The Secret To Getting More Ideas (And Better Ones Too)

IdeaA lot of people have asked me recently how/where I get my ideas (e.g. like here) – in reference to the diverse topics that I write about. After what must have been the 10th time someone asked me that question, I thought to myself "…gee, what a good idea, why not write about that…", so perhaps I am not the best person to answer the question after all :), but I do have some thoughts, so I'll give it a whirl regardless.

Ideas are an interesting beast, the more of them you have; the more you tend to come up with. That might seem somewhat counterintuitive or even circular, "…so, ummm, to have more ideas you need to come up with more ideas? Why, that's pure diabolical genius! …” but bear with me for just a minute and I'll explain. Here is the way it goes with most people. You need to come up with an idea – business idea, article idea, book idea, conversational topic – whatever. So, you strain for a few seconds trying to have a flash of brilliance and when the flash inevitably fails to materialize, you shrug, say something self-deprecating like, "… man, I really wish I was better at thinking up ideas. If only I could have a brilliant business idea, I could become a millionaire. Nay, a billionaire! Oh well …". At this point you go back to doing whatever you were doing before and life goes back to normal – which is precisely the worst thing you could have done.

The Idea-Generating Muscle

When I first started blogging, there were a few opinions I wanted to share, I was excited. It seemed like I had hundreds of ideas, but in reality, it was more like half a dozen (the brain is good making stuff seem completely out of proportion when you're excited). Once my initial idea pool was exhausted, I found myself stuck for things to write about. Me, stuck for something to say – completely unacceptable, I have a reputation to uphold :). So, I just started writing about crazy stuff that popped into my head, all the while doing my best to pay attention to the random thoughts that I was having and examining each one for potential (to be turned into a post). This had the effect of keeping my need for ideas at the forefront of my mind and you know what, after a while my brain started to respond.

Here is how I see it. The needs that you have send signals to your brain, like the need to have a good idea about something. When your mind senses the need, it will do its best to respond, but its first try will likely be a bit of a failure. It's understandable, have you ever been brilliant at something the very first time YOU tried it? If at this point you remove the need (i.e. you give up since you couldn't get a good idea instantly) your mind will just go back to its default state (of not generating ideas). But, if the need remains, if it is persistent, your mind will keep trying to fulfil it and will likely generate another idea for you after a while (which will likely also be pretty dismal). The difference here is that you're now training your mind to give you what you require, by maintaining your need for it. Try visualising your brain as a set of muscles, there is an idea-generating muscle in there somewhere. But, like any muscle, if you don't consistently exercise it, you won't be able to get much out of it and are likely to overstrain it at the merest effort. So, keep your need for ideas constant, force yourself to come up with stuff, even if it is complete trash.  Keep sending the messages to your brain and over a period of days, weeks and months you will find yourself having more and more ideas about your topic of interest. More than that, as you keep going, your ideas WILL get better – that's a promise. Your mind will adapt, as you discard the bad ideas and adopt the good ones, by producing more ideas along the lines of what you consider "good". The more ideas you have, the better "trained" your mind becomes, the more chance it has to adapt to your style; which means you'll keep having better and better ideas (and more of them as well). It is really quite a fascinating process to observe in yourself.

What effect did it have on me? Well these days, my biggest problem, at least when it comes to my writing, is a kind of analysis paralysis where I often have several ideas that I am equally keen to write about at any given moment, it is surprisingly difficult to choose :). Of course, I do make a decision eventually – one can't procrastinate forever, but my list of "stuff/thoughts/ideas to write about" just gets longer and longer – kinda like my reading list.

Confirming The Principle

The interesting thing is that this training doesn't seem to work for ideas in general, only ideas regarding the actual need that you focus your mind on. When I developed an interest in how to conduct a good interview to find decent coders, I needed to come up with some interesting coding interview questions. And you know what, I was drawing blanks once more, it was like starting the mental training process all over again. I forced myself to come up with anything and produced some crazy ideas at first, then had some better thoughts and now (a few months later) am coming up with what I consider to be some pretty decent questions and ideas (which end up on that long list of things I want to write about :)). I've also gone through the same exercise for personal projects to practice your coding – with similar results. You start seeing the pattern after a while. Start thinking about whatever interests you; immerse yourself in it to create a personal need for ideas. Force yourself to examine everything your mind throws at you – even if it seems like nonsense – to allow your "mental-muscle" to adapt. Given enough time, good ideas will follow.

