Posted on Sun 22 February 2015

Getting ideas when you're stuck

This article first appeared in an issue of The List, my short-lived premium newsletter for content marketers.

I've been in an ideas drought lately. It's a tough place to be when you have a regular schedule to stick to—like a newspaper cartoonist or columnist who has no ideas but has to create something new every day anyway.

I've struggled to find any practical advice about getting more ideas beyond the standards of reading more, taking lots of notes about what you read, and going for walks. These are all helpful, but I wanted something more concrete. I've had to push through the drought myself, so here are some of the things that worked for me.

Force yourself to write down ideas daily

For a few days I challenged myself to write down five ideas for content topics before I went to bed. I started using this exercise just for topics for the Exist blog, and I've now got 40 ideas in my list. These days I use it more generally, unless I need topics to pitch to a particular client.

I do this at the end of the day, which happens to work well because I inevitably end up finding inspiration in my experiences from that day. Events or activities I would have forgotten or left unused turn into sparks of ideas. If I didn't force myself to do this, I'd miss a lot of the inspiration that's already there, but needs a little bit of brain power to help it come to the fore.

Let your inspiration simmer

When I'm looking for ideas, I have a silly habit of reading lots of articles online. In fact, I tend to skim a lot of them and send the interesting ones to my reading list for later, in the hope that skimming through the headlines will spark ideas. This almost never works.

What I've realised recently is that although other people's work can help me produce new ideas, I have to ruminate on it first. I can't sit looking at a list of headlines and think up ideas. It just doesn't work that way.

But if I read some articles, skim some others, look through posts on Reddit, and then do something else for an hour or so, all that input simmers away by itself, mixing with everything I already have stored in my brain. Then I can sit with just a pen and paper, and let my brain do the work.

I tried this exact process last night. After about an hour of browsing the web for inspiration, I had one idea. After another hour of doing something else, I sat for about five minutes and came up with 12 new ideas.

Fill out your ideas while they're still fresh

I'm never as excited about an idea as when I first come up with it.

Quite often I come up with a list of ideas, add them to my "ideas" file, and walk away. When I'm ready to create something new, I look through the ideas list for something to use, but sometimes nothing jumps out at me. And sometimes I don't even remember what I meant by some of the ideas I've written down.

I've found that ideas I've filled out more are easier to pick up again later. My ideas list usually consists of a whole bunch of headlines or topic ideas, and occasionally a topic with dot points under it to show what I want to cover within that idea. The ones with dot points are the easiest to pick up, because there's more to work with. I can get back to the same headspace I was in when I wrote the idea down, and the first step of filling out the idea is done for me.

I'm going to try taking this further in the future by starting a draft of the ideas that I'm really excited about. Sometimes I won't have time to finish them, or I won't know where I want them to go, but I'll be able to get the essence of my thoughts and excitement onto the page. I think my future self will be grateful for that initial effort.

Lean into disagreements

I found a podcast I really enjoy recently and spent a few weeks working my way through the whole archive of shows. I find that while I agree with most of what they say, I disagree on many minor points. Because I'm out running or walking while I listen, I fume about the disagreement until they move on to another point, and then forget it.

In the past couple of days I've started re-listening to some of the old shows to see if I can pick up any more learning or inspiration. One surprising benefit is that I'm reminded of the things I disagree with, and I'm using those as fuel for new content. I don't need to point out that the ideas came out of disagreeing with someone else or make a conflict out of it. I simply use those points I disagree with to surface my own thoughts and opinions to work with.

If there's someone who really rubs you the wrong way in their ideas, or who you only sometimes agree with, try leaning into that. Listen to what they have to say, read their work, and make notes. It's funny how something you don't agree with can help bubble up the opinions you already have, but wouldn't have thought of using in your content.


To find new ideas, try these tips:

  • Write down five new ideas every night.
  • After looking for inspiration, let it simmer for a while.
  • Fill out your ideas with as much detail as you can, as soon as they come to you.
  • Lean into disagreements to find topics you care about.

P.S. I make some stuff you might like: Exist, a personal analytics app to help you understand your life, and Larder, a bookmarking app for developers.

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