How to Generate Ideas Out of Thin Air

Generating Ideas - LightbulbComing up with ideas can be tough, sometimes impossible, or so it seems. I’ve never had a problem with generating ideas, but I’ve discovered that they often do not manifest themselves in the way I expect them to.

Whenever I feel like I’m stuck, I move onto something else, because if I try to force things, it never goes well.

I learned this the hard way during the days when I was a professional poker player. As a poker player you have to be focused at all times, you have to tune into the flow of the game and, most of the time, you cannot force things.

I learned that when I let things unfold naturally, everything went smoother and the end results were better.

In the end, you have to find your own way of doing things. I’ve never had a real job, so I’ve been using my brain ever since I got out of school.

I’ve had a lot of time to get familiar with how my body, mind and soul conjure up ideas.

Where Do Ideas Come From Anyway?

Ideas come from a place we don’t see, but we know is there, we feel it. Ideas aren’t something that belong to us, they float around until someone grabs them. But this grabbing is not a conscious act.

Ideas come when we calm down, relax, and get out of our own way. When you stop thinking, your innate wisdom emerges, and ideas happen.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use tools to nudge the process along.

One warning though: If you start to feel frustrated, stop. Brainstorm when you feel good. Trust your feelings. Your feelings are always telling you if you can trust your thinking or not.

A Note on Brainstorming

I recently re-discovered brainstorming thanks to a friend, Jordan Cooper. He’s a stand-up comedian and apparently those guys use a lot of brainstorming to come up with their material.

At the moment my favorite way of brainstorming is to take a topic and start writing keywords about anything that comes to mind.

The best way to do this is to use a voice recorder, because the last thing you want to do is censor yourself, which happens a lot if you’re writing.

Let everything come out. Don’t worry if you’re straying off-topic. I’ve found a lot of good ideas that started on-topic but quickly got out of hand.

My 7 Secrets to Generating Unlimited Ideas

Yesterday I watched a movie. It was a thriller, mystery, basically one of those cop movies. When the main character found himself in a quandary and needed to think, you know what he did? He said “I need to think, I’m going for a ride.”

We all have at least one thing we can do to allow ideas and solutions to appear. For the detective it was taking a drive. The common denominator is always a clear mind. Because that allows the innate wisdom within us to come through.

The more you use your brain and solve problems, the better you get at these things. Here are a few of the ways I generate ideas:

1. Washing the Dishes. It’s amazing how many ideas I’ve gotten while washing the dishes. I’ve never been a fan of using a dishwasher. Why do I need one when I can wash everything by hand so much more quickly? Anyway . . . using the dishes helps me focus my mind on one thing. In that sense, it is kind of like meditation. Whenever I need an idea or a problem solved and if there’s dishes around, I go do them. Often it doesn’t help to think more, but to think less.

2. Befriend Your Bed. It’s not what you think. What I mean by befriending your bed is taking a break and lying there, relaxing. If you’ve been trying to come up with a great idea or solution all day, give yourself some time to cool off and take a nap or just lie there. Try not to think. Although sometimes people make the not thinking into another job. Just be. That’s my best advice.

3. Allowing. Sometimes ideas come when the time is right. I view ideas and inspiration as something that comes naturally, so when I’m not receiving a solution to a problem, it’s me blocking it. When nothing else works, I meditate and release any resistance I might have in my body. I also like to use tools, such as EFT and the Sedona Method, which I talk a lot about on this blog.

4. Observing. I like to take walks with Ingela and our dog, Cleo. It helps me clear my mind. If you decide to go for a walk, stay as present as possible and remember to bring something to record your ideas on. I’ve noticed that once the flood gates open, I want to be ready to capture whatever is coming through. Don’t wait, jot everything down right away.

5. Being Present. I almost hate saying be present, be in the now and focus on what is, because they have been so overused in the last few years. But they have been repeated so many times for a good reason: they work. When you stop worrying and get your ass back to the present moment, you’ll improve your idea generation greatly.

6. Brainstorming. Like I said above, I’ve fallen back in love with brainstorming. Sometimes I use mind mapping software, sometimes I use notepad and sometimes I use good old pen and paper. The only reason I don’t use an audio recorder is because I like to see my ideas, so if I record everything, I’d have to transcribe it all and that takes time.

