Brainstorm Idea Generation Techniques
Brainstorming is the best tool when you need to challenge a daft idea with withering logic. Brainstorming excels at testing challenging and dissecting minute details.
The unconscious mind plays a very important role in coming up with ideas. But you need to create the right conditions for this to happen. And this brain-hack is all about how you create those conditions. This blog explains the best 36+ Brainstorming Techniques with Examples.
There are no guarantee ideas will pop up from your unconscious, but it’s like planting a seed; if you plant it in a sunny spot in good soil and give it plenty of water, you’ve given it the best chance to grow.
Brainstorming Technique 1:
Colors help create further delineation on your map and are another tool to help embed the information in your memory. By associating something with color as well the title of the group it’s in, you are remembering it twice.
You are using two different parts of the brain, the one that deals with the color association and the one that deals with language.
Run a Brain Marathon
“A collection of a hundred Great Brains makes one big fathead.” Carl Jung
There are lots of problems with brainstorms, but the main one is they don’t go on for long enough.
They usually stop when people have run out of ideas and you get those embarrassing silences. But those embarrassing silences are when your unconscious starts engaging on the problem and is a vital part of coming up with great ideas.
“There are lots of problems with brainstorms, but the main one is they don’t go on for long enough.”
The way brainstorms are practiced in most companies today is still almost exactly the same way that was recommended by their inventor, advertising executive Alex Osborn.
Business and our understanding of how the brain works have moved on so much in that time and yet we’re still hanging onto this old technique for so many of our idea-gathering sessions.
The fact is, brainstorms do have a useful part to play in solving problems. They can be very useful at the start and the end of the process. The trouble is a lot of the time they’re used as the only part of the process.
Here are some of the problems with a brainstorm:
You listen and focus on other people’s ideas and don’t spend time thinking about your own. When we hear someone else’s solution, it’s like a magnet and it pulls our focus towards it.
After the idea generation process, the decision makers often tend to choose the moderately creative over highly creative ideas.
Some of these problems can be solved by a technique called brainwriting. This is where people either write their ideas down before or at the start of the session. They then stick them all up on the wall anonymously.
This is definitely a way to improve brainstorms. But the decision makers can still use the session to pick a solution to the problem, rather than using the ideas as starting points for further thought.
Too many people in a group can also be a problem. When you get embarrassing silences with a group of fifteen people you wrap up the session. But when there are two, three or four of you, you can ride the silence.
In Alex Osborn’s 1953 book Applied Imagination he introduced the concept of the brainstorm because he claimed that brainstorming was more effective in generating ideas than individuals working alone.
But around the same time Bill Bernbach, of advertising agency DDB, also introduced the idea of a team of people working together to solve ideas. It’s just that his idea of the “creative team” involved only two people. And they wouldn’t just try to come up with ideas in one-hour times slots, but day in, day out.
Sometimes these creative teams involve more than two people as in American TV’s “writers rooms”. But what all these creative team sessions have in common is what brainstorms don’t: time, a trusting environment, a lack of ego and drive to keep working on the problem.
They said that if you feel like you’re going to be criticized for something you say, then you’re not going to say it. It’s really important to be in an environment where you would feel comfortable saying the stupidest of things because often good ideas would arise from these.
Instead of trying to negate what another person says, they believe you should try to build on it.
And as you build on each thought, you come up with a run of thoughts. Sometimes something great comes out of it and sometimes it doesn’t lead anywhere and you move on. But what is important is you’ve investigated its potential. “It’s a really sophisticated form of play”, said Peter.
I think brainstorm has become the dominant model for problem-solving in business because it’s easy and quick. You get everyone together for an hour, throw ideas around and then the boss picks his favorite. You know at the end of the hour you’ll have some solutions to your problem and you can give it a big tick and move on.
“Instead of trying to negate what another person says, you should try and build on it.”
But it’s unlikely that the brainstorm has created the best solution. If you genuinely want good ideas, borrow the model from creative teams whose job it is to come up with ideas on a daily basis.
After all, if you want to know how to grow flowers, you wouldn’t ask a florist, you’d ask a gardener.
If you want to get good ideas you’ve got to work at it. It can be fun and it can be frustrating, but you’ve got to put in the hours.
“If you want to get good ideas you’ve got to work at it.”
So here’s the model I would suggest instead of the brainstorm.
Make sure the signpost is pointing in the right direction:
Really understanding the problem you’re trying to solve is vital to creating a good solution. This is where a brainstorm can be useful. It can feed in as much background information as possible.
Brainstorming Technique 2:
Think, think, think
Get people into small teams of two, three or four and then allocate a decent block of time for them to work on the problem. The very minimum should be a whole morning or afternoon.
If you can get out of the office, that’s even better. “Lots of the best ideas occur when camaraderie and chemistry have built up between employees and breaks from the office together – even for just a day can make all the difference,” says Richard Branson.
After an initial outpouring of ideas, you’ll find yourself drying up. This is the stage when brainstorms usually stop. But don’t think it’s any reflection on your thinking abilities. It happens to all creative thinkers.
That point when you get stuck and feel like you’re not getting anywhere, that’s when you’re hacking your brain and getting your unconscious and its huge processing power involved. What’s important is to stay together and don’t drift back to your desks to check emails.
Brainstorming Technique 3:
Once you’ve spent the morning working on a problem, have a break from it and then get back together for an hour at the end of the day to review your ideas.
This is when you need to narrow down your ideas and pick your favorites. Instead of your boss picking from a long list in a brainstorm, you get to narrow down the choice to a shortlist. The benefit of this is you get to argue out amongst yourselves the benefit of one idea over another and in doing so create a solid argument for each idea.
Brainstorms might come in a convenient half hour and hour time slots, but ideas don’t. So if you’re really serious about finding a solution to a problem, give the brain marathon a try.
Do Something Different
“If all you own is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Abraham Maslow
If asked whether it is better to have more knowledge of a subject than less, most people’s natural inclination would be to say more. It’s why we have the phrase “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. The implication being, with a little knowledge you can be misled into thinking you’re an expert on a subject.
But knowledge is often just other people’s ideas and is often seen as set in stone. If you want to look at something in a fresh way you need to break away from existing ideas on a subject.
I think that’s why Einstein tweaked it to: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”
It’s no surprise then that Einstein himself had what was called his “miracle year” (or his miracle “three and a half months” to be more precise) when he was just twenty-six.
In that time, he wrote three papers, one of which won him the Nobel prize, one that confirmed beyond doubt the existence and size of atoms, and another that introduced the mind, space and time-bending concept of special relativity.
“Once we see something in a certain light or used for a certain purpose, it’s very hard to see it in a different way.”
Once we have a certain amount of knowledge on a subject we can start to suffer from “functional fixedness” or “stuck in a rut” syndrome. It basically means that once we see something in a certain light or used for a certain purpose, it’s very hard to see it in a different way.
We’re so set in thinking of things in a certain way. It’s why, when a simple new idea comes along you often hear, “That’s so obvious; why hasn’t anyone thought of that before?” They haven’t thought of it before because everyone is so fixed in their thinking.
When you’ve got a problem and you’ve got a choice of four different paths to take instead of one, you’re far more likely to go somewhere new with it.
