I’d dream ideas, and I could remember my dreams being filled with wonderful ideas, the feeling of brilliance that accompanied them, but the ideas themselves were as gone as yesterday’s dew.
I couldn’t come up with anything. My mind was blank, gray, and full of dust. It felt like I’d swallowed balls of rolled up spider webs.
I tried sleeping more, sleeping less, and keeping a pad of paper beside me while I slept, in case I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea. Drinking more tea. Drinking less tea. Drinking coffee[note]Ugh, that’s one I’m not doing again. I’m a tea drinker, through and through.[/note]. I tried going to the gym (boring), going running (horribly boring) and going on a sugar binge (horrible, but not boring). I tried everything and my mind stayed as dead as a cheap, plastic skeleton.
Then I found the way.
The 10 Idea Method
I can’t take credit for it. In fact, all credit goes to James Altucher[note]Read his “The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine“. It’s a bit long but well worth it.[/note]. It is a very simple method. It goes like this:
Every morning (or evening, or midday, as long as you do it every day), you sit down and write down a theme, then write 10 ideas about that theme.
I’ve been doing it for a few months now and I’m never at a loss for ideas any longer. I’m not saying that my ideas are brilliant, most of them are crap. I’m not saying that idea generation is easy, often I feel a resistance before sitting down to my 10 Daily Ideas exercise. I’m not saying that it will turn you into an idea guru overnight, I haven’t become one yet. But it’s still worth it.
Because when I sit down to generate ideas my mind can be blank. It can be filled with cobwebs. It can be gray, dusty, and empty. 30 seconds later it’s churning out ideas like an old fashioned corn husker[note]The machine that removes the kernels, not a, you know… And not a sports team either.[/note].
Silence Your Critic
What happens is that I’ve trained myself to shut up. See, we humans are amazing at generating ideas. We’re also amazing at killing our ideas before they’re even fully formulated. That’s where our internal editor, or detractor, or critic, or whatever you want to call that hill-billy moron with the shotgun who decides what ideas are allowed to exit your mind.
Forcing yourself to generate ideas on a regular basis is like teaching yourself to bash your internal editor on the head with a mallet. After a while that ugly SOB will learn his lesson and stop interfering with your ideas. It’s not up to your editor what ideas you’re allowed to come up with, it’s up to your conscious mind to write them down and sort them out.
Realize that Ideas are Common
Most of your ideas will be bad. Some will be horrible, some will be embarrassing, some will be naughty, some will be dangerous, and a lot will be boring. But among them, if you keep on generating ideas, there will be those that are great.
A lot of my blog posts are the results of a single idea. All of my writing is the result of a single spark, and most of my games are (the rest are ideas that I’ve seen, or read about, and reinterpreted, which in itself is a idea creation process).
Doing a “sit down and generate ideas about a single theme” exercise on a regular basis will teach you two things: 1) how to reliably generate ideas and 2) that ideas, in and off themselves, aren’t worth much. It’s not the idea, it’s the execution[note]”Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – Thomas A. Edison[/note]. Knowing that ideas are a dime a dozen is great – it lets you look at your own ideas with less reverence. You’ll actually see them, and be able to evaluate them with something close to impartiality. If you aren’t afraid to lose your ideas, or afraid that you’ll never come up with an idea as great as this one you’ve got right now, you can look at your ideas and decide which ones are worth following up on.
One caution about the exercise: I’ve found that it’s a lot harder to start if I don’t know what I want to generate ideas about. If I give my mind completely free reins all it wants to do is lie down and eat biscuits. But if I give it a theme it will grab it and run with it like an orphan halfling. Thus I start each month with a set theme: 10 themes to generate ideas about. That way I know that I always have a theme to fall back on. It makes sitting down and doing my exercises a lot easier.
My Idea Practice Process
To start out, I fire up Evernote, open my 10 Ideas Practice note, write down a topic and start a numbered list. Then I fill that list with ideas.
An average idea generating exercise takes 5-15 minutes in which time I write down anywhere between 10 (if the going is slow) and 83 (my record to date[note]10 ways to travel overland, ranging from car to hopping between trees on a giant, genetically engineered spider. That was a fun list to write.[/note]) ideas. I don’t let the session pass 15 minutes so that it doesn’t take up too much time.
Normally I start with a burst of five or six ideas and then I hit a blank. The next two or three ideas will be a slog, and take about as long as the first six, before I come out on the other side and start spewing forth ideas at a rapid pace again. Sometimes I hit a new slog around 15-20 or so, sometimes I just keep on rolling.
I’ve noticed that the best ideas come after the slog, the first ones are just stuff off the top of my head, while the ideas after the slog are the ones that come from deeper down and are more creative.
So, now that you’ve got a framework for turning yourself into an idea generating machine, what next?
Next you commit to it. First you decide whether you’re willing to set aside ten minutes each day this month to write ideas. If so, sit down, right this minute, and generate a list of themes to write ideas about. That’s your first exercise.
Go on, do it now. Feel free to share how it worked for you in the comments.