Around this time last year I took about six weeks off from writing. Work was manic, I had other stuff going on taking up mental capacity and thus there was little time left for blog posts, journalism, journaling or anything else.
After things had calmed down, I decided one evening to write a quick blog about something I had seen that day.
I sat down in front of the laptop as usual, worked out a structure in my head, and then…nothing.
I had crippling writer’s block. I couldn’t even form the first sentence. It felt like when you take Christmas off going to the gym, then go back in mid January and after 10 minutes you’re gasping for air.
The habit had deserted me, I had nothing in the bank of ideas and it took me another week or so to even begin to get myself out of the funk.
For me, writing is muscle memory. It’s a cumulative thing and one post builds upon another. The positive repetitive strain of completing an activity like writing a blog post routinely is incredibly important.
In the book ‘Daily Rituals’, Mason Currey divulges that many of the great artists were addicted to routine. They needed to have that daily discipline of putting something down on paper, good or bad. The way people like Kafka, Agatha Christie, Tolstoy, Joyce and countless other brilliant creatives re-wired their brain to be productive at a certain time every day was almost ‘Pavlovian‘.
Just like getting fit, or eating well, or building up any habit.
And the same process works for having ideas too.
I first heard the concept of the idea muscle from writer James Altucher – it being something that you needed to flex every day or else it atrophies. Here’s an interesting post that he wrote years ago on the subject. Basically, the thinking is that by having lots and lots of ideas (good, bad or ridiculous) and training your mind to do this every day, you’re getting multiple benefits.
Firstly, you might stumble across something really interesting and actually use one of the ideas, or maybe combine some of the ideas. Faris Yakob refers to this idea of ‘combinational intelligence’ a lot. He also talks about ‘kleptonesia’ or the process of forgetting where you stole ideas from!
But more importantly, whether the ideas bear fruit or not, you’re training the mind to be active in this way of thinking. You’re creating the pathways in your brain when you train it each day.
In Adam Grant’s book about creativity, he takes apart the ‘epiphany myth‘ – the theory that great ideas just come as lightbulb moments to random people, or that people have a couple of ideas and then refine them.
Actually, it’s the opposite. The great thinkers through history just have lots and lots of ideas. Not even great ones. Just ideas.
You have to generate a lot of variety to be original, and volume is the key to unlocking novelty.
It’s a fascinating way of thinking and Grant gives multiple examples of people like Shakespeare, Motzart, Picasso and Maya Angelou in the book. Edison had over 1,000 patents alone, but his one breakthrough came to define his career.
So it seems that in order to maximise your odds of getting to something great, the most likely way is to just come up with a large number of ideas. Quantity is the most predictable path to quality. And the time cost of coming up with thousands of ideas is worthwhile, because in the long run it’s worth it.
It’s something that Ira Glass from This American Life also references in this lovely video.
“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
A really good post by David from Mustard.ie brought the concept back to the forefront of my mind this week. Taking a cue from Altucher, David is publicly writing 5 random ideas per day for 2017 on his Medium post.
Maybe nothing will come of them, but again, that’s not the point, it’s about training the mind, just like mindfulness or brain training for example.
And it’s also incredibly generous. One of David’s quotes from the piece is ‘feel free to take any idea and build it.’ That’s a lovely sentiment, and very intellectually generous. Too often we’re biased towards hoarding our ideas, meaning they likely never get to see the light of day. David’s approach is a win-win for both him and readers.
Buffer’s Kevan Lee is another big proponent of this daily practise.
Because idea generation is not just capturing lightning in a bottle, it seemingly can be regimented. Here’s a brilliant quote that sums it up:
“The production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.”
I already unconsciously do this for writing ideas – I have a huge Google doc devoted just to random blog, interview and article thoughts that’s easy to dip into when I become stuck. It’s the ‘magpie’ strategy, you see something interesting, grab it and bring it back to your nest for use later. Author Ryan Holiday calls it ‘using confirmation bias to your advantage’ by sticking together different fragments of thought into one coherent whole.
But I’m also going to start taking 10 minutes at some stage in the evening to just write down five random business ideas, just like James and David, and indeed just like the great artists that Adam Grant and Mason Currey mention in their books.
It certainly can’t hurt.
Ideas breed more ideas and the process of routinely coming up with a random five ideas a day begets innovation and creativity.
I’m not going to write War and Peace, Hamlet or The Magic Flute, but who knows, maybe something will come out of it.