Feeding the Idea Beast

Where do breakthrough ideas come from?

It is a good question. Many of us need to be creative these days for our jobs, giving the idea beast new fodder almost on command. But can you come up with ideas on command? After years of honing the process, I’ve realized that I can trace a lot of my ideas to two activities:

1. Exposing my brain to something new
2. Physical exercise

It turns out that I’m not the only one who’s stumbled on these “short cuts” for inducing the creative process. I enjoyed reading a post over at Ben Casnocha’s blog on “50 Ways to Expose Yourself to Randomness,” which quotes at length from Tom Peters’ work on this topic.

Some of the tips? Invite someone new and interesting to lunch. Go for a walk (multiple variations on this one). Go somewhere new — either on vacation or just to a different street. Buy magazines you would never read and see what the hot topics are in the world of, say, motorcycle repair.

The reason this works? It seems to force your neurons to lay new tracks. Your brain tries to draw connections between things it already knows and the new stuff it’s seeing. Our brains like patterns! Physical activity helps with this because it seems to get everything moving. It literally jogs ideas loose.

Of course, in the context of using one’s 168 hours optimally, there are a few things to keep in mind with all these creative habits. Since you need to eat and exercise anyway, use these activities liberally as idea-generation times. Web surfing may need to be put into a more scheduled time, with your email program closed so you really focus on reading interesting new articles.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad habit to get into anyway — scheduling fallow times for your mind to wander and be creative. It seems like a bit of an oxymoron, but there are two reasons to do this.

First, many people have jobs where the “stuff” of it — emails, meetings, etc. — can easily fill all available space. You need to consciously create empty time so your brain comes up with the new stuff to fill it.

And second, many of us have little kids, so our home time isn’t exactly ripe for brain relaxation either. It’s hard to think creative thoughts when you’re worried that your 3-year-old will try to feed small toys to your baby. So, yep, you have to schedule creative time again — trading off with your spouse so each of you can go running, consciously turning off the TV when the kids are asleep so you can read something fascinating.

When do you get your best ideas?

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