7. Exercising. Have you ever noticed how clear your mind is after you’ve exercised? I have too, it’s pretty cool. This again goes back to the theme of doing something completely unrelated to what you were doing and letting your unconscious come up with a great idea or solution to a problem you’re having. Our conscious mind is nothing compared to our unconscious.

An Example From My Life

I was listening to an interview, while sipping my freshly-squeezed orange juice and that’s when it hit me. I just received inspiration for this post.

When inspiration hits me, it’s almost like there’s a rope attached to my heart pulling me to my computer to write.

After I’ve written a post that really came from my heart, I feel phenomenally awesome.

Generating ideas out of thin air is something that you get better at. But remember, it’s about peeling off the layers that are preventing the ideas from coming to you in the first place.

It’s about realizing that ideas come when you stop trying.

Image by Rachel K

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Comments

  1. Beautiful post Henri and I love your tips for generating ideas. I have used some of these, but am yet to use a mind mapping tool … I like that idea (I have one on my laptop). I too have had this:

    “When inspiration hits me, it’s almost like there’s a rope attached to my heart pulling me to my computer to write.”

    …I have felt compelled to write and as you say, when that happens I know it’s coming from a good place.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said allow (not force) – my best ideas come through when i go with the flow.

  2. Oscar - freestyle mind says:

    A great way to brainstorm new ideas is to use mind maps. Mind maps with colors and images can do wonders to our brain.

  3. @Henri: I think my favorite of these is exercise. But you probably already knew that. I would say my most brilliant ideas out of thin-air come about when I am surfing. For some reason I always get out of the water with about 40 new ideas for things that I can write about or experiment with. Great ideas here.

  4. Whenever I am lying in bed I tend to have lots of good ideas. I don’t know why but they always come up if I am not too tired. That’s definitely the best place for me to get ideas.

  5. Hi Henri,

    Yeah… washing the dishes.

    I used to hate it. Until I realized that the reason I hated it was due to focusing on hating it. Thinking stuff like: “I hate washing dishes” or “Why do I have to wash dishes again?”

    I won’t lie and say that I love washing dishes now – I don’t – but at least I can appreciate the meditative quality you wrote about and I’ve had some really good ideas as well.

    Matter of fact, I now keep a notebook and pen close to my kitchen sink in case inspiration strikes again. :-)

  6. Many people concentrate too hard on the process of actually coming up with new ideas without letting them happen naturally. The best thoughts will likely pop into your head at times when you least expect it – so learn to create an environment that will allow this to happen.

    Most of my best jokes came from simply brushing my teeth, taking a shower, walking to the store, driving to gigs, lying in bed watching the morning news, etc… sitting down and doing the grunt mental work is good for refining those ideas, but I find that if you force it from the beginning – you’ll likely mentally block yourself out of frustration quite often.

    • Derek Jensen says:

      Many times I have tried to come up with great ideas by just forcing myself. These ideas are forced and do not seem realistic or fit my passion. And when you are forcing to spend time to come with ideas you are really wasting time and should just be doing something else and allow your mind to come up with a good idea on its own.

      Henri, I feel when I watch TV, make observations, or listen to music the best ideas come into my head.

      Being a design student and always having to brainstorm of new ways of doing things, they taught us to keep a pad of paper and pencil by our beds because we come up with all the good ideas in our sleep.

  7. I can confirm that dish washing does indeed get my creative juices flowing. I think when you switch your brain off, ideas flow more freely.

  8. Great tips Henri,

    Definitely in my list – go for a drive. Preferably a route you’re very used to. The kind where you can drive and realize you’ve gone 10-20 minutes without consciously thinking about the act of driving.

    The one downside… you end up 10-20 minutes away from a place where you can start dumping your thoughts onto a computer.

  9. When I think about what excites me and just do the things I do, usually ideas will come to me. I’m also like you where the dishes are concerned as ideas flow into my head and that really isn’t great for me because unless I keep thinking about that one great idea (not allowing much else to flow into my mind and soul) then I will forget it unless I get it written down some where.

    Problem here is that dishes either don’t get finished or ideas don’t get finished. Something has to work though.

