A Simple Five-Step Formula You Can Use to Become an Idea Machine

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Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

It’s midnight on a weekday summer night, and I’m zooming by people at the Lincoln Memorial on a Lime scooter.

As I whiz in and out of traffic, I say “beep, beep,” sounding like Road Runner as he escapes Wile E. Coyote once again.

There’s more people out here than you would think at this time of night, but I doubt any of them are here for the reason I am.

I’m not sightseeing, not on my way somewhere, not even meeting up with a friend. So what am I doing out here?

I’ll get to that in a second…

But first take a look at this picture I took of the Washington Monument.

Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial.

And this is true for every physical creation known to man.

Before Da Vinci put his brush to the canvas, the Mona Lisa was just an idea in his head.

Before Edison made the first recording, the phonograph was all an idea in his head.

And before Steve Jobs combined a music player, a phone, and a computer, the iPhone was just an idea in his head…

So now to the question…

What the hell was I doing riding a scooter around the Lincoln Memorial at midnight when I live and work during the daylight hours in the very same city?

I was idea searching. On the prowl for ideas. Trying to hook up with ideas.

That’s right. Idea sex is real, and something I’ll get into a little later.

The Big Picture

These late-night adventures have been one of my go-to hacks that have helped me create and develop ideas more frequently.

As entrepreneurs, marketers, writers, authors, podcasters, YouTubers, bloggers, artists, and copywriters, we are all in the business of creating great ideas.

We know that we are only as good as our last idea, but coming up with workable ideas can be difficult, let alone great ones.

Because it’s so difficult, at times we may become complacent or discouraged, and inadvertently hinder our own progress and success.

But what if we knew how to create great ideas constantly?

I’m going to share a simple five-step process along with 20 easy tips that have been helping me come up with better ideas for years.

Now, I’m not promising that every tip will work for you, nor that any of these tips will transform you into a Nikola Tesla or Rosalind Franklin.

But what I do promise is that if you implement just a few of the tips I give you today, you’ll start to see results tomorrow, because these hacks free your mind to ideate and become an idea machine.

Stop Waiting and Start Thinking

Believe it or not,  one of the true ways to be an idea machine is to force ourselves to create even when we aren’t feeling it. 

Often times we wait for some grand inspiration to hit us. Usually, it never comes. Deep down inside we know it isn’t coming, but we still passively wait for it. Not because we don’t want to create or are incapable of creating, but typically because of our own perfectionism. We don’t want to produce until we have something that we feel is flawless and 100% unique.

But it’s important to remember that no idea is 100% unique. All ideas in the world are recycled. Jobs didn’t invent the phone, Walkman, and computer. Edison didn’t come up with the idea of recording sound, and Da Vinci wasn’t the first guy to ever paint a girl.

If we spend all our time trying to find something 100% new and waiting to create only when we find it, then we’ll never create. I’m not saying we should blatantly copy others, but it’s okay if others serve as our inspiration. Give credit where it’s due and keep it moving.

It’s also okay to let our ideas marinate over time, but we shouldn’t let that process stop us from acting on an idea because it’s not perfectly ripe for picking. Remember that often times we aren’t the ones deciding what’s a great idea or not — the consumer is. 

Becoming an Idea Machine

One of my friends is the CEO of a company in the financial publishing space. His company brings in roughly five million dollars a day and over a billion dollars a year selling financial newsletters.

How do they do it?

In his words, they write “hyperbolic” copy.

They pump out tons of promotions a week featuring new angles and ideas. The secret to their hyperbolic copy is their knack for developing big ideas. 

So you’d think when listening to their top copywriter give a presentation that you’d discover the secret sauce to coming up with a “big idea,” and you do. It’s called lots and lots of ketchup.

He said the big idea was overrated and trying to develop the biggest idea was a waste of time. That’s because as a creator we don’t know what a big idea is or when we have one.

“I’ve seen copywriters here spend months on coming up with what they thought was the best big idea,” he said during the presentation. “And then they write the promotion, and it flops.”

At the same time, according to him, some of his best ideas “were ideas I thought sucked at the time, only to discover that my opinion doesn’t really matter — it’s the reader who determines how great my idea is, not me.”

He flourishes as their top copywriter because he doesn’t spend his time waiting to only write when he has what he thinks is a great idea. While most copywriters spend months sharpening their ideas and each one is only required to write six promotions a year, this guy writes nearly triple that.

So is the answer simply creating more? That’s certainly part of it. But then how do we get more ideas?

No More Excuses

How do we create when we don’t have anything to write about? What should we do when we have writer’s block?

According to Seth Godin — who just reached his 11th year in a row of daily posts on his blog, not missing one day in those 11 years — writer’s block doesn’t exist.

Imagine if the plumber came to your house one day and said, “Hey, I can’t fix your toilet today because I have plumber’s block.”

Or imagine if you needed life-saving surgery but on the day of the operation your the surgeon showed up and said, “Hey sorry man, but I have surgeon block today, and you’re just going to have to learn to live with that tumor.”

He’s making a really legitimate point:  why is it that the creative class thinks they are excused from showing up to work because they simply don’t feel up to it?  

Seth’s advice to cure to the problem is to simply sit yourself down and create:

“Consider the alternative to writer’s block: the drip. A post, day after day, week after week, 400 times a year, 4000 times a decade. When you commit to writing regularly, the stakes for each thing you write go down.”

Seth is a big fan of Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons and has read them all. “The truth is that not every cartoon he did was brilliant, but enough of them were that he left his mark.”

I’ve found this approach to be very effective. Even when I have no ideas and nothing to write about, I’ll sit down and force myself to write. I’ll eventually come up with something I think might be worth sharing, but I never know whether it’s great or not. And I can’t. That’s not decided until after I publish it, and I’m not part of the decision.