Brainstorming Technique 4:
To Think Different, Do Different
What’s interesting is that doing anything new will help you break out of functionally fixed thinking. It’s not the relevance that matters; it’s the newness.
What they also found was it worked because it was an active experience. When people were shown a film about the strange things that happened in the virtual cafe there was no increase in their levels of creativity. They needed to actually experience it for themselves for it to make a difference.
It’s all about seeking out that little unconscious jolt of surprise that a new perspective can give you.
“It’s all about seeking out that little unconscious jolt of surprise that a new perspective can give you.” There are many ways to get this change of perspective jolt from experiencing something every day in a different way.
An interesting example of this is from New Yorker Alexandra Horowitz’s book, On Looking. She went on eleven walks around her block with a different companion each time.
She wanted to see this very familiar walk which she did every day, through different eyes. Each one transformed the familiar surroundings and helped her see it in a fresh and interesting new way.
A sound engineer transformed the urban noise into the characteristic, flavourful clatter of the city. Each sound felt invited a pleasure. A typographer helped her to stop reading signs and look at them instead.
The linguistic part of her brain rested and the shape-identifying part hummed with activity. Through a geologist’s eyes, the city suddenly became not a sterile “man-made” object but a thriving ecosystem of living and once-living landscape.
By changing your focus the ordinary can become extraordinary again.
But don’t feel you have to wait till you get outside the office. Dr. Ritter says, “Start a brainstorming session with something unexpected and you’ll find that it is easier for participants to think outside the box.”
Brainstorming Technique 5:
Don’t Try to Have Good Ideas
“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.” Émile Chartier
The first rule of having good ideas: Don’t try to have good ideas.
What’s important is just to have ideas. When you have an idea you don’t know how good it is. It can only be judged when you have more ideas to compare it to.
Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin said “Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come up with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, ‘None’.”
When there’s pressure to think of a “great” idea, you start judging your ideas before you’ve even written them down.
“The first rule of having good ideas: Don’t try to have good ideas.”
American advertising legend George Lois said that he told everyone in his department to come up with a great idea for a client. He came back in an hour and nobody had any ideas at all.
So he said, “Okay, come up with twenty ideas.” He came back in an hour and everyone had twenty ideas. Some were good and some were bad, but they’d all managed to get twenty ideas.
Brainstorming Technique 6:
Don’t Fall in Love
What’s just as bad as being too judgemental is not being judgemental enough. You have an idea and you fall head over heels in love with it and you stop thinking.
It might be a great idea, but it’s probably not. It’s usually the ideas that you have after sweating over the problem for a bit, which is the best. Try not to get too fixated on one idea. Just write it down and carry on thinking.
Feed the Mind
As you write down each idea, it’s not just being recorded on paper; it’s also being etched into your brain. And it’s not just that you’re memorizing that particular idea, you’re also creating material for further ideas.
Einstein talked about ideas coming from “combinatory play” and Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” So the more thoughts you have about a problem, the more interesting the combination of ideas you can have.
The writer James Altucher came up with the concept of increasing your idea muscle by coming up with ten ideas a day. Each day he picks a different subject. It could be anything “Ten businesses I can start”, “Ten ways to give me more free time”, “Ten ways to make my daily commute more interesting”.
The important thing is to force yourself to come up with ten. As he says, the first three will be fairly easy, but the last few can be like squeezing blood out of a stone.
I think it’s a great idea and would thoroughly recommend it. Again with this exercise, it’s not about the quality, it’s about the quantity. But by freeing yourself from the pressure of having to have good ideas, you will find that by having lots of ideas you will naturally start having interesting ideas.
“By having lots of ideas you will naturally start having interesting ideas.”
What’s really important are those last few ideas. Whether they’re good ideas or not, it’s the effort you put in on these that will give you a more creative mind.
Brainstorming Technique 7:
Think Like a Child
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso
We’re always being told if we want to be creative we need to think like a child. Well, now there’s scientific proof to back it up.
In a study conducted at the North Dakota State University, they discovered that the secret of finding your inner child is not as previously thought snips and snails and puppy dog tails for men or sugar and spice and all things nice for women. It’s imagining yourself as a child.
For the study, they took a group of college students and split them into two groups. They asked the first group to write a short essay: “Imagine school is canceled for today.
What would you do, think, and feel?” The second group was asked to write a similar essay, but with one difference to the question: “Imagine you are seven years old and school is canceled for today. What would you do, think, and feel?”
After approximately five minutes of writing, each participant was asked to complete a version of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. What they found were the students who had imagined they were seven years old, showed significantly higher levels of originality in their thoughts.
Simply by imagining yourself as a free-thinking imaginative seven-year-old, it can make you more creative.
“To be really open in our thinking, we need to be restricted.”
To be really open in our thinking, we need to be restricted.
In the North Dakota University study, they weren’t just asked to imagine they were a child; they were asked to imagine they were “a seven-year-old”. Being that specific helps focus the mind and helps you break away from any unconscious blocks in your thinking.
What was also interesting about the study was that the people who seemed to show the most improvement in creative ability were the most introverted ones. The ones are most worried about being judged and being wrong.
By thinking like a seven-year-old you’re given the right to be wrong. Without this straitjacket of having to come up with the “right” or the “best” answer, we are free to let our imaginations run wild.
The trouble is from school onwards there’s so much pressure to be “right”. Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”
is the most watched TED talk with over 34 million views, believes many schools kill creativity for penalizing children for being wrong. He says, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
And now with social media playing such a central role in so many people’s lives, the pressure to conform is even greater. What’s cool and what’s not cool is just another way of saying what’s right and what’s wrong.
Nowadays both children and adults are not just being judged by their small group of friends and family, but by the whole world.
And this pressure to conform, whether conscious or unconscious, is having a big effect on how creative we are.
Every year thousands of people worldwide take the Torrence creativity test as well as an IQ test. And for every generation, the scores usually go up by about 10 points. This rise inability in both intellectual and creative tests is linked to a phenomenon called the Flynn effect.
You can hear more about this in James Flynn’s TED talk: “Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents”, but basically, taking America as an example, in 1900, only 3% of people practiced professions that were deemed “cognitively demanding”. Today, 35% of us do, and we have all learned to be more flexible in the way that we think about problems.
I think it’s no coincidence that the peer group pressure machine, or “the Internet” as it is commonly known, really gained public awareness in the 90s. By the mid, the too late 90s the Internet was growing by 100% a year.
But ironically, while we’re becoming less creative, creativity is seen as more and more important. Look at this 2010 IBM study of 1,500 chief executive officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide.
What did they see as the most important leadership quality – creativity?
Most important leadership qualities over the next five years
And you can tell this is a real survey by hard-nosed business leaders.
Humility and fairness are last at 12%.
So while we are valuing creativity more and more, it’s becoming harder to escape from our fear of being wrong.
And that’s why the “think like a seven-year-old” exercise is so useful. It’s generally believed that peer group pressure comes in around the age of nine, so by thinking like a seven-year-old, you’re going back to that time when you weren’t judged when you could be wrong and no one thought any worse of you for it.
So the next time you’re getting a group of people together to solve a problem, why not put a big bowl of sweets in the middle of the table and ask everyone to write down their ideas on how as a seven-year-old they would solve the problem.
