I must admit, this has happened before, and it’s frustrating. It’s midnight. I have been staring at the screen for two hours and still have no idea what to write for this column, not counting the last three days I spent trying to consolidate some thoughts. Given the theme, it’s ironic but painfully true.
If I could hazard a guess, this is a real and familiar experience for many of you. Eventually the gears start turning and ideas pop into your mind but, have you stopped to ponder why our idea pipe stops flowing in the first place? What deliberate steps can we take to turn the creativity tap back on?
Let’s start by developing an understanding of why we get trapped in a box:
1. We chose it
Have you ever read article headlines that say 10 foods you had no idea contained unhealthy sugars? If you click on such links and read, you’ll probably quietly tell yourself “I kind of guessed it.” Yet, you just had an oat cookie yesterday, in the name of healthy eating.
My point is, sometimes we choose not to find out more. In the same manner, let’s face it, at times, we do not have ideas because deep down inside, we really do not place priority on getting some ideas on the board because we may not see sufficient value in looking for a new one. Occasionally, we have other “priorities” so we fail to allocate time on idea generating.
2. We are not convinced
I have read that near-death experiences unleash many new ideas! It’s telling and true for all of us; when we feel truly desperate do we begin to think about solutions to our predicament. Your previous ideas may have worked to get you to where you are today but innovation is necessary to move forward. We are often not convinced about new ideas until desperation calls for them.
3. We are looking in the same places
Familiarity breeds contempt. Can I say that of ideas? If you keep looking at the same places (ahem, Google), you probably will not get many ideas that you have not already thought of before.
Sometimes, we turn to the same people to brainstorm and generate old, tried and tested solutions. You could solve problems this way but it’s unlikely to elevate you as a creative leader.
4 We don’t understand it (yet)
Truth is, sometimes ideas don’t come because we are thinking of a solution that’s beyond our current experience, understanding and exposure. We have not had that magical paradigm shift yet.
For that to happen, staring at the screen for two hours is of no help. We need to widen our perspective and understanding of the issue at hand. It’s good to bounce ideas off someone and create new angles to look at an issue.
5. We are too full
Do or do not, there is no try. Yes Yoda, in context maybe, but sometimes we must try. And there comes a time when we need to take a break from trying and doing.
When our minds are tired, cluttered and scattered with phones ringing and children screaming, it really is not a good time to try to squeeze some juice out of this fruit jerky. Take a break.
Watch a good show, go for a walk or grab some coffee. Look for a better time and place to pen down your ideas.
I’m dried up, now what?
There are many well-researched frameworks of innovation and teachings on being creative (you can Google them for some ideas).
Here are five tips by yours truly and these have never failed me:
1. I look for small sparks of inspiration
It seems like this is becoming a confessional column for me. But you know what? I start off my idea generation with Google; though I must say that my best ideas have never come from the Internet. However, related articles, blogs or videos are good ways to get your brain “in the mood”.
Remember, don’t get distracted! Set a time limit, then walk away.
2. I stop thinking of ideas. I do something else
I don’t believe in forcing out an idea. It just doesn’t work. My coffee and house chore breaks are often great rejuvenators. If time permits, I come back the next day.
While I may write down my ideas much later, I usually start my idea collection process the moment I know of it. Many of my ideas come to me when I read a few articles.
3. I know when my magical moment is
As I have written in my previous articles, self-awareness is key. If I can put a number to it, probably 90% of my great ideas come after midnight, when everyone’s off to bed and the house is quiet. No TV, no phone, no Google.
4. I talk to idealists and visionaries
Why? Simply because realists usually tell me things that are too common. The idealist is often a visionary and sees things people don’t see, even in areas that they are not specialised in.
5. I observe
This is the hardest part because it takes time and there really is no specific way of doing this. When all else fails, I sit at a café and just be.
Look around and see what links you can make. Do not check your email and your phone. Just observe your surroundings and take that time to breathe, and catch up with what’s going on around you. You never know what inspiration may come to you when you empty yourself of all the urgent requests and constant interruptions.
These methods work for me. Hopefully they will for you too.
Here’s a little nursery rhyme that helped spark off ideas for this article:
“The itsy bitsy blockage, went up the ideas spout.
Down came the ideas, and washed the boredom out.
And out came the brilliance and dried up all the ponders,
And the itsy bitsy idea, bloomed into great wonders.”
Steven Johnson said it best in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.
“The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”