Idea Generation: Getting to Your Best Ideas

How do we come up not only with ideas, but how do we come up with GREAT deas? Original ideas?

In this time-pressed world we live in, we often take or first idea or our second and go with it. We’re focused on producing, on making, on creating the thing, on getting it done, checking it off of our list.

But what if…what if…our first or our second idea are the obvious ones, the not so original ones?

What if the 34th idea we came up with actually would have been the BEST idea? But we never allowed ourselves to go there? How many original, innovative ideas have been “lost” to the time crunch and emphasis on producing? Or to our frustration and belief that we can’t come up with any new, original ideas?

There are a few pieces in this scenario to break down:

  1. Do you take the time to come up with ideas? Do you have “thinking” time? Brainstorming time?
  2. Do you have specific strategies to push your creative thinking so you can think of ideas that are original and unique, that light you up?

Let’s talk about this.

First, the time issue. Creativity is not about conjuring ideas from thin air or being struck with a lightning bolt of inspiration. 

It’s about making connections between your experiences, your thoughts, things in your life, your knowledge and understanding, in new ways.

And this process, my friends, takes time. It’s why we often have ideas hit us when we’re in the shower or driving. 

It’s because we’re doing an activity that we don’t have to think about, so our brain can make those connections. The idea might actually feel like an “aha” moment, but if you look at it, all the pieces were already there. You’re brain just did its brilliant job and put them together in a new way.

Here’s the fun part of all of this.

You can do this intentionally. You can develop those creative thinking muscles. I’m going to be sharing some strategies to do this over the summer.

Second, why is coming up with original ideas hard? Because our brain likes its little comfort zones. 

There’s a psychological principle called the Mere Exposure Effect. Essentially, it says that if you’ve been exposed to something, you like it better, and the more exposure you’ve had to it, the more comfortable you are with it.

It’s why when you’re getting a two-year-old to try a new food, you just keep serving it to them. At first, they melt down and freak out and want that scary new thing OFF their plate NOW. The next time they see that green, terrifying piece of broccoli, they still might object. 

But if you just keep setting it there without making a fuss, eventually, the two-year-old will poke it. They might pick it up. And, by the fifth or sixth time you’ve exposed them to the broccoli, it’s no longer terrifying. It’s food. Their brain is now more comfortable with it. They might even eat the damn thing. And their next freak out will be because you offered them not broccoli but peas. New meltdown.

Ideas are the same. Our brains like what we’ve already thought about.

Have you ever felt like whatever you’re creating or writing is “the same” as before? That you’ve got no “new ideas”? It’s because your brain will keep going back to what it knows, over and over. It likes what it knows. It’s actually “wired” to do that.

So…let’s expose that brain of yours to some new ideas and processes so it can be comfortable with new ideas. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Set aside AT LEAST 20 minutes for idea generation. One of the key rules to follow as you come up with ideas is to suspend all judgment. You’re going to write down EVERY random thing that comes into your head, whether it’s on a big giant piece of butcher paper (one of my fav ways), post-its that you stick to the wall, a list, or a spidery mind-map.

As you do this, keep in mind Einstein’s wise words, “If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

2. Choose what it is that you want to do, maybe it’s to write a story or a poem and you need a topic. Or maybe you’re developing your characters for your novel. Perhaps you’d like to draw a cartoon or paint a picture or even come up with ideas or a curriculum for a class you want to teach. These processes are NOT just for inventors or artists. Deep creative work and idea generation strategies can enhance originality and innovation in any area of your life.

3. Play with one (or all) of the following strategies to find the best ideas:

Ask What if…. I’ve talked about this before on the podcast and blog. “What if” is a super powerful question if you totally allow yourself to open up to your imagination. Let yourself get wild and write down ALL the ideas. Suspend all judgment. List every “what if…” question you can come up with, no matter how fantastical.

Push yourself to come up with a list of at least 50 (100 is better) new ideas and what if questions for your project. Just asking a good what if question will lead to another and another. It’s fun even though it can be HARD. We tend to list a few ideas that are sort of similar and then…we get stuck and stop. Push yourself. This is the work. Push yourself to think of solutions you might not have.

If you get stuck, try to make connections between what you’re working on and something totally differentFor example, if I’m plotting a story, I’ll want to come up with the conflict which would involve some sort of antagonist or force that tries to stop my main character from reaching their goal. I might start listing possible antagonists and run out after a few ideas.

But if I use this idea of connecting unrelated ideas, I might look around me, at my house. I see a plant. Could the antagonist be a plant in my house? What might that look like? A flesh-eating plant? Or could the house itself be the antagonist? Could the house be haunted? Or could my character be somehow stuck in the house? How might a house keep a human contained? (The pandemic and quarantine are obviously playing in my subconscious right now.) 

This is fantastical and kind of fun. I have no idea if this will work or if this is the idea that I’d use, but finding connections between totally unrelated things is a great way to generate ideas.

You could choose objects, emotions, places, or really anything. Choose it and come up with as many ideas as you can, as fantastically as you can, and capture them in your list.

This is actually called lateral thinking, taking ideas from a totally unrelated area, and applying it to your original idea. It works.

Have some fun with this.

See what you can come up with.

Get lost in those ideas and see how many you can generate.



P.S. This week on the podcast I did a quick solo show on a helpful reframe for working with your inner critic. And coming this Wednesday is a super fun interview with Frances Cholle who’s new book Squircle, on creative thinking is coming out this week!

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