Even if a solution doesn’t come out of it, it will certainly get everyone in a more creative frame of mind.
“While we are valuing creativity more and more, it’s becoming harder to escape from our fear of being wrong.”
Of course, you wouldn’t want real seven-year-olds trying to solve your problem. It would be chaos. You want an adult, with all their experience, channeling the open and curious nature of a seven-year-old.
As Charles Baudelaire wrote in The Painter of Modern Life, “Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed.”
If you can really get a roomful of adults to think like seven-year-olds, you’ll have a group of people who aren’t worried who had what idea, or what the boss thinks. And most importantly you’ll have a roomful of people who want to be creators and not critics.
Brainstorming Technique 8:
“When you are going good, stop writing.” Ernest Hemingway
When it comes to writing or creating anything, people always talk about the fear of the blank sheet of paper. But it’s not really a fear of paper unless you’ve got Papyrophobia and then it is.
It’s the fear of a blank mind. But there’s an easy way to hack your way out of having a blank mind. When you sit down to work on a project, don’t finish.
Say, for example, you’re writing a long work document, the natural inclination would be to stop where you find a natural ending: at the end of a thought or, at the very least, the end of a paragraph.
You’re dotting the I’s and crossing the t’s and leaving it neat and tidy for tomorrow. But the trouble is, putting your project to bed like this also puts your mind to sleep and that’s the last thing you want.
The project might only be halfway through, but to your mind, it’s done and dusted. The next day when you come back to it, you really are starting afresh.
“When you sit down to work on a project, don’t finish.”
You need to re-engage your mind in the project and this can be hard. You can’t really grasp that thought that seemed so clear the night before.
And then because it’s not coming easily, you start to feel blocked and negative emotions start arising about your own ability. You get distracted by emails and then when you come back to it later, getting into it again seems an even more daunting task.
Brainstorming Technique 9:
Well, Ernest Hemingway had an answer to this problem. When he stopped writing he didn’t leave it at a natural neat ending point of a chapter or even a paragraph. He wanted to leave his writing with a sharp jagged edge so it couldn’t be ignored. So he would always stop mid-sentence.
This is what he said about the practice: “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
Firstly and most obviously, by stopping when you know what you want to write next, makes it a lot easier to start again the next day.
But more importantly, you’re engaging your brain and tying it to the project. The brain doesn’t like unfinished business, so by stopping mid-sentence, you’re keeping it involved.
That’s what Hemingway meant when he said, “you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.” Your mind is actually desperate to get back to working on it.
And what’s even better is when you switch off, your unconscious won’t. It’ll keep thinking about it, so when you sit down to write, not only will you know what to write, but new ideas might start bubbling up from your unconscious as well.
Of course, the hard thing is to stop writing when it’s going well. You want to make the most of this purple patch. But you have to be tough on yourself. Pick a time or a number of words and after that, stop.
Hemingway passed on his writing hack to another great writer, Roald Dahl, who said this about it: “Make yourself stop, put your pencil down and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely and you have to try and do that…. If you stop when you are stuck, then you are in trouble!”
Brainstorming Technique 10:
Take Part in Name Calling
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their own names.” Chinese Proverb
“You need to get in touch with your emotions” is a phrase you hear a lot these days, in relation to growing as a person. But do you need to get in touch with them?
There are lots of emotions I don’t want to get in touch with: intimidated, scared, insecure, lonely, unhappy, angry, upset, sad, patronized, humiliated … I could go on about the appointment with my doctor, but I won’t.
The fact is there are a lot of emotions that can have quite an overpowering effect on us. But our emotions are there to help us. We need our feelings to signal to us about the dangers and opportunities that we face from within and without. But when our emotions get too strong they just take over and we can’t function properly.
But there is a simple technique that can really help to diffuse negative emotions. Name them. I don’t mean give each emotion its own pet name: “This is my insecurity, but I call it ‘Norman’”. No, what I mean is when you feel an overpowering emotion, just say the name of it.
Obviously, if you’re in the company of someone you say it in your head, but if you’re alone, saying it out loud can give it more authority.
For instance, if someone says they don’t like what you’re wearing, you might say “humiliated”, or if someone cuts you up when you’re driving, you might say “angry”.
Now, this isn’t just some new age mumbo jumbo; there is some real science behind it. Recently, researchers discovered that attaching a word to our messy emotions is a very effective way to lessen their impact.
Of course, your feelings won’t disappear, and you don’t want them to. They play an important role in helping us understand and cope with people, situations and experiences.
But just naming the feeling can help soothe negative emotions and stop us responding impulsively, drowning in negative feelings, or becoming aggressive in a counter-productive way.
“Just naming the feeling can help soothe negative emotions.”
“You can do it.”
“When you give yourself motivational speeches in your head, it will lead to better performance if you use ‘you’ rather than ‘I’.”
In the first experiment, they had 95 undergraduates imagine they were a character in a sketch, and that character was facing a choice. They were asked to write down the advice they would give themselves in making this choice, and half were told to use “I” in their instructions while the other half were told to use “you.”
Afterward, the participants were asked to complete anagrams. Those who had used “you” in their advice to their character completed more anagrams than those who had used “I”.
They also ran a test where they asked 135 psychology students to write down advice to themselves about exercising for the next two weeks. The ones using “you” in their advice planned to do more exercise during those two weeks and also reported more positive attitudes toward it than the students giving themselves first-person advice.
In the study, they found that those who worked through their stress about giving a speech using “you” rather than “I” performed better and were less bothered by anxieties. When people use the second-person pronoun “it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback”, said Ethan Kross.
So what’s behind the “you” effect? The researchers speculated that second-person self-talk may have this beneficial effect because it cues memories of receiving support and encouragement from others, especially in childhood.
I think when you say “I”, it’s more of a challenge to yourself, whereas when you say “you”, it’s much more supportive and much more likely to instill confidence.
Brainstorming Technique 11:
Time to Talk It Out
Have you ever found yourself walking down the aisles in a supermarket, looking for a particular item and then muttering the name of the product at the same time? Well, whatever the other shoppers thought of you, you were actually using a very helpful cognitive tool.
Past research has shown that self-directed speech can help guide behaviors for children, such as tying shoelaces or other step-by-step tasks. But Gary Lupyan and Daniel Swingley from the University of Wisconsin have found the same can be true for adults.
As long as you know what an object looks like, if you say its name out loud, you can speed up the process of finding it.
In one experiment, volunteers were shown 20 pictures of various objects and asked to look for a specific one, such as a banana. In half of the trials, participants were asked to repeatedly say what they were looking for out loud to themselves; in the others, they were asked to remain silent.
The researchers found self-directed speech helped people find objects more quickly by about a tenth of a second, which might not sound like much, but it is when you see it as a percentage of the average time it took participants to find an item, which was 1.2 to 2 seconds.
The benefits lie much further than finding fruit in the supermarket or cheese in your fridge. Speaking helps any search, particularly when there is a strong association between the name and the look of an object.
If you’re organizing elements for a project or presentation or looking for documents on your computer, try naming the items out loud and it should help speed up the process and use up less mental energy.
Brainstorming Technique 12:
“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” Winston Churchill
Staying focused is something that’s harder and harder in this age of information. Did you know that 90% of all the data in the world has been created over the last two years?