What About Business Ideas?

You know those guys who always seem to have hundreds of brilliant business ideas while you struggle to come up with even one that seems viable. Well, you can BE one of those guys; more specifically you can train your mind into making you one of those guys. You just need to persist and not give up, like most things in life that are worth striving for. The only issue is the fact that the cost of trying out a business idea (to really evaluate its worth), is potentially way too high for most people to be able to afford to do it every time. However once you have trained yourself to have some good ideas in several areas, you start to get a feel for how long it takes for your brain to start coming up with some great stuff more or less regularly. That time frame will likely be similar when it comes to ideas in other areas – like business ideas. The key is to pay attention and be a little bit more self-aware than your average bear :).


Finally, don't forget to write down your ideas when you have them, it doesn't matter how you do it, dictate them into your phone, carry a pen and paper, send yourself an SMS. Just make you sure you don't lose them; there is really no point in training yourself to have ideas if you're just going to let them flow away into the ether. Especially considering that given enough time, any one of them could be a real winner.

Images by Cayusa and sarah …

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  • Really a motivational post for. From above I conclude that to do anything first we have to prepare our selves. As saying “If there is will, there is a way” Its always applied in your life. First needs to believe on yourself. It does not matter what others say and how crazy your ideas!!

    • hey Shailesh,

      That’s definitely the right attitude, the other thing to remember as well is the fact that there really are no shortcuts. If you want something good to happen you have to put in the effort.

  • sweet :)

    I love reading your blog. It seems obvious that besides having great ideas, you invest an amazing ammount of time in it.


  • Ahmed

    Interseting post Alan.
    I’ve read a post in Scott Berkun’s blog about innovation .. the main thing in this post is that don’t cocentrate in generating new ideas from nothing , but concentrate in problems that really interset people and how to solve them in a new way which eventually be a breakthrough.

    • Hi Ahmed,

      Scott usually has very sensible stuff to say. That is always great advice especially when you’re a business, although you don’t always need to generate good ideas for business purposes. However you will never go wrong concentrating on issues which are a pain point for a bunch of people.

  • Sam

    What you describe here is similar to the process of writing for most people. You write a bad first draft, figure out some things that is wrong with it and revise it into a slightly better draft, which you again revise for another draft, and so on. If you never write that bad first draft the masterpiece isn’t going to appear in the end since you have nothing to revise.

    The reason most great writers are great is that they work hard on their writing. The same goes for ideas: the reason most great researchers have great ideas is that they work hard on their ideas. What you typically see is not the 50-75% of ideas they had that were fundamentally flawed, but one of those remaining ideas that they have polished into a pearl. Nearly all of the remaining ideas except this pearl were in some sense wrong, but these ideas were somehow used to refine their understanding of the problem and the solution to it – without those ideas the final idea would not have materialized since their understanding at that stage was still incomplete. It is unfortunately not very likely that you will be able to observe this process directly from the masters: they are just as afraid as you of being wrong, and they probably also have a reputation of being incredibly smart that they believe they need to uphold to get future research funding.

    I wish I could offer more information on how this refinement of ideas works, but I don’t understand it well enough for a meta-analysis. I do want to point out some tools though, and the first one is writing. Writing inevitably exposes the flaws in your understanding, and is perhaps our greatest tool. I realize your goal is not to do research, but there are so many similarities between the ideas you want to generate and research ideas that it would be silly of me to not point this out: look at the presentation for “How to write a good research paper” here (1 hour long, but well worth it).

    Writing your ideas down for yourself when you have them is great advice. This means you need to have a recorder, phone, or a notebook and pen with you at all times. As a techie it is easy to go overboard with processes and ticketing systems and so on, but the guideline should be to keep it simple so you can jot down whatever thought you have at any time. Personally I go for a traditional space pen/moleskine combo. I keep the pen in my pocket at all times and it is roughly the same length as my house key.

    Finally I want to point to a paper by Brian Martin about research productivity. It’s just a few pages so well worth your time.

  • akemrir

    neat article, I agree with you

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