How to Have an Idea

Is your brain blocked? Are you having a problem with mental processing? Have you simply run out of ideas? Don't worry, the solution could be as easy as taking a bath.

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Two years ago I had an idea that eventually became a book. It happened to me early one morning. I was sitting alone, sipping coffee, on the rooftop of the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney. My idea was whether physical spaces influence the quality of our thinking?

But then I had a thought. Would I have had this idea if I was on the phone, looking at a computer screen, in a dark basement office* in London? I think the answer is no. Objects and environments that we take for granted change our minds but the clarity to see this only comes with a certain distance or detachment.It is only when we disrupt our routines that our thinking changes. Indeed, it is only when we stop thinking that things really start to happen.

Some people can have a good idea anywhere. Even at work. Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin jumps to mind as a good example. But I'd suggest that such occasions are rare. Most people don't have great ideas at work because ideas prefer non-work environments. Ideas like going for a walk. They like taking hot baths. They like foreign holidays. Most of all they like staying in bed.

The problem is that we are looking for ideas in all the wrong places. We are spending too much time frantically seeking out ideas at work rather than calmly shifting our surroundings so they get a chance to visit. Indeed, there is an expectation that all we need to do is follow the right process™ and new ideas will arrange a meeting, at a convenient time, with the right people. But it never quite happens like that does it?

One reason for this is that a culture of busyness has taken over. People are expected to be constantly productive. Furthermore, ideas are expected to occur even in the most dreary and depressing places. In short, people are expected to think of 'out of the box' even when they are sitting in a sterile monotone cubicle. A related problem is connectivity. We just don't switch off. Because communication is now instant, people expect immediate responses and answers.

This is fine on one level. We can, as Malcolm Gladwell has rightly pointed out, think at astonishing speed. But not, I'd argue, when we are trying to think deeply about a problem or a potential solution. Big ideas take time. They require diverse inputs, which generally requires a degree of just messing about.

Then they need incubation, which requires time. Lastly, they need the right birthing environment, which requires downtime. But how can we provide any of the above when we inhabit the same places every day. How can we think deeply when we are constantly interrupted by an exaflood of emails and a torrent of texts? How can new ideas be born if we never switch off, stand still or sleep properly on a problem?

So, here's my suggestion. If you want to have a really big idea don't go to work. Take the day off. Lie in bed. Go for a walk. Read something slowly, ideally on paper, or on a screen that doesn't contain hysterical hyperlinks.

About 25 years ago, a British Supermarket chain gave each of its senior managers a sign to put on the outside of their office doors. It read simply: "Quiet please I'm thinking." These signs are now gone. So too are the private offices with doors to which the signs were once attached. In their place are open plans offices and a clean desk policy. This clearly states that anything left on a person's desk after 6.30pm, apart from the mandatory phone and computer, will be thrown in the trash. I guess the theory is that a tidy desk represents a tidy mind. Personally I think this is rubbish. An empty desk is the sign of an empty mind.

I do not believe that companies should tell people how to organize a desk any more than they should dictate what people have in their heads. Too much clutter can be a problem but a moderate level of physical chaos can result in world changing ideas. Leon Heppel, was a researcher at the U.S. National Institutes of Health who had a famously messy desk. It was so messy, in fact, that he had a habit of every so often putting a large sheet of paper over the mess in order to create a second layer of mess. Multi-story mess. Marvellous.

But here's the good bit. One day Mr Heppel was flipping through some papers on the lower and upper levels of this desk and stumbled upon two letters from two totally unconnected researchers. He suddenly spotted a connection and put one in touch with the other. This connection subsequently led to a Nobel Prize. Had Mr Heppel had a clean desk or used a conventional filing system chances are that the connection would never have materialised.

Here are five ideas for having ideas.

1. Don't look for ideas. Look for problems then reverse engineer them.

2. Before you think about new ideas find some old ideas and rebuild them.

3. Change your routine. Don't go to the office. Go somewhere new.

4. Don't dine 'al desko' today. Find some people and go out for lunch instead.

5. Turn your phone off, run a hot bath and lie in it.

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* We sometimes assume that offices have been with us forever but in reality they are little more than a century old. Offices came into being primarily because a gun company (Remington) invented the typewriter. This coincided, more or less, with the birth of assembly lines and mass consumption so there were things to write about. However, offices were never designed to be places for thinking. They were places for doing. They were places for low-grade mental processing. Perhaps most still are.

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