The lure of social media is constantly dragging us away from important tasks. You think you’ll just have a quick look and before you know it, half an hour has passed. The distraction of email is just as bad, but we console ourselves that “it’s work”.
While there’s more and more information vying for our attention, our ability to focus is, if anything, getting worse.
It’s not helped by information being fed to us in smaller and smaller chunks. Look at movie trailers for example.
“The lure of social media is constantly dragging us away from important tasks.”
But the trouble isn’t just the speed and the amount of information that’s thrown at us, it’s that our brains can’t multi-task.
When you’re on the phone and writing an email at the same time, you’re actually switching back and forth between them, since there’s only one mental and neural channel through which language flows.”
It’s been known for some time that when our brains are focused on a task, we can fail to see other things that are in plain sight. This phenomenon is known as “inattentional blindness”. One of the famous examples of this is the “invisible gorilla” experiment.
Viewers are asked to watch a video of players passing around a basketball and count the number of passes. Whilst focused on counting, they end up failing to observe a man in a gorilla suit walking across the center of the screen.
But more worrying, new results show that our visual field does not need to be cluttered with other objects to cause this “blindness”. Focusing on remembering something we have only just seen is enough to make us unaware of things that happen around us.
“An example of where this is relevant in the real world is when people are following directions on a sat nav while driving.
Our research would suggest that focusing on remembering the directions we’ve just seen on the screen means that we’re more likely to fail to observe other hazards around us on the road, for example, an approaching motorbike or a pedestrian on a crossing, even though we may be ‘looking’ at where we’re going.”
It’s as if the visual pathway to the brain is a single-track path with information having to take turns to travel along it. Basically, it means that even though the eyes “see” the object, the brain may not.
Unfortunately, the only way to solve the sat nav problem is not to use one; but there are other ways to improve our focus.
Brainstorming Technique 13:
Firstly, rather than spending an hour “multi-tasking”, split your time up. So instead of writing a document, making phone calls and checking emails all at the same time, spent twenty minutes on each.
Twenty minutes on the document, twenty minutes on phone calls and twenty minutes on emails. If you can manage it, you’ll find you write better and have more insightful conversations and just as importantly, your mind will stay fresher.
Brainstorming Technique 14:
A Busy Mind Is a Focused Mind
What Nilli Lavie found helped keep people focused, was making the task more visually demanding. That meant adding more colors and shapes.
So if you are focusing on learning something, use different colored pens and different symbols for indexing the information. This takes up more of your brain’s processing power and doesn’t leave it with any inclination or energy to wander.
Don’t Waste the Power Hour
Of course, there’s no point in trying to be really focused at the end of a long day, it’s just not going to happen. We are at our most alert first thing in the morning, so don’t waste that first hour looking through emails. Give yourself one hour focused thinking on your current task and after that look at emails/check social media.
But make sure you stick to one hour. Your brain will find it a lot easier to stay focused when it knows it can bunk off after exactly an hour and look through emails and social media updates.
The trouble is, distraction feels good. Your brain’s reward circuit lights up when you multi-task (even though you’re not actually multi-tasking, just getting distracted a lot) which means that you get an emotional high when you’re doing a lot at once. So as long as it knows it’s going to get its reward after an hour, it will be happy.
The secret is not to get distracted. So for that one hour, make sure the only connection is between you and your project; switch everything else off.
“The secret is not to get distracted.”
Rock studied thousands of people and found that we are only truly focused on an average of only six hours per week.
So try to give yourself one fully focused hour every weekday morning.
Use it to work on an important project without any distraction.
It’s not the best way to focus; it’s the only way to focus.
Brainstorming Technique 15:
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Albert Einstein
You walk into an Apple store and it’s uncluttered and beautifully laid out. In the same way, Apple products are about to clean lines and simple design. So it would be fairly safe to assume Steve Jobs’ desk would have been a perfect example of Zen minimalism.
Wrong, it was a complete tip.
Other famous exemplars of the messy desk are Einstein, Mark Twain, Alexander Fleming, Mark Zuckerberg, and Alan Turing.
All in very different fields, but all very creative thinkers.
The question is, were their desks messy because they were creative, or were they creative because they had messy desks?
Was the real reason that one of Fleming’s Petri dishes got mold all over it and so helped him invent penicillin because it got lost under a pile of junk on his desk?
Unlikely. And of course, there’s more to being creative than just having a messy desk. But research led by Kathleen Vohs,1 a professor at the University of Minnesota, has found that you do actually get a creativity boost when you work in a messy space.
“You do actually get a creativity boost when you work in a messy space.”
In their first study, they created two rooms: a tidy one with books and papers neatly stacked, and a messy one with papers and books strewn all over the place.
They then got over 180 adults to attend what they said was a consumer choice study. Each individual was assigned either the tidy or the messy room. They then asked the participants if they’d like a fruit smoothie from the deli.
They created two versions of the menu. Half of the subjects saw a menu that had the word “classic” highlighting the health boost option, whereas the other half saw the health boost highlighted by the word “new”.
When the subjects were in the tidy room they chose the “classic” drink almost twice as often. When the subjects were in the messy room, they chose the “new” drink more than twice as often.
Therefore, people greatly preferred convention in the tidy room and novelty in the messy room.
The next test wasn’t just to see if people were more inclined to newness, but to see if messiness actually encouraged creativity.
They assigned a group of individuals messy or neat rooms as before.
But this time they asked them to think of new uses for ping-pong balls.
The participants from both rooms wrote down about the same numbers of solutions. But when the solutions were analyzed by independent judges, it was found that the ideas that came from people in the messy room were seen as 28% more creative.
Amazingly, almost five times as many of the ideas that were judged as “highly creative”, like cutting open the balls and using them as ice cube trays, or attaching them to chair legs to protect floors, came from people in the messy room.
Researchers at Northwestern University found the same results when they tried their own messy/tidy room experiment. They found that subjects in a messy room drew more creative pictures and were quicker to solve a challenging brainteaser puzzle than subjects in a tidy room.
Our brains are very impressionable, so the unconscious cues of disorder in the messy room make us think “messy”. This disorderly thinking is an ideal state to be in when trying to come up with innovative and unexpected ideas.
Maybe it’s an argument for moving away from the current trend of minimal open plan offices. They say the basics of good interior design are space, flow, and function. Well, if you want the ideas to flow, people will function better with their own space and a little bit of good old-fashioned clutter.
Brainstorming Technique 16:
Breaking Through and Innovating
The moment of insight and how to turn ideas into innovations
Enjoy Being Blocked
“Writing is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow
I’m sitting at my computer trying to write about a creative block but I don’t know how to start. This isn’t the first line I’ve written; I’ve started and deleted a few already. I’ve got background material about being blocked and I’ve got various ideas of my own that I want to write about, but it’s still hard getting started.
One of the fears people have is that what they create won’t be good. People have said to me that they can’t write. But of course they can write – what they really mean is they feel they can’t write well.
The important thing is just to get started and not worry too much about what you’re going to write or whether it’s going to be any good. You’re probably going to have to do some more work on it anyway.
Malcolm Gladwell says, “The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.”
