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  • Michael Mayes

HOW TO BE AN IDEA MACHINE.

For most of my career as an advertising writer, my main job has been to come up with ideas every day. Sometimes all day long. Often when I explain what I do to people who aren’t in the industry, one of the things they’ll say is, “Wow. That’d be tough. I don’t know if I could do that. I’m not a creative person.”

What if I told you that it doesn’t matter if you’re a creative person or not? That no matter who you are, no matter what you’re working on, no matter how much time you have, there are ways you can hammer out ideas for anything. All you need are a few techniques. Would you be interested?


Okay then. I’m going to take you through 5 Ways You Can Be More Creative. And if you think being “creative” sounds flaky, then think of this as tips on How To Be An Idea Machine. Sound better? Good. Here's tip one.

1. WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN.


The best way to do this is to get a Sharpie fine-liner and a Moleskin notebook with no lines. Any pad and paper will do, but this combination works really well. With no lines, your writing will be messier. I can tell you from years of experience, somehow messier writing helps.


Writing everything down does a few things. It gets the mental gears moving. Once you write a thought down, it clears out your mind to make room for new ideas. And sometimes a half-baked thought or doodle can open a whole new range of thinking just by jotting it down on paper.


The most important thing about writing everything down is actually writing every idea down. Not just the ideas you think are good. Write down the dumb thoughts, the nonsensical things that pop into your head, random words, whatever. It’s amazing what connections start to happen when just keep the pen right next to the paper, ready to write.


There’s nobody there to judge you. It’s just you, your pen and your notebook. There’s plenty of time later to evaluate and select the good ideas to share with other people. Don’t judge anything while you’re coming up with ideas and you’ll have a lot more to choose from later.

2. KEEP GOING.


What happens with a lot of brainstorming sessions — either individually or in groups — is that people have a flood of ideas for the first few minutes. Then it turns into a trickle. Then everyone stops. Usually, nobody goes back at it a second or third time.


If you put the first bunch of ideas aside, take a break, go work on other things, then go back at it again the next day, you can come up with just as many ideas as the first time. Ideas you would never have had if you stopped after that first flood. Often this is where the best ideas come from. Unique approaches. Solutions that aren’t obvious at first.


And if you honestly don’t have time to think about something twice, you can still keep going. One useful technique is to just go until. Keep writing down ideas until you fill the page. Or until 1:00. Or until you have five more ideas. You can always keep going until, because there are always more ideas out there. Someone once said to me, “If you think you are out of ideas, that is just another idea.”


So, keep going.

3. CHANGE LOCATIONS.


If you’re stalled out or stuck momentarily, another great way to keep the ideas flowing is to go somewhere else. If you’re at the office, take your notebook and your pen to a coffee shop or out for lunch. If you’re at home, change rooms, think outside on the deck or go sit in a park. Just by a change of scenery — and by moving around — new and different ideas will come up than if you just sit there staring at the same four walls.


If you absolutely can’t change locations, change positions. If you’re at your desk, get away from the computer and sit in a comfy chair. If you’re at home sitting at the kitchen table, try lying on the couch. It sounds like it wouldn’t make much difference, but it absolutely does. Try it and you’ll see for yourself. You’ll be able to generate more ideas in less time than you did before.

4. SHARE YOUR IDEAS.


A lot of people feel like they need to have a great, perfectly formed idea before sharing it with others. There’s nothing wrong with that when you’re presenting an idea. But sharing your rough ideas early, talking them through with people, or getting together with at least one other person to think in tandem and bounce ideas around can boost your creative output astronomically.


You’ll get more parts to the ideas you already have. It will open you up to ideas you would never have thought of. And entirely new ideas will come up that neither person would have thought of on their own. Like magic.


So, if you’re scheduled to “brainstorm” with other people, to make the absolute most of it, think independently for a while, think together for a while, then think independently again, then think together again.

5. WAIT FOR IT.


When you’ve done all those other things and you still want to — or need to — come up with more ideas for anything, the fifth and final technique is to simply… wait for it.


This is probably the most valuable technique of all and the hardest thing to do. Carving out uninterrupted time to sit in silence, empty your mind and wait for new ideas to show up can feel a lot like wasting time, but it can turn out to be the most valuable and productive time you’ve ever spent.


If you can do this for even half an hour, you’ll be amazed what happens. Your mind is primed with all the things you’re trying to figure out. Your subconscious is blowing past all the ideas you’ve had. And eventually, there’s absolutely nothing for a good long time. Then an entirely new idea will float in and present itself to you. Sometimes it will be the best idea of all.


Sitting in silence, with your eyes closed, for long uninterrupted periods is never a waste of time. Unless you fall asleep. And even if that happens, your mind will be rested for more thinking later.


So, the next time you’re faced with a creative task, don’t worry if you’re not a “creative person”. Just use these tips and you’ll be able to generate so many ideas that everyone will think you actually are a creative person.


Because you will be.


— Michael Mayes