Creating Your Idea Engine

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What is your formula for coming up with ideas? Yes, this could tie into steps for success, but what is your mechanism, for keeping the ideas coming? I’m a huge fan of continually auditing my process for getting things done. I wrote, When Are You Your Best, where I outlined how I took a deep dive into figuring out how I thought and what the best times of the day were for me to get the most amount of work done. In another post, Creating Your Work Session Warm-Up, I broke things down for the actual moment you sit down to work, but I haven’t written about how I come up with all of my ideas in the first place. It really comes down to practicing to be more self-aware. With enough practice, you can figure out how to turn this on and off. 

Create the headspace

Get yourself in the mood. When I’m mountain biking or surfing, both are so technical for me, that it’s hard for my mind to drift. Each of those are great outlets, so it’s probably good that I don’t think about anything else. When I’m running, camping or hiking, my mind wanders. I think about everything. Probably too much stuff. On a long run, I’ve been brought to tears, because I got emotional. 

The first part is recognizing when you are using your mind in this way. Sometimes it’s a brief moment of clarity, like when you are in the shower or when you are commuting to work. You sort of get in that trance and then the idea appears. I noticed this was happening, so I wanted to figure out how to leverage that in my life. 

Over the years, I found it happened when I was doing housework, like pulling weeds, sweeping, doing dishes or even washing my car. Other times it can happen when I am reading books or listening to podcasts. It’s probably the main reason it takes me forever to read a book because I stop and take so many notes with every page I read. It can happen with people too. I have certain people that I can call and have great conversations with that can help me think differently depending on the type of problem, for example, if it’s electrical, mechanical or engineering I have friends that think that way. If it’s more human-oriented or intellectual, teamwork, emotional or reasoning, I would talk with someone else. You can even go so far as to pair the activity with the type of problem you are trying to solve or the idea you are trying to come up with. 

Not buying this? Then why is it that you can be sitting in your house in silence for hours, then the minute you go to the bathroom people are knocking at the door or the phone rings?

Keep the channel open

The next challenge is putting it into practice. I used to joke that I would leverage the universe when I was waiting for the cable guy or appliance repairman. I would go to the bathroom or take a shower and sure enough, that’s when they would appear. To actually make it a usable tool, I followed some advice from a professor I received in a Critical Thinking course in college. He said, “When you want to solve a problem, give your mind a command and it will float to the top.” He used it in the context of waking up from sleeping without using an alarm. “If you want to wake up at a certain time, before you go to bed, tell yourself the time that you want to wake up and your mind will wake you up at that time.” Using that example, I started thinking of what I wanted to solve or create before I went on walks, runs or long drives. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. The unexpected consequence was when I had problems or ideas I wanted to create, but didn’t actively tell myself I wanted a solution, yet the next thing you know, it would appear in my head during a walk, run or drive. 

Being hyper thoughtful or tuned in all the time can be draining. I’ve been accused of not listening for years. It goes against the whole, “being present” mindset. Having the discipline to separate that means you end up mostly practicing these techniques when you are by yourself. That works and there are plenty of times when we are by ourselves, you just have to remember to turn the idea engine on. Like I mentioned before, you can have the occasional epiphany without giving the intentional command, but when you plan, it is much more effective.

Employing these techniques has taken me years and I am definitely not associating these practices with anything spiritual. Take this advice for what it’s worth, but if any of this makes sense to you, give it a shot.

Habitually document everything

I read somewhere that for some creatives a single idea can come at them like a tsunami and they have to stop everything and document the idea before it disappears. In my line of work, I just don’t need one idea, I need several, like all of the time. I have this saying, “momentum breeds more momentum.” That means that you have to keep the idea engine running. To get ideas, you have to actively pursue obtaining ideas. I found that I needed somewhere to track all of these epiphanies as they came to me. I’ve tried many different note-taking apps over the years and what I’ve found that works the best are simple text apps. You can create the format and layout that YOU want and it doesn’t have to conform to how the app thinks ideas should be taken down. This allows your idea to not be influenced by anything other than the idea itself. Ideas are so fragile that interruptions to getting them saved can destroy that idea at any moment or worse, keep you from documenting it entirely. 

Routinely keeping track of your ideas does many things. First, it tells you quickly if it’s a good idea or not. Since you will most likely be jotting down ideas all of the time, when you go back to review those ideas, you may find later that the idea was horrible, uninteresting or not on brand. Secondly, you will start to see your ideas spawn new ideas. Themes of ideas that come together to become evolved ideas. I had years of ideas that created micro-projects, purchased domain names and even websites that were eventually trashed because the business use case didn’t match with the idea.

Your ideas will eventually start to change with the person you have become and then they will change again. Quality will win over quantity and they will evolve to be simplified and in sync with your current thoughts and moods. Sometimes the idea engine will turn off and you won’t know why. It’s most likely that you are in a different place and don’t need the idea engine to be working at that time. It could also be that you are just drifting without direction and you aren’t even aware that the idea engine has been disabled. Luckily for you, this life isn’t just one linear series of events and something will come along to wake you reminding you to start that engine again.

Sometimes you need good advice, a person to talk to that gets it or someone to help you organize your ideas into action.
I can do that for you.

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