“The important thing is just to get started and not worry too much.”
Whatever field you’re in, you just need to get started and don’t let self-doubt get a foothold in your mind. Creating anything is hard, but just because it’s a struggle, it doesn’t mean you’re blocked.
“Just because it’s a struggle, it doesn’t mean you’re blocked.”
It’s easy to read something well written and be intimidated, thinking you could never write something like it. But just because something is effortless to read, it doesn’t mean it was effortless to write.
One of the ways to fight the feeling of being blocked is to think about what you’ve achieved previously. Say you make a commitment to yourself to write a weekly blog.
Once you’ve written one and it was okay, you will be able to do another one. The trouble is all this self-doubt starts to come in before you even start to write the second one. You begin to think you won’t know what to write about.
But rather than think about it, give yourself an hour and sit down and try to work out what you can write about. Write any ideas down even if they seem rubbish. If you do get stuck, read. Read books, magazines or online articles. You’re not trying to steal ideas; you’re looking for a fire starter.
The most important thing is to stick at the task for an hour. Even if at the end of the hour you feel like you’ve got nothing, that hour will have been invaluable; you will have fed your unconscious and ideas will come later on.
Brainstorming Technique 17:
Blocked Not Block
One of the worst and most damaging things is calling it writer’s, or creative, block. If it is a “block” it makes it a thing; it gives it power. Really, it is about feeling blocked and it is something you need to work through.
Also, by calling your mental struggle creative block, it lets you off the hook. It’s not about you: it’s about the block. It’s something that stands in your way like a huge wall. But it’s not. It’s not a thing and it’s not a condition, it’s all in your mind and you just have to work through it.
A Walk Around the Block
Feeling blocked can feel very different depending on what stage you are in your project.
At the start
At the start, it’s about looking for an idea. It’s always better to sit down with an idea, and then you don’t have to fear the blank sheet of paper and can get started straight away.
If you follow Take Notes Brainhack then you should always have a good list of ideas to work on. It also helps if your ideas have been maturing in your head for a little while. It’s much easier when the ideas are fighting to get out rather than you having to go in search for them.
The filmmaker Werner Herzog says, “The problem isn’t coming up with ideas, it is how to contain the invasion. My ideas are like uninvited guests.
They don’t knock on the door; they climb in through the windows like burglars who show up in the middle of the night and make a racket in the kitchen as they raid the fridge. I don’t sit and ponder which one I should deal with first. The one to be wrestled to the floor before all others are the one coming at me with the most vehemence.”
Once you’ve got an idea you need to just dive into getting it down on paper and don’t worry about the quality of the writing. If you start writing straight away you’ll engage the mind much quicker and it’ll get easier and easier as the minute's pass.
The trouble is, if you spend too much time just sitting there staring at the blank piece of paper/screen, your mind will get restless and procrastination will take over. You’ve got emails to read, pencils to sharpen. If you let your mind distract you from writing, it’ll just be harder the next time you try to start writing again.
In the middle
You’ve got to the middle of whatever project you’re doing and you don’t know where to go. It’s like walking through a forest and suddenly finding yourself back where you were five minutes ago. It can be very dispiriting. The thing is you should be proud of how far you have managed to come.
You will find an answer – you just need to keep thinking and not get too stressed. You need to think about the problem for a while, but then take a break and keep it on the back burner. If your unconscious can see that your conscious mind is really desperate for a solution, it’ll put its full processing power behind solving it.
The thing with being blocked is it’s all mental. If you fear it, you give it power. You’ll feel totally lost and dispirited. Have faith and keep gently persevering and embrace being blocked. Because when your unconscious offers up a solution, it will have been worth waiting for.
The main thing to remember is: feeling blocked is all in the mind. If you’re about to start something, just dive in and don’t give your thoughts room to start to play mind games with you. If you’re in the middle and feeling blocked, don’t get stressed. Just keep thinking about the problem and your unconscious will eventually come to your rescue.
Brainstorming Technique 18:
Think Like Goldilocks
“Creativity comes from conscious facts planted in the unconscious and allowed to germinate.” Bertrand Russell
One of the most common misconceptions is that “creative” people have these “light bulb moments” that just pop into their heads as if from nowhere. But no one has great ideas without thinking about a problem for a long time. It only seems to come out of nowhere because it comes from your unconscious. They never just appear without a lot of hard work.
John Lennon spent five hours trying to write a song “that was meaningful and good”. Finally, he gave up and lay down. “Then Nowhere Man came, words and music, the whole damn thing, as I lay down…So letting it go is what the whole game is.”
“No one has great ideas without thinking about a problem for a long time.”
If you work hard on a problem and are passionate about finding a solution, your unconscious mind will then deem it worthy of putting its processing power behind it. But one of the side effects of working hard on something is that you’re likely to get to a place where you feel you can’t think of any more ideas. This is often when people feel either blocked or start to feel self-doubt.
But this is when you need to follow “Goldilocks” thinking – neither too hard nor too soft. If your unconscious is to be allowed to do its stuff, you want to avoid the two extremes: on the one hand, getting too stressed and on the other hand, totally zoning out and doing something mindless, such as watching TV or checking up on Facebook.
You just need to keep the problem simmering away on the back burner. As John Cleese said, “This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: if you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.”
It often helps to stop thinking about the problem altogether as Hilary Mantel said in her “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction” in The Guardian: “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem.
But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space.”
When the breakthrough or insight you’ve been looking for does come, it’s accompanied by a surge of energy. This isn’t just mental, it’s actually physical.
When J.K. Rowling described getting the idea for her first book for adults she said, “I had a totally physical response you get to an idea that you know will work. It’s a rush of adrenaline; it’s chemical. I had it with Harry Potter and I had it with this.”
“When the breakthrough or insight you’ve been looking for does come, it’s accompanied by a surge of energy. This isn’t just mental, it’s actually physical.”
Scientists have found that the moment of creative insight is actually accompanied by a spike in brainwaves called gamma waves, the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain.
But what’s just as interesting, is what happens before the moment of insight. There is a surge of alpha waves at the back of the head. Now alpha waves are associated with closing areas of the brain down and the back of the brain mainly deals with visual processing. At least half the brain’s power is normally devoted directly or indirectly to vision.
As well as the part of the brain involved in visual processing closing down, there is a distinct change in the frontal lobes, which are the main areas of consciousness in the brain. They were almost going into sleep mode, which neuropsychologist, Rex Jung, calls “transient hypofrontality”.
Your brain wants to concentrate fully on the moment of insight, so it reduces both the amount of visual information that is processed and how much conscious thinking goes on. It’s as if at that moment you go into a sort of “creative trance”.
It’s why if you ever see someone at the point when they have an idea, they look down or stare into space or if they’re on a walk, they’ll suddenly stop when the idea occurs to them.
Of course, if you haven’t experienced one of these “light bulb moments”, this may all seem a bit alien to you. But are you sure you haven’t?
Have you ever been doing a crossword puzzle and found yourself stuck on a particular crossword clue? You keep thinking about it, but it just won’t come. Finally, you give up. You stop thinking about it and move on to another clue, or go to make a cup of tea. Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, the answer to the clue you were stuck on just pops into your head.
