Welcome back to my “How to have great ideas” series. If you’re looking to learn new ways to generate great ideas, you’ve come to the right place! Let’s dive in to our first strategy: have lots of ideas. I kicked off the series by considering why we struggle to have great ideas.
Quantity (lots) precedes quality (great)
I know that “they” always say to choose quality over quantity, but “they” aren’t always right. When it comes to ideas, we should always aim for quantity first.
Why should we aim for quantity first?
Our first idea is rarely our best one. It tends to be either an emotionally-driven, reactive idea, or it’s our usual go-to idea. Either way, it’s unlikely to be a truly great idea.
Negative emotions and thinking
Emotionally-driven, reactive ideas often come when we’re feeling defensive, frustrated, or angry. When we’re in a negative emotion (versus positive ones like happiness, contentedness or joy), our ability to think broadly and flexibly is squashed. There’s a very solid reason for this – a few millennia ago, when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, you didn’t need to be able to develop clever ideas to advance society or lead your industry, you just needed to be able to find a narrow gap in a rock to squeeze into so that the tiger couldn’t reach you.
Negative emotions, especially high-intensity ones like disgust, terror or anger, narrow our focus and attention, particularly when we try to repress such emotions. Narrowed thinking and attention can be really useful when it comes to choosing between ideas, but the need for this comes at a much later stage in the thinking process (more about this in Strategy 7). We’re not trying to stop negative thoughts; rather, we’re acknowledging that survival-based thinking won’t help us to discover the “next big thing”. Right now, we’re trying to get to the point that we’ve got plenty of ideas to choose from, and that means starting by generating lots of ideas. Quality can (and will) come later.
The problem of the "go-to" idea
So, what’s wrong with using our usual go-to idea? Well, chances are that if you’re needing to come up with a great idea, your usual go-to idea isn’t working for you. Maybe it’s a novel situation that you haven’t encountered before, so your usual idea doesn’t apply. Or maybe you’re experiencing the need for a great idea because your usual idea has created the situation that you’re trying to resolve.
Either way, the usual idea isn’t going to get you where you need to go. As the saying goes: “You can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that created it” (attributed to Einstein, though according to answers on Quora, not recorded in his speeches or writing). We need to set aside our go-to idea, and come up with lots of alternative options.
Should I stop once I get a great idea? Why do I need lots of ideas?
Whatever you do, don’t stop just because you think you’ve stumbled on a great idea.
Keep going. In fact, do your best to avoid juding your ideas at all, at this stage. There’s plenty of time for that later.
Why shouldn’t you stop? Keeping an open mind, and following the twists and turns of your thinking is likely to cause you to come up with many more, and different, ideas.
Sometimes, after coming up with a few ideas, you’ll hit a lull. It will feel like you’ve thought of everything that you possibly can, and you’ll be tempted to stop there and move on to the next phase.
Stay with the process, and aim to meet or exceed your target number of ideas.
Speaking of which:
What is "lots"? How many ideas is enough?
Five? Ten? What about twenty? Twenty sounds like plenty, right?
This is the “idea generation” phase, so you want to produce as many ideas as possible. Remember, we aren’t trying to come up with great ideas right now, the goal is lots of ideas.
So, my recommendation is to aim for at least forty ideas. Yes, that’s right, four-zero! You’re probably thinking that forty sounds like way too many, but there are some really good reasons for aiming for such a high number:
- The only way to uncover really great ideas is to have lots of options to choose from
- If you set your sights too low, you’ll race through and fill your target number with only really obvious ideas
- Having to stretch to a big number of ideas will force you to get creative
- Having such a big target will probably force you into the lull I described above. This can often result in a new flurry of ideas, if you’re patient enough to wait it out. More about this in Strategy 3
- You’ll probably end up writing in some “ridiculous” ideas which you think will never work, just to fill the quota. Not only is that allowed, it’s actually really helpful because these types of ideas extend the boundaries of your thinking, which is excellent for creativity.
- As you push on towards your target, you might start combining some of your earlier ideas, which creates fresh perspectives
How do I generate that many ideas?
Forty ideas probably still feels like too many, even after you have read all the reasons why it’s a good idea to set a big goal.
The next eight strategies in this series will help you generate those forty ideas (and probably a lot more besides!). Sign up for my newsletter below, and you’ll get notified as each of these strategies gets published. They’ll land weekly, so you’ll have time to practise each strategy before the next one lands in your inbox.
What's the best way to record my ideas?
Don’t get too hung up on method when you’re in the idea-generating phase; there’s no right or wrong way to go about it at this stage. If all you’ve got is a scrap of paper and a pencil, use that. May you love creating something visual – if so, grab some felt-tip pens and a large sheet of paper. Perhaps you like sticky notes – then settle yourself down with a stack or two. If journalling is your thing, turn to a fresh page and let your thinking loose. Or if you prefer “thinking out loud”, use a voice recorder or video camera.
The main thing right now is to capture your ideas in any format so that you can review them later on. Sometimes this process will unfold over several days or weeks, so you end up with a scrap of paper, a few journal pages, and some notes on your phone. It’s all fine – just keep going with your idea generation whenever the mood or fancy strikes you.
What other strategies are there?
What do I do once I've got lots of ideas?
This is a great question, and it takes a lot more than one simple paragraph to cover.
My next series is called: “How to turn great ideas into great results”, and it’s packed with a bunch of proven strategies to move from ideas, to action, to results. It’ll be coming out once this series is complete. And that’s a great reason to sign up to my newsletter: you’ll be the first to hear about the new series when it launches!
- What are Negative Emotions and How to Control Them? – Positive Psychology.com
- How Emotions Impact Cognition – Interaction Design Foundation
Why Negative Thoughts Are Normal – Psychology Today