The question of how to have ideas isn’t just for people working in explicitly creative roles: if you’ve got a job, any job, sooner or later someone will expect you to think stuff up.
When I was at school doing my ‘A’ levels, I worked as a hospital cleaner. My manager was always asking me to think of ways to clean more areas in the same amount of time, or to economise on cleaning products. In short, she was asking me to have ideas.
If you work in the home, don’t think you can dodge the ideas bullet. As a home maker you’ll go through all kinds of domestic travails, and you’ll fare much better if you have a portfolio of strategies for coping with them.
Trust me. Having ideas is a skill you need to develop. But it’s tough.
As a professional writer I’m expected to come up with ideas pretty much on demand, which is why I’ve spent years developing a reliable process for having them.
Today I present this to you as a step-by-step routine. It’s not perfect, but it gets me results.
I hope you feel moved to try it out for yourself, and I invite you to get back to me with your comments and questions.
Step 1 – Identify Your Purpose
Yes, I know that amazing ideas do occasionally pop into being from out of the blue, but that’s not important right now. Fact is, if you’re actively trying to have ideas, you’ll be doing it for a reason.
I find it helps me a lot—even at the very early, clueless stage of the process—to clarify what I want to have ideas about, and why.
Typically, I’ll think about what problem I need my ideas to solve, or which goal I’m trying to reach.
Have a go at this for yourself, but don’t forget the all-important bit: write down your purpose as a mission statement and put it somewhere you can easily see it.
Here’s an example. My mission statement for this blog post reads, ‘Identify a coherent workflow which will help people reliably generate ideas’.
I wrote it on a yellow Post-It, which I stuck to the glass wall of my office – right in my eyeline.
Step 2 – Get Some Quality Input
Although you’d never believe it from hearing people talk about creativity, ideas don’t just come from nothing. The best ideas cast new light on old wisdoms, or ingeniously combine different concepts.
This means that if you’re going to have ideas, you need to feed your mind on suitably nutritious tidbits.
First, locate your research materials. These can be quite tangentially connected to the topic you’re trying to address, so the best thing you can do is let instinct guide you.
What constitutes quality research material will differ between people, and even between tasks.
If you’re a painter, say, you’ll probably gravitate toward art exhibitions or provocative graphics. We writers tend to read a lot.
I find that involving all of my senses is the best way for me to internalise input. So if I’m writing an article on finance tech, I might read Wired magazine, then draw out my research notes as a coloured mind map.
A good place to start searching for inspiration is (of course) the internet. Have a look at one of our past blog posts on how to find quality information online.
Do whatever switches your process on to an optimal degree, but make sure you’re actively and critically engaged – don’t just consume.
Of course, I fully realise this last bit is often easier said than done. If you require more hand-holding to find and use inspiration, I heartily recommend the books How to Have Great Ideas and The A-Z of Visual Ideas, both by John Ingledew.
Step 3 – Talk Things Through
Regular readers of this blog will have spotted that I’m not the touchy-feely type (none taken, by the way), but what really works for me is talking about the nuts and bolts of the task I’m engaged in, or the problem I’m trying to solve.
As Isaac Asimov once wrote in an essay on creativity, the ideal listener or talking partner acts a bit like a psychoanalyst. They get you to express yourself in such a way as to generate new perspectives and insights.
So find your ‘psychoanalyst’ and talk their ears off. Make notes if you like, but the process is way more important than the product at this point.
NB in my experience, real psychoanalysts are much less good at this than metaphorical ones.
Step 4 – Take Time Off
Whatever you do, don’t skip this part. It’s where the magic happens.
It’s absolutely crucial that after these three preliminary steps, you put away your research materials and just forget about your quest for ideas.
Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you might even have to tolerate doing nothing for days.
But don’t worry; you’re not really doing nothing. You’re incubating. It’ll be worth it.
I like to walk when I’m doing a lot of incubating. Call me nuts, but I believe that moving my body is a kind of thought.
You’ll know when you’re ready to move on to the next stage, because you’ll sense a weird, rising tension. That’s your cue to act.
Step 5 – Capture Your Proto-Ideas
The weird tension I just mentioned is the pre-secretion activity of your ideas gland, toning itself up for a great big splurge.
Know where your ideas gland is? Me neither. I suspect it’s somewhere south of your third eye and north of your solar plexus. But anyway.
Your responsibility at this stage is to capture everything your ideas gland sends you. I say everything, because some of what it sends won’t look very promising.
This is because your ideas gland secretes proto-ideas, not fully fledged adult ones. So forget about judging the content of what you generate, just capture it.
When you first do this exercise, you’ll have to actively try and grope for proto-ideas. But with more and more practice, it’ll genuinely come to feel as though you’re simply opening a door and allowing material to come tumbling out.
Personally I think freewriting by hand is hard to beat for this task, but if you’re a sculptor or code geek you’ll have to develop your own approach.
If you’re more of a digital than an analogue person, you might like to try Scapple, a note-making app from the same people who gave us popular writing software Scrivener.
Step 6 – Sort the Wheat from the Chaff
When you’re ready to make beautiful, rainbow-coloured idea jumpers out of the itchy grey yarn of your proto-ideas, you’ll need to revisit the place where they’ve been captured.
For me, this usually entails going through the text of my messy freewrite with a highlighter pen, picking out all the notions which hold the most promise.
Then I create an Excel spreadsheet of ideas, with each one in its own little cell, all arranged in a neat column.
Why? Having ideas is only one part of the creative process, and you’ll almost always end up doing some further idea development. It’s important to give yourself something to build on in the future.
In my job I tend to develop promising ideas into a formal pitch, or use them as the basis for a strategy (if I want to get more clients, or a different kind of client, for example).
There are an almost infinite number of ways you can use your spreadsheet of ideas once you’ve generated it. But we’ll save that topic for another blog post, because you’ve been through enough for one day.
Congratulations, though – if you’ve made it this far, you know how to have ideas!
So go out and have ‘em.