In my last post I wrote about some research that I conducted for my new book and considered where and when people did their “best thinking”, by which I meant deepest and most valuable thinking. So what else can we learn from this study?
One interesting observation was that there were no differences that could be attributed to age, gender, profession and so on. A second discovery was that not a single person mentioned digital communications. You might think that individuals aged under-twenty might have said “On my computer”, “On Facebook” or “ On Google” but this wasn’t the case. Digital technology, it seems, is great for developing and distributing our ideas but it is next to useless for creating ideas in the first place.
Most ideas, it seems, are hatched outside, often when we are alone or else they burst into life late at night when we are half asleep. Scribbled notes on odd bits of paper received a mention but Blackberries, iPads and cellphones did not. This could be because many of these devices are too new but I doubt it. To have an idea you need to be switched off not switched on it seems.
Here are my top ten ways to get good ideas…
1. You have to let something out to get something in. The essence of deep thinking is a calm and uncluttered mind, so get rid of things you don’t need.
2. Being by the ocean or moving water seems to help people to think. It seems to dilute some of the unwanted effects of the digital era, such as data deluge. By water we seem able to restrict the flow and become aware that not all data is useful.
3. Other forms of movement are good too. Try walking, running or various forms of transport (I’m thinking of planes, trains and automobiles but you may have other, better, ideas).
4. Get a room! Ideally a room of ones own and ideally one with a great view. Very high ceilings (Cathedrals and art galleries spring to mind) or distant horizons seem to elevate our thinking, possibly because our minds expand to fill the available space or because a distant horizon or skyline tends to project our thinking forward.
5. Get out of the office. Spending too much time indoors can shrink your horizons. An office tends to be full of busyness and distractions, which is exactly what you don’t want if you are trying to have sustained, focussed, reflective thoughts.
6. Rest your brain. Take a break once in a while. Tell people you are taking a few hours off to “do some thinking” and above all make sure you are getting enough sleep. Sleep helps to stabilise and strengthen memories, which are essential for idea generation. The period between full sleep and full awakening seems to be an especially fertile region when it comes to acute analysis of a problem.
7. Think about the tools you use. If you are trying to map out the future try a sharp pencil and a clean piece of paper. You may disagree with this. You might prefer an iPad, but try both and see which works best.
8. Lie down. Beds are good. So too are sofas and couches. Best of all use some of those frequent flyer points you’ve accumulated and book a long-haul flight – ideally a window seat at the pointy end of the plane.
9. Go to lunch (If you are reading this suggestion in North America I suggest that you sit down before you reading this next bit). Break some bread and crack open a good bottle of wine with a few of your fellow co-workers.
10. Go in search of serendipitous situations. Talk to strangers on planes. Read a magazine you’ve never read before. Take a day off and just wander down a street for no real reason. Go on holiday. Go to a public library. Smile at people and above all try not to ignore the things right under your nose.