It’s actually kind of liberating if you think about it. You’re off the hook for coming up with great ideas. You’re just responsible for coming up with ideas.

Entering the Idea Space

So honestly the task is getting yourself in the headspace to ideate. I can attest that it’s a hell of a lot easier to sit down and create when you’re prepared to develop ideas. In other words, it’s much easier to write when you have more information rolling around in your noggin.

Like in sports, the preparation you put in before you perform can greatly increase your performance. Coming up with more ideas when it matters most has to do with what you do when you aren’t actually creating. To constantly come up with ideas to create with requires consuming a lot of ideas and then engaging in idea sex — without protection. We’re trying to make idea babies here folks.

Idea sex is the cross-pollination of ideas in your brain to develop new ideas.

“A good idea is a network. A specific constellation of neurons — thousands of them — fire in sync with each other for the first time in your brain, and an idea pops into your consciousness. A new idea is a network of cells exploring the adjacent possible of connections that they can make in your mind. It is NOT a single thing but a SWARM.” — Steven Johnson

There’s actually an easy technique for promoting idea sex that Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons revealed in his insightful short book called A Technique For Producing Ideas.

Here’s the simple five-step formula:

  1. Gather material (specific and general)
  2. Think (write down every idea)
  3. Take a break (put the problem out of your mind)
  4. Let idea emerge (idea appears, write it down)
  5. Development (refine and rework idea)

Building off of Young’s protocol — because good ideas are never truly unique ideas — I’ve been able to develop a variety of methods to stimulate idea development.

But before I show you that, I want to add one last thing I cross-pollinated with to come up with my list.

One of the best books I’ve read on coming up with good ideas was Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson.

Let me give you his list of tips to develop ideas first because they are wonderful and also perfectly complement some of the tips on my list.

If you’re interested in seriously learning more about the topic, I highly recommend you check out both of the books I just mentioned. They were instrumental in the idea sex that produced the idea baby that’s on your screen in front of you.

You’ll need to read the book for context behind some of these, but here are ten tips from Johnson for coming up with good ideas:

  1. Go for a walk
  2. Cultivate hunches
  3. Write everything down, but keep your folders messy
  4. Embrace serendipity by following links
  5. Make generative mistakes
  6. Take on multiple hobbies
  7. Frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks
  8. Let others build on your ideas
  9. Borrow, recycle, reinvent
  10. Build a tangled bank (collaborate)

All of these are in service of his big idea: “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”

It’s not about the next great idea. It’s about the next idea.

My Additional Ten Tips

Now let me give you my list of tips with brief descriptions behind each tip so you can start implementing them today.

1. Consume everything you can (mostly books) — Whether you like it or not, if you’re in the business of creating, you have to be in the business of consuming. Gather across different fields, as this leads to the cross-pollination of ideas. But be sure you’re getting your fruits and vegetables (high-quality articles and books) and not junk food (social media and TV).

“A library is the delivery room for the birth of ideas, a place where history comes to life.” — Norman Cousins

2. Float in sensory deprivation tanks — This is one of my favorite things to do for coming up with ideas. Simply put, go float. I don’t know the science and everything behind it; all I know is that it works.

3. Acupuncture — this is a great way to remove stress and toxins that cloud your brain. When those are removed it’s much easier to consume and think.

4. Meditate — This doesn’t have to be anything excessive. Simply be aware of what’s happening in the moment. This helps take your brain off of thinking and allows idea sex to happen.

5. Spirit strolls (with or without a partner) — This is nothing more than a walk, but with a caveat: leave your phone at home. Try to walk in nature of some sort: a park will do, and the woods are even better. Unplug from the man-made world. And two might be better than one. It’s great to interact with someone who supports you, but at the same time isn’t a yes-man. You want a partner who will have an open mind and is willing to pitch in with ideas of their own.

“We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.” — Steven Johnson

6. Write down your dreams — Doing this every morning keeps you more in tune with your subconscious mind, where all your ideas are currently being created and stored.

7. Wash the dishes — This seems like a tedious activity, but it can be great for going into default mode, putting problems out of our mind, and allowing them to develop in the background.

8. Cooking — A way to stay creative while focusing on something other than our ideas. It helps engage our mind in something other than our own ideas. And the sensory inputs along with creating food is remarkable.

9. Silent car rides — It’s tempting to want to turn on the music or a podcast as soon as we get in the car, but I challenge you to go for a long car ride without any music. Just embrace the silence with your thoughts. You’ll be amazed at what appears.

10. Go on an adventure — Go on a weekend or even just a day adventure by yourself. Sometimes I like to wake up, hit the metro, and get off at a random stop and just walk around. No plan ahead of time and no tasks to do. You might even find yourself at the Lincoln Memorial at midnight one time.

Final Takeaway

All these are in service of my big idea, which is just to have ideas. So here’s my final takeaway point: Write down some sort of an idea each and every day. (This happens to be one of the requirements for all the copywriters working at the financial publishing company I mentioned above).

I like to text myself all my ideas so all I have to do is go back through the thread of text messages with myself to find all my ideas. Entrepreneur James Altucher walks around with a journal and writes down his. However you do it, make sure you have a way to record your thoughts — nobody’s memory is perfect.

So the next time you feel like you’re struggling to come up with great ideas, take some time to consume a little more, disconnect, maybe even take a walk to limber up your mind as well as your legs.

Remember, the creation part is the most important aspect of developing great ideas, because an idea is just an idea until it’s out there in the wild. Only then can the consumer tell us if it’s great or not.