Have you ever sat down, pencil in hand, ready to come up with a whole list of incredible story and article ideas, only to find yourself staring at a blank page? I have. (More often than I’d like to admit.)
My best ideas never come to me while I’m waiting for them. They always come to me completely unannounced, with no fanfare, normally when I have absolutely no way of writing them down or remembering them.
I can only hope, as I’m mid-workout, or about to fall asleep, or chopping vegetables, that I’ll remember my brilliant idea when I have a chance to scribble it down later.
Confession: I once wrote a story idea in the steam on my bathroom mirror post-shower in the hopes that I wouldn’t forget. My boyfriend tragically wiped it off without realizing.
In this age of productivity obsession, everyone demands output from their brain the same way their bosses demand output from them at work. We focus hard on trying to come up with good ideas, as if the effort alone is enough to generate them.
But brains don’t work like that. Our minds aren’t wired to pump out ideas the way we think they should. Instead, they stubbornly insist on being creative only when we least expect it: when we’re distracted.
Why is that?
The two ways your brain works.
Our brains have two ways of operating: focused and distracted.
The first is what you use at work. When you think hard about problems, you deactivate your “default mode network,” (DMN) which is responsible for clearing a path between all the different areas of your brain.
This tightens your concentration and turns you into a laser-focused problem-solving machine. This is good: that’s exactly what you want when you’re under a tight deadline and need to get stuff done. The distractions are eliminated, your brain is blinkered into focusing on the things that matter, shoving aside any stray thoughts or ideas.
The downside of this is, of course, some of those stray thoughts and ideas are pretty good. When you’re focusing like that, your brain is more productive, but it also clamps down on unconventional and creative solutions to problems as a by-product.
The second type of brain function is a more loose, distracted type. This happens when you’re unfocused — your mind wanders, you daydream, you’re relaxed.
When you’re occupied in other ways, your brain is in overdrive, creating new paths between unconnected areas of your brain and sparking creative thoughts. As you focus on monotonous tasks (like chopping vegetables), this engages the autopilot area of your brain. The rest of your mind is free to drift.
Your DMN is fully activated and operating at high levels, making connections and encouraging creative thoughts to bounce around. This can proverbially switch on the good-idea light bulb.
That’s why when you sit down with the intention of coming up with new, creative ideas, your brain can’t give you anything. You can churn and try and beg, but we just aren’t really wired that way.
But when you’re occupied in other ways, your brain is actually working in overdrive, creating new paths between unconnected areas of your brain and sparking creative thoughts.
This is why good ideas come to you in the shower, traditionally. You’re daydreaming, not really focused on any one problem, warm and comfortable — your brain is at its most creative at this point.
The downside of this is that we rarely bring a pen and notepad in with us to the shower.
The solution to generating ideas to write about.
How can you generate these good ideas on command, rather than waiting for inspiration to strike? I find that once you know how the process happens, it’s a two-step process.
First, you need to be prepared. Identify those times when you’re relaxed, happy and distracted and find a way to record the ideas that are sure to come. For example, I have Evernote on my phone. When I’m running, and a good idea comes to me, I can jot it down without even breaking my stride.
This is actually the source of inspiration for this article!
If you’re not sure of what gets your creative juices flowing, try some different options. Getting drunk is proven to boost creativity for some folks, as is being sleepy. Maybe folding clothes is what generates all your good ideas. Maybe it’s even doing routine tasks at work like data entry. Heck, even browsing on Twitter can work. You probably have something in mind already — something that keeps your hands busy but leaves your mind free to wander.
Next, eliminate idea-draining distractions. I think the reason most people don’t use this technique already is because as soon as we feel parts of our brains being unused, daydreaming or wandering in any way, we try to occupy it with distractions.
But for you to take advantage of that, you can’t be distracted by Netflix, radio, or music. Try running with white noise on Spotify, or taking a shower in silence.
At first, it might feel uncomfortable. If you’re like me, you’ll be trained to never feel a modicum of boredom at all, and the second we start doing anything that lets our mind wander, we want to occupy it.
But that’s where the magic happens. Without distractions, your mind is free to come up with its own entertainment — new and interesting ideas. Be ready to capture them.