When you ignore or forget your random thoughts, you deprive yourself of a goldmine of ideas. Usually, the creative spark arises when we least expect it.
Ideas Are Already in Your Mind
A person has an average of 50,000 thoughts per day((Huffington Post: There Are 50,000 Thoughts Standing Between You and Your Partner Every Day!)). That’s an impressive number that should translate into an abundance of ideas. Now, sit down and try to recall what you’ve thought about today. You’d be lucky to remember 100 things that crossed your mind.
It isn’t that you don’t think of good ideas. It’s just that you can’t remember them. Human memory is not reliable. Why?
We Deliberately Forget Things
Humans are wired to forget things, but it’s for our own good. Your brain has to sort through so many thoughts and stimuli. If it treated all information equally, you’d feel overwhelmed, and your brain would be inefficient. Your mind actively works to weed out unimportant information to keep you from going insane((Gizmodo: Our brains deliberately make us forget things, to prevent insanity)).
This proves that forgetting some things is good for us, but it doesn’t explain why we forget things we want to remember. The problem is that many of our most creative ideas emerge when we’re operating in a diffused mode of thinking.
Your brain enters a diffused mode when you aren’t directly focused on anything((Examined Existence: Focused mode versus diffused mode of thinking: Why you need both)). This helps your mind process complex problems while you work on other tasks. You might be taking a walk or showering when your best ideas hit. Most of us don’t bother to jot down our thoughts when we are doing these things. By the time you sit down at your desk again, the ideas are long gone.
Your Brightest Ideas
If you sit down with the intention of forcing ideas out of your head, you probably won’t succeed. You can’t pull out a notebook and expect your brain to deliver the same types of thoughts you had in diffused mode. That’s because when you concentrate on one task, you’re operating in focused mode((Brainscape: Which is better for learning: focused vs. diffused thinking?)). In focused mode, you fixate on one problem, and there is no opportunity for random thoughts.
Instead of staring at a blank page, the key is to do something else. Go for a walk, or have a cup of coffee. Choose something that requires minimal mental or physical effort. Keep a recording tool, such as your notebook, with you but out of sight. As long as your notebook is out of sight but within reach, you’ll free your brain from its focused state((Wired: What’s up with that? Your best thinking seems to happen in the shower)).
Be sure to have recording mechanisms in your best thinking spots. You might need a waterproof notepad by the shower, or a voice recorder for your walks. Have them ready, and relax into your task.
Forcing Ideas Never Works
Knowing that your best ideas come when you aren’t trying to have them means that you need to save up your best thoughts for times when you need them. When you don’t store your ideas in advance, you’ll have to spend more time coming up with them. Instead of brainstorming on the fly, wouldn’t it be great to have a notebook to refer back to for inspiration?
Creative people don’t force ideas out of their minds. They put systems in place to see connections that other people miss. As Steve Jobs once explained((Evernote: Steve Jobs: Three steps to making connections that matter)),
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something…”
He’s describing creativity, but he’s also describing how innovators put diffused thinking to work for them. Creative people connect the dots.
Figure out What to Write Down
It’s important to know when and what to write down. Not all ideas are worthy of a place in your notebook. Knowing which ones are comes with practice.
1. Don’t Jot Down Everything
If you tried to write down all 50,000 thoughts that enter your mind every day, you’d never get anything done. After you have your recording devices in place, you need to decide what’s worth remembering.
Most of your thoughts are just mental chatter, but there will be a few gems worth noting. Write down any thought that breaks from traditional thinking. If it’s different from the way most people approach a topic, you may want to remember it.
2. Make Notes of Insights Related to Your Area of Expertise
Those ideas have a higher probability of being useful to you.
Imagine you’re sitting on an airplane. While you’re cruising at 30,000 feet, you probably aren’t focused on anything in particular. Your brain is in diffused mode, and it’s chattering away((Intrepid Travel: Flying High: 23 Thoughts every traveler has on a plane)). You might think to yourself, “Where’s the toilet? The flush on this toilet scares me. Is the person beside me going to snore the whole time? The sky is so blue; what if we could live in the clouds?”
One of these bits of chatter is not like the others. Thinking about the toilets or the person beside you is not going to help you long-term. There’s no need to jot those down. “What if we could live in the clouds?” is unique. If you work for a tech company, this might prompt you to take your research and development in a new direction. If you’re an author, this could be the premise of a novel.
3. Don’t Judge Too Much
It’s common to be uncertain about what to write. You might not recognize a great idea when it comes to you. Don’t let uncertainty hold you back. It’s okay if you jot down a few bad ideas.
The trick is to review your thoughts on a frequent basis. Go through your ideas once every week, and sort the good from the bad. Then, organize the good ones so that you can access them when you need them.
For example, if you have a bunch of ideas for your blog, take some time to outline them. Come up with what you’d talk about for each topic and how a post about that topic could be valuable for your readers. If an idea is bad, you won’t be able to flesh it out, or it won’t meet your needs. For good ideas, you’ll have a tangible outline that you can go back to later. It’s harder to forget your idea after you’ve spent some time with it.
4. Organize Your Ideas Later
It’s possible to go overboard when you’re trying to develop a new way to keep track of your random thoughts. You don’t have to organize your ideas as soon as you jot them down. Organizing your ideas takes time, and, as I mentioned before, some of your ideas won’t be good. It would be inefficient to waste time organizing bad ideas. It’s better to review your thoughts, eliminate the bad ideas, and then organize.
Many of us also worry about handwriting, grammar, and vocabulary when we write. Editing yourself is useful when you send emails or write memos, but you don’t need to self-edit when you’re scribbling your ideas. Write the thoughts exactly as they come to you. You can clean them up later if they turn out to be useful.
When you offer your brain the opportunity to process, you’ll gain amazing insights.
Give yourself at least three times during the week for diffused thinking. This could mean that you schedule three walks or other relaxing tasks during your week. (Don’t forget to take your recording device with you.) If you work in a creative field, you may need to give yourself time for diffused thinking every day.
Remember, you don’t need to go into your relaxed activity with a specific target in mind. Simply allow thoughts to come and go. You’d be amazed at all the great ideas waiting for the chance to be heard.