How to get better ideas
Balancing Action and Rest for Creative Sparks
For whatever it is that you do, you need ideas.
And new, good ideas seem elusive, as if they hinge on feeling “inspired”.
Like just by means of waiting and pondering we’ll suddenly get struck by genius.
We’ve all experienced that moment. The “shower idea” moment.
And it seems so serendipitous.
So ✨magical ✨.
But you and I know, there’s no magic behind it.
So, what can we do to encourage this seemingly unprompted result?
How can you help your brain get to those serendipitous moments?
How can we improve at getting new and better ideas?
Is it something we can control?
The answer is yes.
So let’s take a look at how ideas are formed.
Eat your fruits and veggies
Steve Jobs once said:
“Creativity is just connecting things.”
Charles Darwin didn’t invent evolution. His theory was a result of connecting the dots between other works from the likes of Anaximander and Lucretius, Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, or his own grandfather among many others.
Ford himself described his work as “…nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work.”, referring to previous progress made in munition manufacturing with interchangeable parts or the continuous flow production of cigarette factories.
The first step toward your next big idea is, naturally, learning.
Learning from others and from the world around you.
The quality of the information you feed your brain will be directly responsible for the quality of your ideas.
So you need to carefully curate your content consumption.
This is especially crucial today, given the content deluge we face every moment. And that might have you feeling drained. But you’re not lacking creativity, you are overwhelmed.
So be strategic.
Think of what you want to be creative about and seek quality sources about that topic.
Eat your fruits and veggies.
You wouldn’t expect a high performance athlete to win the olympics on a fast food diet.
Don’t expect breakthrough ideas if all you do is binge-watch Netflix.
The internet is filled to the brim with the most fascinating knowledge and the utmost garbage.
What goes in comes out.
The ideation dance: the hummingbird and the sloth
Consuming quality content will most likely start sparking some ideas in your mind.
But good ideation requires a special kind of dance.
A dance of proactive thinking and passive inactivity, a sort of subconscious pondering.
Thinking, ruminating, and obsessing comes first.
Take the hummingbirds. They have such a high metabolism that they need to feed all day long to survive. They consume about half their body weight in bugs and nectar, feeding every 10-15 minutes and visiting 1,000-2,000 flowers throughout the day.
Visualize yourself as one of these tiny birds, hungry for ideas. And the flowers you visit are every curated source you’ve gathered in your mind. So you keep flying from one flower to the next, extracting their nectar, revisiting their insights, understanding their findings, and looking for connections.
But that level of intensity cannot be sustained, nor should it be. As the other part of the dance, the passive inactivity, is also crucial for the birthing of ideas.
In come the sloths, arguably the planet's laziest creatures.
They hang from branches somewhere between 15-20 hours everyday, doing absolutely nothing.
They have however, optimized their digestion so much that they can extract every little bit of nutrient from the fibrous leafs they eat. They take their sweet time absorbing and ruminating, until they make some “magic” poop—which for the sake of this metaphor we are going to think of as ideas 💩 💡
And this “idea” of the sloth becomes the perfect fertile ground for a special type of moth that lay their eggs in the dung. Once the newly born moths emerge, they fly back to the ever-stoic and slow-moving sloth to mate and start the cycle all over again.
The thing is, we need that other side of the coin, the doing nothing, for all our overthinking to settle and take shape and form into the ideas.
History is full of these seemingly idle moments of genius.
But their retelling usually skip the previous hummingbird-like obsession, that allowed for the genius to come in the sloth-like idleness.
Think smarter, not harder
You’ve curated your sources. You’re full of inspiration and wisdom. Now what?
You sit down and ponder staring longingly into the horizon?
You sit under apple trees hoping for the next groundbreaking theorem to fall on your head?
How does one think effectively?
How does one “do the hummingbird”?
Everybody is different but here are some ways to approach thinking more strategically:
Stream-of-conciousness writing. This is a literary technique that has been extensively used but I discovered it reading Matthew Dicks’ Storyworthy as part of his exercises to generate new ideas. The basic premise of the exercise is to write non-stop for 15 minutes as a way to empty your brain from whatever is clogging its creative pipes so that new ideas can pour out like a gushing fountain.
Talk to yourself out loud. Speaking out loud encourages the formation and processing of thoughts. It’s similar to writing down your thoughts but it takes it up a notch. Kleist writes that “We usually hold an abstract beginning of a thought, but active speech helps to turn the obscure thought into a whole idea. Just as appetite comes with eating, ideas come with speaking.”
Ideation frameworks. These approaches work by structuring the creative process to make idea generation more effective and directed. They are often used in design, engineering, and business. There are many different frameworks, like brainstorming, design thinking, journey mapping, etc. My personal favorites are Mind Mapping and Affinity Diagramming, as they aim to visually represent the literal connection between concepts and ideas, which makes for easier association.
Whatever method you choose. The most important is that you go into it with a clear goal in mind. Kickstart your session with a specific question and explore the various ways your mind will try to answer it.
Do not judge the outcome. Ideation is supposed to be messy. Editing and refining will come afterwards. You never know in which corner of your mind your next breakthrough idea is hiding.
After the initial period of intense concentration, which is conscious and goal-oriented, you need to follow up with unconscious processing; a.k.a. “sloth-ing”?
Whatever your choice of sloth-ing might be, it needs to get you out of your own head.
You need your brain to have room to do its magic while you focus on something else.
You’ve fed it with all the necessary information. Now let it ruminate a beautiful moth-birthing sloth poop 💩
Movement is a classic. So your next aha moment might be just 10k steps away.
But there are endless activities you can do to get your sloth-ing going:
Take a nap 😴
Take a shower 🛁
Watch a movie 🍿
Listen to music 🎧
Play video games 🎮
Be prepared to listen to the muses
After all of this work. Ideas will present themselves to you when you least expect it. So it’s crucial to be prepared.
Last week I wrote about the importance of building a digital Second Brain to curate your internet experience.
The same system can be used to capture your ideas no matter where you are when they come.
I’ve built my Second Brain using Notion so I can have it in my phone ready to go whenever I need it.
It helps me capture both content sources and my own ideas to then sort them accordingly and take action.
The system you choose is not important.
It just has to work for you.
So remember, for better ideas:
Curate your content 🔍
Think strategically 🎯
Make room for idle time 😪
Be ready to capture your ideas 🪝
I write weekly about my learnings and insights on human creativity and how to hone and enhance our creative practice through technology and AI.
I teach you how to:
Improve your curation 🔍
Boost your ideation 💡
Enhance your creation ✍️
Amplify your reach 📢
so you can grow a brand and thrive in the rising creator economy.