  10. Archan Mehta says:

    Henri:

    Thank you. This is a great post. You have shared some good ideas here. Cheers!

    There’s an old zen saying. To paraphrase: when you chop vegetables, just chop vegetables and when you carry wood, just carry wood. And I am not just saying that: I actually do these sorts of things daily. Household chores, running errands…I really enjoy that sort of physical/manual labor. It floats my boat, whereas others tell me it sinks their boat. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

    As a writer, I suffer frequently from “writer’s block.” My mind does not work, I feel, and I run out of ideas. Invariably, however, when I go outside for a longish stroll in the wilderness, boy, do I feel so much better. It really clears my mind. It is inspiring to walk and you tap into your inner wisdom. That subconscious plays with ideas and those ideas can surface at any time. And yes, sometimes such ideas are beyond your control. Some of my best poems I have written in such moments of quietude. The natural world is beautiful and it can be an eternal fountain from which we must drink, again and again, and without judgment. And without attachment.

    When you have no expectations…when you don’t want results…when you are not looking for instant gratification….that’s when ideas will start to flow, organically.
    This has happened to me so many times that now it has almost become a habit.
    When the student is ready, the master will appear is an old zen proverb.

  11. Generating ideas is never my problem. My problem is generating too many silly ideas, until nobody knows which is best. As a result, a lot of time is spent on debating and selecting the best idea.

  12. Ginger Sinton says:

    Kudos to you, Henri, for following your dream and taking action for making it happen.

    I am currently enrolled in a Masters Program (in Professional Writing) where we have a weekly assignment to comment on a blog about writing and writers.

    Your most helpful point in this post for me: “It’s about peeling off the layers that are preventing the ideas from coming to you in the first place.” So true!

    Brainstorming – in its variable forms – is the traditional, standby method to generate ideas for me as a corporate marketing writer. But I agree that we must let everything come out. In other words, when brainstorming do not censor.

    We shouldn’t worry about any ideas being too extreme, crazy or off the wall. If you don’t put them out there, you’ll never know. Anything goes, and don’t over-think. I learned this from a “creativity” course over 30 years ago. Once you get the ideas (however crazy or insane they may appear) out, then you can remove the ones that are too extreme for your project. And keep, edit, or grow those that will work for you.

    I think the part of our brain that allows new ideas to form must be relaxed and comfortable, “on vacation.” That is when I discover new ideas, when my brain is not working to find the right words or thoughts, or thinking about paying the bills or the next task on my list, or the upcoming deadline I have to reach on a project for a client.

    Your “7 Secrets to Generating Unlimited Ideas” is extremely helpful to those of us who write for a living. Most writers have – at some point – run into the ever-feared “block.” I know if we were to grab the ideas when they come to us – on a walk, after exercise, in the shower, etc. – we wouldn’t have to spend so much time searching for them.

    I agree: mind-clearing activities are the healthiest for allowing the ideas to surface. I’ve found that the best ideas come when I’m doing the most mundane activities such as taking a shower, walking the dog, and yes, cleaning house. Many times it’s when I am not stressed and outside getting fresh air, walking or running.

    Exercise definitely frees your mind. Yoga is absolutely the best for me. Getting oxygen to the brain and body muscles generates life and growth and positive energy (also a key factor to allowing new ideas to form).

    I do notice when the ideas come more freely, but haven’t taken the time to act on it and utilize the ripe moments for productivity. From now on, I’ll make sure I have a notebook close by during the times I know my mind will be open and relaxed. And when I sit down at the computer later, I will at least have the ideas in raw form to begin.

    I am interested in this because I want to shift into doing more creative writing, and believe that once I get a feel for that type of writing, I can do it. I have loads of ideas to develop. Now it’s about making notes when the ideas come, and having the discipline to follow through with the writing, which is a passion for me.

    I totally support your notion that following one’s passion and purpose breeds inspiration. Thank you for sharing your 7 Secrets. I will share with my fellow classmates and hope they get as much from it as I did.

    • What a great comment. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Ginger!

      I definitely think that the power of jotting down your ideas when they occur is powerful. My best ideas come in the shower, while lying in bed, taking a walk, or just reading a book. It’s essential to have pen and paper ready at all times!

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