Two Strategies for Idea Generation

I’m not into killing animals, but during a recent hike I started thinking about hunters. This article grew out of that.

Hunter with several delicious dead ducks

The process of generating ideas is a lot like hunting: ideas are your prey. Your mind is the forest. You can actively stalk your prey, or you can set some traps and wait for the prey to come to you.

Just like hunters, creative people are sustained and nourished by the ideas they capture. Some days they bag a big idea, one that can keep them fat and happy for months, or even years. Other days present slim pickings, nothing but lizards and squirrels.

Like a boy scout, the successful hunter is always prepared. Whether or not they manage to kill the big game (think bighorn sheep), they have certain tools and tactics they use.

Creative people are no different, but instead of weapons, snares, and tracking skills, we have pens, paper, and a bag full of creative techniques. Let’s take a look at two strategies for generating ideas, as well as the tactics we can use to make the most of these strategies.

(Before we continue, note that idea generation is separate from idea creation, which is the longer process of developing and refining your idea into something amazing).

The Stalking Method

Using the stalking method, the hunter goes out into the forest with the express intention to kill something. He (forgive the implicit sexism) is looking for the big kill.

Stalking ideas is no different, only instead of going into the forest, you go into the ether/collective unconscious/subconscious/idea stream with the intention of pulling some good idea out for your own purposes.

The problem is this: you can’t always find a good idea. If you set out only to find a good idea, you might be disappointed. Good ideas, like buffalo, are rare in the wild, and forcing good ideas is a recipe for guilt grilled over a fire of anxiety and marinated in disappointment.

However, when you go on the hunt with the intention to collect as many ideas as you can, good or bad, at least you’ll be able to fill your bag with something edible, something usable. And you’ll often find that the little critters lead you to the big game.

A hunter stalks his prey by studying footprints, animal behavior, and the position of the moon. Creative people, however, might find the following methods for useful for generating ideas:

  • Free writing and journaling. I make a practice of writing a few pages every morning, and a couple times a week I can cull something really cool from this. Some people use a timer set for 15-30 minutes.
  • Brainstorming with mind maps.
  • Reviewing old project lists and mind maps (assuming I’m not starting with a blank slate).
  • Expanding upon or developing other ideas and themes.
  • Laying down on the couch for a nap with a notebook beside me. Right before I drift off, a few things will usually pop into my head. At this point I have to write them down while fighting the urge to sleep.
  • Meditating for about fifteen minutes.

Using just these techniques, you can probably generate enough ideas to keep you busy for years. But then you’d just be busy.

The key is, once you’ve captured all your ideas, cull the herd and select the best, meatiest, most delicious and sustaining ideas.

The Trapping Method

Just hanging out in the forest and waiting for animals to appear is a recipe for starvation…but if you’ve set out nets, pits and snares, you’re sure to collect something. As with stalking prey, you can’t always expect the big game to saunter into your spring-loaded trap. But sometimes you’ll just get lucky.

Unlike the last method, where you consciously set out to generate ideas, the trapping method relies on active, prepared waiting.

People talking about having their best ideas in the shower, in the car (be careful!), or during the course of some other mundane activity. The key is having the ability to capture this idea before your focus drifts back to the task at hand, capturing the idea so that you’ll be able to work on it later.

The trapping method and active waiting means simply having some kind of capture tool available. I’ve written about capture tools before (Link to moleskine article). Capture tools include:

  • Some kind of notebook. When an idea wanders into your sights, write it down immediately. This is like springing the trap. Waiting too long will result in the idea getting away.
  • An inbox and filing system (ala GTD). An inbox is great for collecting those random scraps of paper and back-of-the-napkin scribbling.
  • Email. When you find some interesting piece of digital information, send it to yourself. Later you can review it or print it for filing.
  • A little digital recorder. I use one of these for capturing song ideas (too lazy to transcribe melodies). These devices are also great for capturing ideas when you can’t write things down. Many newer cell phones have audio capture devices. In a pinch you can use voicemail.

Conclusion

The key to both the stalking and trapping strategies is the following: collect all the ideas you can. Later on, sort through them and pick out the good ideas.

What is a good idea? It depends. Everyone has their own definition, and good is a vague word. Let’s be more specific. Here are some criteria I use for selecting and determining which ideas are good:

  • An idea I can turn into or incorporate into a project.
  • Unique in some way. I have to be able to tweak it and make it my own.
  • Interesting and exciting. If the idea doesn’t trigger any kind of emotional response in the creator, how can it excite the audience?
  • Something I can develop into a finished product. In this case, story and song ideas. My plans for solar-powered blimps, as exciting as they are, probably won’t get off the ground.

Sometimes good ideas start out seeming mediocre. I’ll kick these so-so ideas around for awhile. If they stick, then I’ve got something I can use. Otherwise, they just fade into oblivion on without any help from me.

As you get into the habit both of stalking and trapping ideas, you’ll develop your own criteria for developing ideas.

Remember, ideas are abundant. Once you collect enough, you have the luxurious choice as to which ideas you’ll keep, and which you’ll return to the wild.

Happy hunting!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Will Dyer

    Hey Seth, great post. I really liked this. I’ve found I can come up with many more ideas if I do brainstorming after I meditate. While I’m meditating the ideas try to come, but most of them are not so good. But afterwards, they’re much better.

  • Will, thanks for stopping by. Meditation is really interesting. I forgot to mention it, but for me walking and hiking gives me a similar effect. Both clear my head and make it easier to focus. But hiking on 95F days can be a little exhausting.

  • Pingback: Keeping Track of Ideas | Happenchance()

  • Ryan

    Another good way to help the ideas get out is to use an idea generator ( http://ideagenerator.creativitygames.net )
    Using the random words and images as inspiration can be just the guidance your mind needs to get off the path of the normal and regular and start seeing fresh opportunities.

  • Anonymous

    Fascinating link. I ended up with a scene that went something like this:
    She stood by the aquarium, her hair aflame in the morning sun, while the sound of an airplane rattled the window panes.