How to train yourself to generate better ideas.
It’s not hard to come up with a great idea.
What’s hard is to develop the habits that enable us to come up with great ideas.
The extent to which we incorporate these habits into our lives ultimately determines the quality of our ideas.
It’s not magic, it’s commitment.
Here are nine habits to improve your ability to generate valuable ideas.
1. Consider what you consume.
Idea generation is fueled by consumption, not creativity.
As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”
The more “things” we have to connect, the better our ideas will become. This means the quality and quantity of things we consume is a crucial factor in our ability to come up with a good idea.
The books, TV shows, articles, and movies we consume, the people we interact with, and the experiences we have all influence the ideas we
If we consume junk, we can’t expect to create quality.
(By the way, an easy way to improve the ideas you consume is to subscribe to my For The Interested newsletter).
2. Regurgitate what you consume.
Exposing ourselves to valuable ideas is only half the battle.
To get the most out of that which we consume, it helps to regurgitate those ideas to others.
After reading an interesting article, talk to somebody about it, write about it in a blog post, and/or condense its essence into a 140-character tweet. In doing so, we get exponentially more benefit out of it.
Because the process of communicating an idea we’ve consumed in different formats — speaking, writing, and condensing it — forces us to absorb the idea in a much deeper way.
We internalize it, learn more from it, are able to recall it, and better understand it. Each of those things make it more likely to unlock new ideas for us down the road.
3. Think macro.
One of the simplest ways to improve our idea generation is to think about things we encounter in a macro sense.
No matter what we learn, we can zoom out our perspective to a macro level and discover ways it relates to that which we’re trying to brainstorm.
For example, on a micro level a Billy Joel concert may just be a fun way to spend a night.
But by expanding my viewpoint and considering what was happening on a macro level, I discovered it was actually packed with universal ideas about how to connect with an audience that had nothing to do with music.
4. Capture ideas when they come.
Ideas come to us when THEY want to, not necessarily when WE want them to.
That’s why training ourselves to come up with better ideas isn’t just about preparing for our next brainstorm session. Recognize instead that ideas constantly come to us and to get in the habit of acknowledging and capturing them.
Learn to sense when an idea pops into your head and develop a simple system to capture it in the moment.
Carry around a notebook, leave yourself a voicemail, send yourself an email, or figure out some other way to capture the idea before it slips away.
5. Speak your ideas.
Just like it’s helpful to regurgitate the ideas of others, it’s also powerful to speak our own ideas out loud.
Express the idea to somebody else and explain it spontaneously. Don’t read it from your notes, say it to somebody extemporaneously.
The process of communicating an idea — even if we don’t solicit feedback— helps us clarify the idea and see it in a new way.
Something happens when we speak our ideas that doesn’t happen when we write them — and vice versa.
6. Ask more questions.
Questions are powerful and too often we don’t ask enough of them.
In any conversation, the process of coming up with questions to ask and listening to people’s answers can lead to new ideas.
It gives us more information to work with and trains us to look for different angles and layers to things as opposed to taking them at face value.
Need some suggestions of what to ask? Read this.
7. Study opposite takes on the same idea.
A key to successful idea generation is to recognize there are infinite answers to every challenge.
To develop this mindset, seek out different ways people answer the same question.
Take productivity for example.
Some people think productivity hacks ruin our lives while others believe our productivity is determined by who we sit next to.
Who’s right? It doesn’t matter — that’s not the point.
The point is consuming conflicting ideas helps us see a bigger picture, expand our viewpoint, and trigger our own take on the subject.
For me, that take turned out to be that these six decisions that will make you more productive.
8. Focus on ideas that solve problems.
The most valuable ideas are ones that solve problems for people.
So, rather than wait for a magical idea to hit you, think about what problems people have that you’d like to solve.
Inverting the process focuses your idea generation and increases the likelihood you come up with a good idea.
It’s the simplest thing you can do to instantly improve the quality of your ideas.
9. Vary where and when you think.
Routines are helpful in habit-building, but when it comes to idea generation don’t be afraid to mix it up.
Rather than set a specific time to brainstorm, we can train ourselves to do so at different times and in different locations.
When we try to come up with an idea for something, we don’t have to be seated at our desk or in our office. Even science proves we can’t be creative without moving.
Ideas can just as easily come in the shower, on a walk, while driving, or while doing the dishes.
We can brainstorm when we wake up one day, at lunch the next, and right before bed the day after that.
A variety of environments often sparks a wider variety (and higher quality) of ideas.
For example, the broad idea for this post came to me while I walked and listened to music, most of the nine habits came to me while in the shower, and I wrote it while at my desk.
And it turned out to be a pretty valuable idea…right?