Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Letting Ideas Come to You

A lightbulb

(Note: This post, in a slightly different form, was originally published at Words on a Page, Rewound and appears here via a Creative Commons license.)

Ideas. We all have them. We all need them, for whatever we’re doing. Whether it’s writing or drawing or coding or creating or running a business, ideas are our lifeline.

Sometimes, though, ideas — whether good or bad — just won’t come. That’s not only frustrating, it’s demoralizing.

That happened to me in May, 2012. Ahead of my move overseas, I needed to write and queue up for publishing a number of blog posts. Quite a large number. My goal was to have enough post written ahead of time for all my blog. Why? So I could focus on the final details of my move and to make sure that those posts were published from mid-August to early September when I wouldn’t be able to write or publish anything.

A good plan. But there was one small snag.

I couldn’t come up with any ideas.

I’m not just talking about good ideas. I’m talking about ideas, period. And to be honest, I started to get a bit worried.

Then, one afternoon in the middle of May, things changed. Here’s what happened.

All the pieces were there, but those pieces wouldn’t come together or weren’t as well formed as they needed to be. Plus, with the stresses involved in my preparations for my move and with the contract gig I was undertaking at the time, I wasn’t as focused as I could or should have been.

The situation was kind of like writer’s block. Or, in this case, you can label it idea block. No matter what you call it, it wasn’t very pleasant. And it was only getting worse because I was missing my self-imposed deadlines.

Then things changed. Quite suddenly, too. I remember that day in May, 2012 when it all came together.

That day was quite an intense one. My mind and energy were focused on meeting a deadline for the contract gig I mentioned earlier. All my conscious effort was put into that deadline. A couple of hours after I was done, the mental log jam I’d been experiencing cleared. All those bits and pieces that were floating around in my mind came together.

Immediately, I grabbed a pen and a notebook and started writing down the ideas that were pouring out of my head. I must have jotted down at least 20. When I was done, I’d eliminated or consolidated a few of those ideas and wound up with a grand total of 14 blog post topics.

What happened? I thought about that for a bit, then I stumbled upon this article.

The problem was that I was trying too hard to consciously come up with ideas. In a brainstorming situation, that can work. But because of the stresses I was under, something in my brain created a barrier or three. It was when my focus and energy was directed at something else that the barriers dropped.

The question is How can I let ideas come to me?

The best, and most obvious, piece of advice is to try not to force yourself to come up with ideas. That’s easier said than done, even in the best conditions.

After what happened in May, 2012 I’ve experimented with creating artificial periods of intense focus. Not all of them had to do with writing. Some of them involved planning my move, in working or coming up with the tasks I needed to do around the house, and even focusing on other writing and business projects.

To do that, sit down with a pen and paper. Focus on the problem you want to solve or the task you want to perform. Think of every idea you can, and write each of those ideas down. Spend 30 to 60 minutes doing that, then take a step back.

Get away from your ideas for an hour or two. Or even a day. Then, go back and do it again. The second time around, you’ll find the quality of your ideas is better and they flow a lot more smoothly from your brain.

I find that in most cases, shunting that effort to the front of my brain lets ideas and thoughts percolate in the back of my brain. And, in most cases, those ideas and thoughts come together.

Notice I wrote in most cases. It didn’t always work. Sometimes, I was back to square one. Once or twice, I was even further back than that! On average, though, I managed to come up with something that I could work with so the extra effort was worth it.

It’s not a perfect technique, but then again what is?

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