crazy ideas as you can; there will probably be an element of genius in each one.
14. Play games.
Use different structures to stimulate creativity. Work towards a specific number of ideas, or give yourself random rules, like trying to work particular words into your suggestions.
One famous example of this is how Dr. Seuss produced Green Eggs & Ham after a bet by his editor that he couldn’t write an entire book with less than 50 different words.
15. Do an activity before brainstorming.
Don’t ideas often come to you while you’re busy doing something else? Try one hour of exercising, bathing, reading, driving, listening to music, painting, gardening, cleaning your room, organizing your office, or playing cards, followed by a 30-minute brainstorming session. Studies show that activities put people in a positive mood (even falling in love counts!) and stimulate more creative thinking.
16. Schedule a break during brainstorming sessions.
Research has shown that interrupting someone doing a creative task helped produce better results when he or she resumed the task afterward. To achieve a similar outcome, schedule a 15-minute break for every one hour of brainstorming. Don’t do any purposeful thinking during this break time. Often the mind will continue mulling things over unconsciously, leading to that coveted “Aha!” moment when you return to work.
17. Take time in silence and let inspiration find you.
Have you found that “Aha!” moments tend to happen when you’re sitting still, working on something else, or not thinking about anything at all? Take time to do the total opposite of brainstorming: sit in complete silence. Creativity brews in the spaces between the mind’s incessant thinking.
18. Take time to let your mind wander.
“If you want to see where your heart is, follow your mind when it wanders.” Science shows a relaxed and easily distracted mind comes up with the best ideas, so take a few minutes before brainstorming to purposely sit and let the mind wander. Take notes about topics and ideas that turn up during these free-for-all sessions.
19. Schedule time to get lost on the internet.
You probably never thought “One hour to aimlessly Google whatever tickles my fancy” would wind up on your to-do list, but intellectually joy-riding across the internet is a great way to stumble upon fresh ideas.
20. Create psychological distance.
Imagine you’re trying to come up with an idea for someone else. This is supported by research that observes people making decisions for others produced more creative solutions than when making decisions for themselves.
21. Utilize your emotions.
Next time you’re experiencing either intensely positive or negative emotions, hold a short brainstorming session. Studies show that creativity is enhanced by strong emotional states.
22. Solve your own problems first.
One interesting study from Harvard demonstrates that creative people tend to have lower latent inhibition, which is defined as: “an animal’s unconscious capacity to ignore stimuli that experience has shown are irrelevant to its needs.” This basically means that creative people tend to be more tuned-in to their environment, so they’re readily able to identify gaps, inefficiencies, and opportunities in their lives, and thus generate more ideas.
23. Engage with people about their problems.
Stef Lewandowski, the founder of app maker Makeshift, says, “You can’t imagine what other people will want as well as you can imagine what you might want.” Because it’s not easy to infer what problems the other 7 billion people on the planet are facing, you have to engage samples of them directly to improve your understanding and generate ideas that can help them, too. Remember, problems = ideas = solutions = opportunity.
Ways to do this: Get customer or audience feedback, speak with front-line employees, do someone else’s job for a day, shadow an important stakeholder, conduct a survey, and always be networking far outside your industry and areas of expertise. You never know when lunch with a real estate developer could spark an idea for your personal development blog, or when bumping into an emergency flight nurse inspires an interior design business. When you’re stuck, seek out people who live lives you scarcely understand and let their stories take root in your subconscious.
24. Grab a partner.
If you’ve been spending a lot of time solo, grab a smart friend and have an organic conversation about some of your ideas over lunch. Remember, the mind works best in a relaxed setting. Group brainstorming can cause the brain to experience a higher level of stress because it’s expected to share its ideas immediately; a one-on-one conversation maximizes the benefits of an outside perspective while minimizing the kind of vulnerability that limits creativity.
25. Reverse common assumptions.
Think of what aspects of the problem (or your life in general) you’re taking for granted. Dave Lavinsky of Growthink gives this example: In the banking sector, the old assumption was that a bank needed to have tellers and branch locations. The ATM innovation resulted from turning that assumption on its head and offering banking services without tellers or branches.
26. Enlist the help of your subconscious.
The subconscious mind runs continuously in the background and silently affects your thoughts and actions throughout the day. This is going to sound crazy, but if you’re finding it difficult to come up with ideas, tell your subconscious what you’re working on and literally ask for its help. While you’re doing something else, an engaged and trusted subconscious can continue working on idea generation, something scientists call “incubation.”
STAGE 3: UTILIZATION
27. Let your ideas breathe.
Allow time and space before sorting through your master list of unfiltered ideas. Don’t rush to eliminate any bad ideas or pursue an immediate favorite; sleep on all of them for a few days and revisit the list with a clear head.
28. Dump the really bad ones.
Now you get the satisfaction of crossing those just-plain-stupid ideas off the list. They served their purpose, which was to accelerate the flow of creativity that eventually got you to some better ones.
Think of Seth Godin saying, “Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come up with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, ‘None.'”
Congratulations, you succeeded in not being that guy.
29. Understand your bad ideas.
By recognizing why your bad ideas are bad, you can actually improve the quality of all your ideas. Remember, most bad ideas have a seed of brilliance in them. Identify the potential in your rejection pool and use it as inspiration for the next round of idea generation.
30. Practice sharing some ideas.
Practice pitching the ideas you like most to friends and family. Verbalizing your thought process in a safe space can help identify gaps and teach you to respond to questions and push-back. The resulting conversations can refine those ideas or generate new ones altogether.
31. Filter your best ideas for execution.
Two excellent criteria for the advancement of favorite ideas into the execution phase are 1) passion and 2) resistance. If an idea is good but you experience no excitement at the thought of implementing it (remember the whole purpose of coming up with ideas is to in fact do something with them?), chuck it. If the idea is being met with resistance from others, you might very well be onto something.
Idea generation should become a continuous and sacred practice in your life. Document all lessons learned, such as: Where, when, and how did I get inspired? Who gave me the best feedback? What type of ideas do I consistently find most interesting? Figure out what techniques and structure yielded the best results for you and wash, rinse, repeat.
Rapid idea generation essentially boils down to a rather long-term strategy of purposefully widening one’s realm of experience and expertise, dedicating regular time and space to brainstorming, and having the courage to pursue the most worthwhile ideas through trial and error.
Fortunately, these are things anyone can do, because generating good ideas is more about showing up and putting in the time than possessing a specific, inborn trait or following a precise methodology. Techniques simply support and exercise the faculties that allow every person tap into his or her existing ability to get creative, something all of us can learn to access and profit from on a regular basis.