When Archimedes had his famous moment of insight, he jumped out of his bath and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, shouting “Eureka”. He hadn’t just got the answer to seven across, but it’s the same mental process that was at work.
Whether it’s just the answer to a crossword clue or something bigger, the experience of an idea coming out of nowhere still comes as a real surprise. Paul Simon described the moment Bridge Over Troubled Water came to him: “One minute it wasn’t there and the next minute the whole line was there. It was one of the shocking moments in my songwriting career.”
It’s no surprise then, that in Ancient Greece they didn’t actually believe individuals were creative. The Greeks believed that the muses were real. To them, they were goddesses who were considered the source of all knowledge, which was then invoked by the writer or artist.
And take the word “genius”. It actually comes from Ancient Rome and doesn’t refer to a gifted individual, but a guiding spirit. The achievements of exceptional people were seen as an indication of the presence of a particularly powerful “genius”. In fact, it was only during the Renaissance in the 14th century that creativity was first seen as the ability of a gifted “individual”.
Brainstorming Technique 19:
Take a Walk, Have a Shower
It's not just showering; it’s any simple mundane activity that doesn’t require much thought: walking, cycling, mowing the lawn. Agatha Christie said, “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
I will go into more detail on why these activities are so good for coming up with ideas later, but first I have to reiterate what I’ve said in the last two chapters: good ideas don’t appear out of nowhere; you need to have thought long and hard about a question beforehand. You have to be passionate about finding a solution and a little obsessed.
If you’ve done this, then that’s when these simple physical activities can help you. The door between the conscious and unconscious only opens one way. You can’t go into your unconscious, but ideas can come out. What these activities do is oil the hinges of the door to your unconscious, to help it open more easily.
“You have to be passionate about finding a solution and a little obsessed.”
Professor Jonathan Schooler of the University of California created an experiment to test out this theory. He took three groups of people and gave them each a minute to think of as many unusual uses for a house brick as they could.
They were all then given a two-minute break. While they rested, the first group was told to just sit there and think of nothing. The second had the simple and unchallenging task of sorting Lego bricks by color and the third had to build a house out of Lego. After that, they were all given another minute to think of some more uses for a house brick.
The group that did the worst were the ones who had been concentrating and focused on building a house out of Lego. And the group that did the best were the ones whose minds were mildly stimulated and just had to sort the Lego by color.
Now you might think that the ones who had nothing to think about should do best. But as soon as they’d finished the initial task their minds were thinking conscious thoughts about their life, what they were going to do later, what they were going to eat.
Whereas the group who had the mundane task of sorting the Lego bricks into different colors, had that to occupy their conscious minds, leaving their unconscious to carry on thinking about uses for a household brick.
All the mundane activities that I mentioned at the start still require some conscious thought, but you can almost do them on autopilot. And as soon as the brain sees the chance to go onto autopilot, it takes it. It sees it as a chance to relax.
When you’re focusing on a task, the “cognitive control network” is running the show. At the heart of this network is the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center for decisions, goals, and behaviors. Now the cognitive control network (the active network) uses up a lot of energy, so when the brain sees the opportunity to rest, it will.
So when you’re doing a task almost on autopilot, it will switch to what is called the “default mode network” (the resting network). It’s the equivalent of you flopping down in a comfy chair at the end of the day.
Incredibly the brain will use any opportunity to switch to the resting network. A study by Tamami Nakano of Osaka University revealed that the brain switches briefly to the resting network even for the very brief period when we blink.
But what it shows, is when the brain’s got the chance to switch from the active network to the resting network, it will. And while the resting network is in control, the conscious mind is having a breather and the mind is allowed to wander. At this time the door to the unconscious may not be fully opened, but it is at least ajar.
Brainstorming Technique 20:
The Cat’s Away, the Mice Will Play
The reason I think this is such a productive area for ideas is that it creates a new type of thought; you’re not consciously thinking, but at the same time you’re not daydreaming. I would call it “dream thinking”.
As Tamami Nakano’s study showed, the brain can switch to the resting network for the briefest of periods. So I think when, for instance, you have a shower you’re in this “dream thinking” zone, whereby you’re constantly switching from thinking to mind-wandering states. Engaging, disengaging and then engaging again.
Brainstorming Technique 21:
Walk the Walk
Walking, like taking a shower, is an activity we can almost do on autopilot, so is an ideal activity for the brain to give the active network a rest and switch to the mind-wandering of the resting network.
Dr. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz from Stanford University decided to test whether it was the actual act of walking that made people more creative.
What they expected to find was that walking outside in the fresh air with inspiring scenery would be, but that walking inside on a treadmill wouldn’t.
Dr. Oppezzo says she thought “walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me.”
But whether it was walking inside or outside, the participants’ creative output went up by an average of 60% compared to people sitting down. It wasn’t to do with the environment, it was to do with the repetitive the act of walking, which switched the mind from the active network to the mind-wandering resting network.
In total, 81% of the participants saw an increase in their creativity when they were walking. Also when the participants took a second test after walking, they were still more creative, showing the positive effects of walking continued even after they sat down again.
These results would come as no surprise to many famous creative people throughout history who swore by the value of walking. Nietzsche said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
Dickens would never miss his afternoon walks through London and in the countryside. Dickens said if he couldn’t walk “far and fast” he would “explode and perish”. He would often walk up to thirty miles a day.
Darwin created his own version of the treadmill and had a circular gravel path created in his garden, that he would walk round and round until a certain problem was solved.
James Watt came up with the idea for his steam engine while out on a Sunday afternoon walk: “I had not walked farther than the golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.”
Poincaré, frustrated with his failure in solving some arithmetical questions, went to spend a few days by the seaside. “One morning, walking on the bluff, the idea came to me, with just the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty.”
Brainstorming Technique 22:
Think When You’re Tired
“There is a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy……where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these ‘fancies’ only when I am upon the very brink of sleep …” Edgar Allan Poe
Are you an early bird or a night owl?
Whichever you are, you probably think the most productive time would be the morning if you’re an early bird or the end of the day if you’re a night owl. Well, yes and no. It depends on what type of work you’re doing.
If it were analytical work that requires a focused brain, you’d be right. But if it’s more of a creative problem and requires more lateral thinking, you’re at your best when you’re not at your best.
If you’re tired, your brain is not so good at focusing on a task or filtering out distractions. Your mind will wander more and therefore you’ll be far more likely to create new connections and come up with unexpected ideas.
Professor Mareike Wieth from Albion College, Michigan, discovered this in a study looking at the optimal time for creativity. She said, “People intuitively know there are certain times of the day when they are better at certain tasks, but I’ve always wanted to test that.”
So with her colleague Rose Zacks, they got 428 students to fill in a questionnaire to find out whether they were “morning people” or “evening people”.
It’s a standard psychological questionnaire featuring questions such as, “Approximately what time would you get up if you were entirely free to plan your day?” and “How much do you depend upon an alarm clock?”
During the session, students were given four minutes apiece to solve six problems. Half were “analytic problems”, which could be figured out “by working incrementally toward the solution”. The others were “insight problems”. Solving these generally entailed reaching a dead end before going back and reconsidering initial assumptions.
The results showed that being a bit sleepy was definitely beneficial to creative thought.
