How to come up with ideas

We’re now 13 days into The 30 Day Writing Challenge. The biggest hurdle that I’m hearing over and over again is: I don’t know what to write about. I don’t have ideas.

Here are my unedited thoughts on having ideas.

Capture ideas

Have a system to capture your ideas. You could use pen and paper, but I like to use Simplenote which syncs across all my devices. It doesn’t matter where I am – at my desk, on a train, or out on a walk – I can jot down my thoughts.

I keep ideas by theme. So, for example, I want to write a piece on how to negotiate. I have a note called ‘Negotiate’ and anything that I hear or think about that could be relevant goes in that file. I capture everything that might be useful. Most of it will be thrown out. But that’s ok, I can sort through it later. I also had a file called ‘Ideas’ for this post.

The important thing is to capture everything. The moment you think of something, add it your notes. If you don’t, it’s gone.

I organise my notes in Simplenote about once a week. It quickly becomes messy, as I’m adding to it all day, every day. During this process, I’ll select the ideas I’m excited about and I’ll add them to my Trello writing board.

My Trello writing board has 5 columns: Ideas, Research, Writing, Editing, and Done. It’s a straight forward setup, with the goal that a post starts in the Idea column and gradually moves right until it’s done and published.

Here’s what my writing board looks like currently:

Trello Writing Board

I decide what to write about for the following day during my shutdown routine. The last thing I want to do when I sit down to write is to decide what to write about. I want my energy to be used on writing, not deciding what to write about. So I’ll decide on the topic, sleep on it where I subconsciously work on the problem, and then sit down to write about that first thing in the morning.

Input sources

The more you that you take in, the more of a catalog you can pull from.

I read a lot, mostly on the Kindle. I highlight passages I find interesting. And then once I’ve finished the book, I’ll login to the Kindle website and move my highlights to Simplenote where I can then organise them.

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Every time I hear something that’s interesting or useful, I jot it down.

I use Instapaper to read articles online. I pay for the premium subscription service so that I can highlight anything of interest.

Try to consume information outside of your field or industry. This is where you can explore and grow, and find connections you wouldn’t normally find. It’s all fuel for new ideas. Lately I’ve been listening to conversations about spirituality (in a secular sense), because I find it intriguing and it’s something I haven’t thought much about.

The beauty of collecting from so many sources is that it allows you to combine ideas and make something that’s unique. Take one story or theory, combine it with another, and you have your own take on a topic.

Develop your idea muscle

James Altucher has talked at length about becoming an Idea Machine. We all have an idea muscle that is responsible for coming up with new ideas. The idea muscle atrophies when we don’t use. It needs regular exercise just like any other muscle. You need to be coming with ideas every day to keep the idea muscle healthy.

To do this, James suggests creating a list of 10 ideas every day. The list could be about anything you like. Start with ’10 lists I could create’. For example:

  1. 10 blog posts I could write
  2. 10 things I’m interested in getting better at
  3. 10 books I’d love to read this year
  4. 10 people I’d like to chat to
  5. 10 ways I can be more helpful
  6. 10 clients I’d love to work with
  7. 10 places I’d like to visit
  8. 10 things I’m most looking forward to
  9. 10 things that haven’t been invented yet
  10. 10 things that be will different about the world in 10 years time

The topic doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you list 10 things. Having 10 ideas is difficult. You might get to 5 or 6, and the last few items make your brain sweat. This is important. You want your brain to sweat. This is when you’re strengthening your idea muscle.

If you get stuck and can’t get to 10, you’re probably being too hard on yourself. Each idea won’t be perfect. In fact, most ideas will be bad. But the important thing is that you get to 10. If you try and come up with just 1 idea, it’s much harder. You’ll want that single idea to be perfect. Don’t judge your ideas as you write them down. 10 bad ideas are better than 0 good ideas.

Create space for thinking

This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of having ideas. Insights often come from the unburdened spaces in our lives. That’s why we often get ideas on walks or in the shower. Create more space to think and you’ll come up with more ideas.

I get ideas when I’m bored. When I’m ironing shirts or cleaning the house, it’s so boring that I’m constantly getting ideas.

Phones and social media are mostly responsible for destroying the empty spaces in our lives. Remove games and social media from your phone, or, even better, leave it on the other side of the room.

It’s important to protect the empty space in our lives. This is when the brain gets chance to wander. You should let it wander. You’ll never know where it’s going to lead you.