Some days the ideas simply don’t come. Your brain is bare and closed for a break. But that’s not very helpful when you have an article to write, a meeting with your boss, a looming presentation or any other project that requires new ideas and insights.
As Jack London famously said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
So it helps to have an arsenal of tools you can turn to, and a system you can use every day to keep your tank full.
Here are 12 tips and exercises for finding and generating great ideas, whether you’re penning a blog post or novel, painting your next piece, starting a new project at work or need a fun activity to do with your kids.
1. Carry a journal with you at all times.
“Just as keeping a gratitude journal can have a systemic effect on positivity and well-being, keeping an idea journal is essential to filling the creative well,” said Miranda Hersey, a creativity coach, writer and editor.
If you prefer a digital option, she suggested EverNote, which has an app that syncs with your computer.
2. Use the alphabet as inspiration.
Make a list of the alphabet, and generate one idea for each letter, said Ellen Olson-Brown, a published children’s book author and children’s yoga teacher who lives in Groton, Mass.
3. Use your non-dominant hand.
Set a timer for 10 minutes minimum, and free-write using your non-dominant hand without stopping, Olson-Brown said.
4. Record new things every day.
This can be anything from a word you want to look up to a snippet of a conversation to a country you’d like to visit to an artist you’d like to learn more about, said Hersey, who also pens the blog Studio Mothers, a creative community for mothers.
For instance, recently, she read the word “alexia” in S., the new book from JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst. She didn’t know its meaning, so she made a note to look it up.
5. Play “Google roulette.”
Olson-Brown suggested typing in two or three completely unrelated words into Google. Then view them in “images.”
6. Play idea ping-pong.
Play at a real ping-pong table, or use any kind of ball, Olson-Brown said. “Whenever you hit or catch the ball, call out any idea that comes to mind, silly, random, or brilliant.”
7. Take photos.
Hersey takes pictures with her phone camera of anything in a magazine or newspaper she’d like to remember or explore. Later, you can print these photos and paste them into your journal, or add them to EverNote, she said.
8. Browse the stacks.
Scan the nonfiction section of the library with a creative question in mind, Olson-Brown said. Let the titles of the books or the stories inside become your answer. For instance, you’re a songwriter who’s stuck on the subject of your new song, so you scan the stacks, wondering: “My next song will be about…”
Or you’re a short story writer fleshing out a character named Louise, so you read the titles, wondering: “Would Louise say that?”
Of course some titles will be nonsensical, “but the sheer volume of titles and the speed at which I am reacting will trigger some gut feelings and realizations,” she said.
9. Create mind maps.
If there’s something you’d like to explore further, create a mind map. Draw it freehand, or go online. Hersey likes the site mindmeister.com.
10. Create word collages.
“Cut words out from magazines or print out an online article or blog post in large font,” Olson-Brown said. Then cut them into separate words, and reassemble the words into two to four-word phrases. “Work quickly.”
11. Use an entire pad of notes.
Olson-Brown calls this the “sticky note slam.” Write down one idea on each sticky note, and stick it to the wall or table. Don’t stop until you’ve used the entire pad, she said. (It doesn’t matter if you repeat ideas.) Then sort the notes, and see what themes emerge, she said.
12. Engage with your surroundings.
“The more you engage with your surroundings, the more you realize that each day can be an exploration — even if you never leave your house,” Hersey said.
She gave these examples: browsing the books on your shelves, which you haven’t looked at in years; researching why the exotic plant your aunt gave you as a housewarming gift only blooms once every seven years; or noticing that a piece of junk mail has a stock photo of a person who resembles the protagonist in your novel.
“Getting out of your own environment — and into the world — is important, but you can also travel far and wide without ever leaving your home with the resources you already have — especially with the power of the Internet at your disposal,” Hersey said.
Great ideas are everywhere. Sometimes they simply pop into your head. But most times you have to work harder. You have to get out the club, and go hunting.