While performance on the analytic problems was largely unaffected by the clock, when people were tested during their “least optimal time of day”, they were significantly more effective at solving insight puzzles.
“Being a bit sleepy is definitely beneficial to creative thought.”
It’s not reported if all the night owl students actually managed to make it to the lab by 8.30 a.m., however.
Brainstorming Technique 23:
This idea of being most creative when we’re tired is taken a step further where people try to tap into the state between wakefulness and sleep. This transitional state between sleeping and waking up is called the hypnopompic state. The hypnagogic state is the experience of the transitional state from being awake to go to sleep.
Two of the most famous proponents of this were Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison. Not the most expected of bedfellows, but in their own fields, they were both driven in pushing the boundaries. They found the transitional state just before falling asleep to be highly conducive to radical ideas.
In fact, they both used very similar methods to make sure they woke up as soon as they fell asleep, so could record any ideas they had.
Edison would take a catnap in a chair, holding steel balls in his hands. As he drifted off to sleep, his grip would relax and the balls would drop, waking him up. He said his mind was flooded with images and more often than not he’d have a new idea to research.
But you don’t need to go to these lengths, to experience this state between sleep and wakefulness. Try setting your alarm half an hour before you have to get up. Then when the alarm goes off, try not to fall back to sleep and try to doze. If you do fall asleep, you’ve always got the snooze alarm to wake you up.
Being half asleep is a great state for your mind to wander and for unconscious thoughts to bubble up, but the fact that your mind is so unfocused makes it a lot harder to remember the thoughts you have. So make sure you’ve got a pen and paper or your phone by your bed, so you can record any ideas you have.
Just Say It
“Examine what is said and not who speaks.” Arab proverb
Have you ever had the experience of explaining a problem to someone and before they even say anything, something clicks and you realize what the solution is? Communicating your problem out loud is actually a very powerful tool that can often help you understand what’s needed without the person you’re talking to saying anything.
A few of the benefits of verbalizing your problem are that it:
1. Makes it clearer
By stating your problem out loud you are forced to mentally organize all the information you have regarding the problem. It also separates the problem from any emotional mental chatter about your ability, deadlines, the anxiety of possible failure, etc.
2. Simplifies the problem
Assume the person you are explaining the problem to has little or no knowledge of the subject. This forces you to think about what the essence of the problem is and makes you explain it as simply and clearly as possible.
3. Helps you think about the problem, not the solution
Instead of spending all your energy focusing on what the solution is, you can focus purely on the problem. This takes the pressure away from looking for an answer. It can also help you in accessing different or overlooked information.
4. Uses more of your brain
Saying the problem out loud engages many more areas of the brain than merely thinking about it. This creates more chances of new connections being made. That’s why it also works so much better than just imagining you’re telling someone about the problem.
Brainstorming Technique 24:
I know “Rubber Ducking” sounds like some terrible new form of torture, but really it’s just an inanimate version of the nodding teddy bear. Instead of telling your problem to a person, tell it to a rubber duck.
The concept is popular in the software development industry and is sometimes known as “rubber duck debugging”. You have a rubber duck beside your computer and when you have a problem you can’t solve you explain it to your rubber duck. And talking to a rubber duck really does have its benefits:
Rubber ducks don’t:
Say they’re too busy and ask you to come back later.
Interrupt you at a vital point and make you lose your flow.
Have meetings to go to.
But if you find the idea of talking to a rubber duck too embarrassing, you can always email it. Write the problem down in an email to the duck or to someone you know. Even though you’re not going to send it, visualizing them reading it will help you to explain the problem as clearly and as simply as possible.
Talking someone – or something – through your problem can often be enough to help you find an answer. And whether it means talking to a nodding teddy bear or a rubber duck, it’s a lot less embarrassing than telling your boss you can’t crack it.
“Talking someone – or something – through your problem can often be enough to help you find an answer.”
Brainstorming Technique 25:
Give It the Overnight Test
“Have you not noticed that, often, what was dark and perplexing to you the night before, is found to be perfectly solved the next morning?” Alexander Graham Bell
I’ve already talked about the negative effects of not getting a good night’s sleep in Brainhack 23 (Sleep Well), but what about the positive effects of getting a good night’s sleep?
One of the most important things is that it’s YOU sleeping. What I mean is your prefrontal cortex, the center for what makes you, you. That your personality, your decisions, your social controls – is asleep. The night is when your unconscious really does have free rein. It can do its work without interference.
Obviously, part of this is making sense of the day’s events and filing them away in long-term memory. But also, if there are any problems on your mind, your unconscious will work on those. A problem can seem insurmountable when you go to bed, but then when you wake up, it doesn’t seem so daunting.
“If there are any problems on your mind, your unconscious will work on those.”
Here’s the part of Alexander Graham Bell’s quote that precedes the one at the top of the page: “I am a believer in unconscious cerebration. The brain is working all the time, though we do not know it.
At night, it follows up what we think in the daytime. When I have worked a long time on one thing, I make it a point to bring all the facts regarding it together before I retire; and I have often been surprised at the results.”
If your unconscious is aware that your conscious mind has been working hard on a problem, come the night, it will put its full processing power behind it. But as with the “lightbulb moment” in the day, your conscious mind needs to have been working hard on the problem and you need to passionately require an answer to get your unconscious to work on it.
It’s like the classic children’s fairytale, The Elves, and the Shoemaker, where the penniless shoemaker lays out his last piece of cloth and in the night the elves come and turn it into a beautiful pair of shoes.
Sometimes the solution to a problem, or at least the direction you need to take, will be revealed to you in the morning. Sometimes even in your dreams. Either way, always make sure you make a note of any thoughts you have as soon as you wake up, otherwise they may fade away.
If you can remember your dreams, then you can see the unconscious at work. And our dreams, even though we have no control over them, are very good at solving our problems. This is because when we’re dreaming our minds are in the REM state, which has been found to be highly conducive to fluid reasoning and flexible thought.
Researchers tested participants’ ability to solve anagrams when they were woken from REM (dream) sleep, compared with when they were woken from normal sleep. When people were woken from REM sleep, they proved 32% better at solving anagrams.
In his dream, cannibals were preparing to cook him and they were dancing around the fire waving their spears.
Howe noticed at the head of each spear there was a small hole through the spearhead. The up and down motion of the spear and the hole near the head, stayed with him when he woke.
This gave him the idea of passing the thread through the needle close to the point, not copying needles used in hand sewing where the eye is at the other end.
Brainstorming Technique 26:
When Larry Page was a 22-year-old graduate student at Stanford he was struck in the middle of the night with a vision.
In it, he somehow managed to download the entire Web and by examining the links between the pages he saw the world’s information in an entirely new way.
What Page wrote down that night became the basis for an algorithm. He called it PageRank and used it to power a new Web search engine called BackRub. PageRank was a success, the name BackRub wasn’t.
Again, these ideas didn’t come out of anywhere. All three had been desperate to find solutions to their problems.
To Sleep, Perchance to Solve a Problem
There is a way to help your unconscious work for you: set it a challenge. It might sound silly, but it does work. If you engage your mind in a task just before you go to sleep – if not solved it will certainly seem a lot clearer in the morning. Say, for instance, you are unhappy in your job and don’t know whether to leave or not.
