How to Become an Idea Machine

Exercise the Idea Muscle

This was a lesson from James Altucher, a prolific writer, who sits down and comes up with 10 new ideas everyday. Sounds simple enough, right? But what I think was interesting was he would use the time not just to brainstorm his own problems and ideas. For example, he’d sit and come up with 10 ideas that would make Gmail better, or ideas for how to solve a problem in a different industry that he’d read about in the news. That kind of flexing, if you will, is a much harder, deeper stretch of one’s creativity. The result, he explained, was a MacGuyver-like ability to come up with ideas on the spot when necessary. Some days he uses that time to come up with 10 blog posts for himself or to solve a problem in his business, but he keeps things fresh by mixing up the who/what/when/why of the brainstorming sessions.

You don’t have to start with 10, and you may not have time each day, but try pushing yourself to sit down regularly and come up with a list of ideas, varying the subject matter each time.

Become a Noticer

This is closely tied to my next point, but great thinkers and creators are often great noticers. Think about it; Gary Vaynerchuk noticed kids on Snapchat at the airport before anyone knew what that app was. Jeremy Cowart notices the light and texture that make the perfect photo. Jon Acuff notices funny signs and scenarios everywhere he goes, so much so that his phone is full of thousands of posts for Twitter and Instagram. Even stock traders notice trends in the numbers. How do we get better an noticing things? Well, for one thing, we have to look up from our phones. Cliché but true, guys. We need to give ourselves time, see below, but also, we need to be watching.

We need to actually look at things to notice them, so take the time to observe your clients, your coworkers, your industry at conferences and in industry publications, study current culture and the general marketplace (magazines, social media trends, news). Mentally push back from the situation and just watch sometimes, making notes of why someone makes a decision, why they get frustrated, what causes which effects, etc.

More Time Thinking

Seth Godin, a literal modern day genius and probably the most creative thinker of our time, works about two hours a day. Two. Two! The rest of the time he goes for walks, he reads, he thinks. He needs time and space to notice things and ponder what he notices. Multiple guests have said they work a solid four hours a day. Outside of their two to four hours of creation they, of course, have to deal with email, work out, and have meetings, but they also take power naps, go for multiple walks a day, meditate, etc.

While the rest of us are running from deadline to deadline, creation to creation, one stimuli to another, Godin is sitting on a bench somewhere on the Hudson river right now just watching the boats, probably coming up with some world-changing idea for his next book. Find more margin in your life by removing commitments, removing time-wasting habits, and changing your schedule. Truly unplug often.

Collect Everything

Great ideators have hundreds or even thousands of unused ideas. Ideas filed away for “might be useful someday.” Ideas tossed in the trash. Ideas forgotten. But they’re all collected somewhere, every single one. But every so often one of those ideas becomes the next Facebook or Spanx or Silly Putty, and the only way to find out is to record and mull over each one. Often we’ll have a passing idea while in line or in the shower, something that could work for a client, our boss, or our book. You may notice something that inspires you or makes you angry or explains why something bothers you. Keep a notebook with you, use an app on your phone, something. You may be tempted to think “nah, not a good idea.” Write it down anyway.

Test, Test, Test

When you have an idea, how long do you play with it? A week? Two weeks? Whatever length, it’s probably not long enough. To truly track and test something - a practice of basically everyone I interview - you need to give it time to form, time to be perfected, and then time to succeed or fail. Many creative, driven, entrepreneurial types are painfully impatient. I know I am. We cannot rush through the formation, implementation, and testing of ideas. Amy Porterfield stuck with her first product for years, even though the first launch was a dud. Michael Hyatt will test things for a month or a quarter, after significant time spent perfecting.

Ask Other People

This tip overlaps with a few others. For example, part of noticing can include asking a colleague “why do you think that failed?” or asking a client “what’s the part of your business that’s struggling the most?” In addition, if you get stuck in your own head, unable to come up with a single interesting thought, sure that you’re going to fail, asking a friend or mentor “hey, what am I good at?” can be a game changer. Successful creators also seek out feedback rather than avoiding it. They send out customer surveys and ask for early reviews, rather than closing their eyes, gritting their teeth and avoiding criticism.

Make asking people questions a habit. Ask why often in conversation, ask “what do you think about x?” ask for help when you’re stuck.

Give Your Ideas Time

Fast forward a couple months from now and you’re an idea machine. You’re crushing your exercises and you’re asking questions and you’re noticing everything like a boss. You’ve got a giant file of possible solutions. The thing is, no matter who you are or what you do, most of those ideas are crap. It’s true. I love what Jeremy Cowart shared about this. He gives big ideas two months. If he still loves the idea in two months, and his team is still on board in two months, and his clients and followers are interested in two months, then it’s a go.

You may not need two full months, but set up a system for yourself because we’ve all been there - launching a project or starting an initiative that we don’t even like anymore. Or launching something we love that ends up being a complete dud. What a waste of time and energy! Protect yourself from that.

Study the Big Boys

Another way to get out of your own head is to study the biggest players. Don’t just study the big players in your industry - think global. Most successful people I research are watching the biggest brands, personalities and corporations. This is another version of noticing - to study. Big brands often spend millions to understand the market, the everyday consumer, the trends, so this is a high-level way to study humans, really. Watching their tactics, reading their messaging, and noticing how people respond can be great fodder for writing, creating, and strategizing.

Ignore Everyone Else

Innovators, ideators and writers - they spend time creating. Many of them are so busy doing the work of noticing, brainstorming, capturing and pondering, then actually creating, that they don’t have time to worry about their direct competitors. They are reading books and watching humans, yes, but they aren’t obsessing over the latest industry trend.

Once you start to find a rhythm for coming up with tons of ideas, capturing them and fine tuning them, shut out everything else.

Treasure Your Mind

Like Tony Robbins shared in his first episode, we need to guard our minds. We need to be intentional about what we let in - magazines, books, media, messages - and our own thoughts. Most of the people I interview work hard at cultivating positive thoughts.

We also need to remember to fuel our brain, which is an organ in our body. We’ve all experienced brain fog from lack of sleep or unhealthy foods. Stay sharp by staying hydrated, eating nutritious foods, exercising, getting enough sleep and limiting alcohol and even caffeine (which can cause a crash later.)

For more insights into this watch the James Altucher or Jeremy Cowart episodes!

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