Brainstorming by Yourself

alone often feels, to paraphrase Churchill, like standing in a bucket and trying to lift yourself by the handles. It can be a lonely and listless experience. No volleying ideas with partners. No yakking it up with teammates. No high-fives or shout-outs.

But not to worry. Here are nine steps to keep solo brainstorming from being a so-so experience.

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1. Feed the mind.

Before you bounce into brainstorming, break out of solitude. Get outside. Look around — small scenes can lead to big ideas. Walt Disney came up with the idea of Disneyland while watching bored kids and tired parents dawdle in a dilapidated park.

Talk to other people. Ask questions. Actively listen. Take notes. Snap photos. And even when you’re stuck inside and alone, read books and magazines, websites and blogs, anything and everything.

“If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines and music, said Ray Bradbury, author of more than 500 published works, “you will automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry period in my life because I feed myself well.”

2. Make time to brainstorm.

“Every morning between nine and twelve, I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper,” says writer Flannery O’Connor. “If an idea does come between nine and twelve, I’m ready for it.”

With deadlines on our backs, most of us can’t spend three hours waiting for muses. But we can carve out small chucks of time here and there. Make appointments with yourself to brainstorm. And make those sessions short, fun and furious.

3. Judge not.

Opening a meeting one day, Sam Goldwyn, the legendary filmmaker, told his staff, “I had a fantastic idea this morning — but I didn’t like it.”

Sound familiar? Probably. Because, like Goldwyn, we’ll have fantastic ideas one moment and then the next moment convince ourselves that they are utter nonsense. Catch yourself judging your own ideas and slam on the brakes. Brainstorming isn’t the time to evaluate or edit ideas. That comes later. Focus on quantity, not quality while brainstorming.

4. Go nuts.

“Learn not to be careful,” photographer Diane Arbus told her students. Post that advice when brainstorming with yourself. Go beyond safe ideas. Move past the weary and welcome the wacky. Sensible thinking usually proffers predictable answers. Non-sensical ideas often lead to sensible solutions.

5. Create mind maps.

Mind maps — also called word maps and semantic maps — are great for single-handed brainstorms. Take a blank sheet of paper. Write your topic in the center and circle it. As your brain makes free associations, follow along with your pen, jotting down words and connecting them with circles and lines. In 20 minutes, you’ll have a page crammed with ideas.

6. Unplug technology.

It’s impossible for your right brain to be storming with ideas while your left brain is sifting through e-mails, texts, caller IDs, instant messages and other distractions. Disconnect from technology before starting to brainstorm.

7. Focus. 

When brainstorming by yourself, it’s easy to stray into nearby territory. A brochure for another client. A problem with your printer. A choice between sushi or sandwich for lunch. Don’t let your mind stray far away. Keep focused on the project before you.

8. Change things around.

If brainstorms flow effortlessly in your office or on the kitchen table, stay put. But when neurons are neutral, make a change. Head for a coffee shop or nearby park. Visit a zoo or lake. Change seats. Change pens. Change clothes. Change expressions. Change coffee. Nothing happens, said Einstein, until something moves.

9. Pause before editing ideas.

Explore before brainstorming, pause after brainstorming. Inspiration often happens when the subconscious is fired up by brainstorming, then freed by the rest that follows. Take a break and see what happens. Einstein said he would work for hours at his blackboard, and then his subconscious would give him ideas while he shaved. Allow your conscious brain a break and let your subconscious clock in for duty.

Reading over these nine points, you’re probably reminded that brainstorming — whether alone or with a team — is really about new perspectives. When we notice differences, said ad guru Howard Gossage, the creative process really kicks in. “It’s seeing a hundred horses run by,” he said, “and saying, ‘Hey, that one’s a zebra!’”

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