When you think about it in the day, your conscious mind is beset with different opinions and emotions on the subject. It’s like sitting around a table with twenty friends debating the subject. They all genuinely want to help, but all the different opinions just make it all a bit overwhelming.
If you set the problem for your unconscious to work on, it has got access to all the facts and relevant information and can calmly work through it.
1. First, before you go to bed, spend thirty minutes thinking in a relaxed way about the problem or issue.
2. Then when you get into bed, actually write down the problem and ask the question out loud to your unconscious. Also, give it a deadline. Too much pressure creates stress; you don’t want to be lying awake thinking about the problem.
That will just be the problem going round and round in your conscious mind and won’t be helping at all. But a little bit of gentle pressure can help, so set a time that you want the answer for.
Using the example I mentioned earlier, say out loud and write down: “I am unhappy in my job and want to know what I should do. I would like an answer by 7:00 in the morning when I wake up.”
3. When you wake up write down any immediate thoughts or insightful dreams you can remember. But don’t worry if the answer doesn’t seem obvious. Have a shower, which again can be a very productive place for unconscious ideas to bubble up.
4. Next, make yourself a tea or coffee and sit down in a comfortable chair with a pen and a pad of paper. Now for half an hour just write. Don’t think too much about what you’re writing, or if it makes any sense. Just get your thoughts down on paper.
5. After you’ve read back what you’ve written, let the council of your conscious mind debate it. You really will be surprised how much clearer things are after a good night’s sleep.
Brainstorming Technique 27:
Plan a Pre-Mortem
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
There’s a lot of talks these days about failing. Failing’s good. Fail and fail fast. The idea, obviously, is that it’s better to make mistakes early on and learn from them. But why not learn before you make the mistakes?
That’s the idea behind the pre-mortem, created by Gary Klein, behavioral economist and psychologist, famous for his work in the field of naturalistic decision-making. It’s very simple really. You imagine a time in the future after your business/project/idea has been launched.
And in this imaginary future, your idea has been a complete failure. “Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the pre-mortem operates on the assumption that the ‘patient’ has died.”
Now you’re probably thinking: Isn’t this very negative? Aren’t all these business successes started by people who are really positive go-getters who believe nothing is impossible and failure is not an option?
That’s true to a degree, but also projects that are a success are also the ones that don’t have any little chinks in their armor.
Only 50% of businesses survive the first five years. So it’s important to make your idea as good and as strong as it can be.
Again this exercise isn’t just for big projects like starting a new business; it could just be a presentation to a client, or even on a personal level like packing for a family holiday. In a way, how parents prepare for trips is a lot better than how many people launch their new projects in the business world.
You see, parents are worriers; they imagine the worst. “What happens if it rains all the time” (British-specific holiday), “What happens if the children get hurt?” or “What happens if they find the journey too long?”
“Projects that are a success are also the ones that don’t have any little chinks in their armor.”
Whereas a lot of business people would want everyone to be pumped up and positive about a project, already thinking about how they can scale it; parents think about what could go wrong.
And that’s exactly the idea behind the pre-mortem. If you can imagine what could go wrong, you can fix it before it ever happens.
“If you can imagine what could go wrong, you can fix it before it ever happens.”
Now you might say, “Well, that’s just planning, isn’t it?” but it’s actually a lot more effective than planning. When you’re planning, you are imagining your project in the future, but you have a cognitive bias so you’re imagining it as a success.
When you’re imagining the future of your project, you naturally want it to succeed, so you think of it in a positive light.
Brainstorming Technique 28:
Accentuate the Negative
What the Braintrust does is discuss the current film in a completely honest and truthful way. There are no egos; everyone there is just trying to make the film as good as it can be.
It also has no authority, so after each session, the director and producer of the film are under no pressure to take on board any of the recommendations. However, they know it’s far better to learn about problems from colleagues when there’s still time to fix them than from the audience after it’s too late.
I’m sure most companies would be happy to have the success that Pixar films have, but unfortunately not all companies are as open and egoless.
But even in an organization with big egos, the principles of Pixar’s Braintrust can be recreated with the pre-mortem. Basically, it gives everyone permission to be negative.
Imagining your project was a complete failure has a magical effect.
This is especially true in business when you have a group of people involved in the project. It removes the pressure from those who are worried about seeming disloyal by voicing concerns.
It actually turns it into a competition to find the most convincing reason why the project should fail. “It’s a sneaky way to get people to do contrarian, devils advocate thinking without encountering resistance”, says Klein.
This “prospective hindsight” has actually been proven to work. Research by Mitchell, Russo, and Pennington has proved that imagining an event has already occurred, increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.
Academic Karl Weick argues that the reason it works is that of a cognitive quirk: we find it easier to imagine the detailed causes of a single outcome than causes of multiple outcomes.
By imagining the project has failed, it really helps us to focus. Instead of asking what could go wrong, you ask what did go wrong. There’s a subtle difference that frees up your thinking and will create better results. Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman says, “The main virtue of the pre-mortem is that it legitimizes doubt”.
Make a Story of It
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion
“Now children, how about a nice bedtime PowerPoint?” said their father. Not something you’re going to hear any time soon. Children would never sit through a PowerPoint presentation, so why do adults? Do we find it any more interesting? Of course not.
If you can bring a story to life for children, you’ll have a rapt audience. But if you don’t engage them they’ll get bored and lose interest really quickly. Adults are no different; they’re just more polite.
“The reason story is so much more engaging is simple: it engages a lot more of our brain.” Also if you can paint a picture in people’s minds, whether written or spoken, it can have a powerful effect.
A team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain and Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active.
Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.
It was also found that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and don’t activate different areas of the brain like other less everyday metaphors.
Volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly.
In reality, the experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asked the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee. As the key experimental manipulation, the coffee was either hot or iced.
Subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, even though there was no change in ratings of other attributes.
Brainstorming Technique 29:
Bringing Life to a Story
The reason why stories have such an effect on us is that’s how we’re wired. A good example of this is how we anthropomorphize things. It’s our natural inclination to make a story out of things.
The subjects described the scene as if the shapes had intentions and motivations; for example, “The circle is chasing the triangles.” Many studies since then have confirmed the human predilection to make characters and narratives out of whatever we see in the world around us.
Another reason we’re so attached to stories is we remember information better through the story. Before the written word, huge amounts of information was passed down through generations by oral storytelling.
Creating a story is the method World Memory Champion Ben Pridmore used to remember the order of a random deck of cards in 25 seconds. In his mind, he placed the cards at certain points along a route familiar to him. Later when he walks the route in his mind he sees the cards one after another.
We live through stories. Every time we meet someone, we start to make a story up about him or her in our minds. Storytelling is so ingrained in the human experience that personal stories and gossip make up 65% of the conversation.
When we hear a story, we immediately try to relate it to one of our existing experiences. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part of the brain called the insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust.
Because our brains are built for stories, they absorb them more readily than other kinds of information. Recent psychological studies suggest that people are more open to ideas when they’re listening to stories than when they’re listening to factual information.
“Because our brains are built for stories, they absorb them more readily than other kinds of information.” So if you’ve got an important message to get across to people that you want to resonate with them and be remembered, ditch the PowerPoint.