Where Do Great Ideas Come From? (Hint: Not Where You Think)

Do your best ideas come from sitting down, focused with a pad of paper, and trying to come up with them? Or do they come spontaneously, when you least expect them to, and then quickly float away before you can capture them?

We all need great ideas. Ideas for projects, blog posts, product names, tasks to do, people to email, etc.

Over the past few months I’ve been intrigued by how great ideas are formed as opposed to mediocre, bland, ignore-able ideas.

I’ve even asked folks on Twitter about where they get their best ideas. The responses were surprising.

Let’s dive into why. Plus, we’ll cover the five stages of ideas and how you can implement them into your own workflow.

Where Great Ideas Come From

I assumed that most people came up with their best ideas when they set aside an hour, turned off all distractions, and opened a blank text document on their computer. I assumed incorrectly.

Here is a quick rundown of the most common responses to my question: Where do you come up with your best ideas?

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Traveling (airplanes, airports, trains, buses)
  • Falling Asleep or Waking Up
  • In Conversation with Friends
  • Listening to Audiobooks or Podcasts
  • Showering

You get the picture. (You can see all of the responses here and here.)

Notice how no one responded anywhere near my assumption. Very few of these are actually even “sitting down” either. It turns out great ideas come most when you aren’t trying to think of them.


Great ideas come when you aren’t trying to think of them.” Tweet this


Great ideas don’t happen when you want them to. You can’t make them happen.

However, you can set yourself and your environment up to be ready for your next great idea.

How To Have Great Ideas & Implement Them

Ideas follow five simple steps:

  1. Generate
  2. Document
  3. Organize
  4. Cull
  5. Execute

If you fail to take an idea through all of these steps your idea may be worthless because it will never see the light of day. You’ll never end up “finishing” the idea by delivering the final product.

(For more on that concept check out episode 008 of the podcast).

Let’s walk through each one of the five steps, discuss why it is important, and then showcase a couple tools that are great for capturing and organizing ideas.


1. Generate an Idea

By this point you should realize that great ideas come from external stimulation and non-work experiences. Every day you should be doing things that generate ideas passively.

Can’t think of a name for your latest project? Then stop looking through synonyms online and go somewhere like a grocery store or market. Places with many colors, smells, and people will get your creativity flowing.

Whenever you feel stuck and can’t think of great ideas, change your environment.


2. Document That Idea

If you don’t document your ideas immediately you may lose them forever.

Don’t trust your memory. Don’t think that you’ll remember it in five minutes. Have a system for documenting your ideas the second you have them.

When I asked people what systems they used to document their ideas, most came back with physical systems. Post-it notes, moleskins, pen and paper, etc. They all said they carry them with them at all times though.

Personally, the only thing other than my wallet that I carry around everywhere is my iPhone, so here are two of my favorite apps for documenting ideas.

  • Drafts – A quick text entry app that I then export to email, Omnifocus, or Evernote. This is the app that all of my text starts in.
  • Evernote – Think of Evernote as a giant filing cabinet or Trapper Keeper (remember those?) that can store any text, audio, or image notes. All of my ideas, brainstorming, and planning happens in Evernote.

Whether you use a digital or analog tool, make sure you have a way to document your ideas quickly so you can get back to whatever it was you were doing.


3. Organize Your Ideas

Once you get all of your ideas down you’ll need a way to organize and categorize that idea list. This is especially true if your ideas are all over the place (in your email inbox, on post-it notes, written on your hand, etc.).

I prefer to organize my ideas based on what “project” they fall under. If I have an idea for a blog post here at Think Traffic that is the section I put it under. If I have an idea for an episode of The Fizzle Show it goes in a different section.

Figure out what each of the major categories of ideas that you may have are and then set aside some time once a week to sort through all of them.

If your ideas aren’t organized you’ll never be able to figure out which ones to actually act on.


4. Cull Your Ideas

Let’s be honest. Not all ideas are great. Heck, most aren’t even good. If you’re going to figure out which one of your ideas you should execute next you need to filter out the ones that are garbage.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make with idea generation is that they never trash any ideas they’ve had. Every time they go to their list of ideas they see ones that have been sitting there for over a year. Instead of focusing on the 5 or 10 great ideas they’ve had in the past month for new content or projects, they have to waste time sifting through 100’s of notes and ideas they’ve jotted down over the past few years.

Make a habit of going through your lists of ideas and culling out ones you are never going to use.

It is okay to forget bad ideas. Think of it as making room for better ones.


5. Execute Your Best Ideas

The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20. The most brilliant idea takes great execution to be worth $20,000,000. That’s why I don’t want to hear people’s ideas. I’m not interested until I see their execution.” – Derek Sivers

Here it is. The most important step. Without execution, ideas are worthless.

Corbett likes to bring up the Idea + Execution equation that Derek Sivers wrote about a few years back. (Take a second to go read that quickly if you aren’t familiar with it. It will only take a minute.)

We even talked about the importance of executing ideas a bit on this episode of The Fizzle Show.

And if you need help with executing your ideas, 99U has a great resource of 10 Videos on Idea Execution & The Creative Process that you should definitely check out.

Take your best ideas and execute them. That is where success comes from.


There you have it.

Ideas come when you least expect them to, so you need to document, organize, and cull them before you execute them as best you can.

If you can do this over and over again, your best ideas will rise to the top and you’ll no longer be wasting your time and energy shipping your worst ideas.

Where do YOUR best ideas come from? Which step of the idea process do you need to work on the most? Let us know in the comments below this post.

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  • http://www.fb.com/inspiresphere Rhys

    Great post Caleb, I am guilty of not culling all of my ideas, as they can sit in folder on my laptop or written down in my note book.

    I will definitely engage in more culling.

    I for one get my best ideas whilst walking and watching the world around me. When an idea comes, I launch my trello app on my mobile, I will take a look at evernote and see if its any easier to use.

    Great info.

    Rhys

  • http://cameronchardukian.com Cameron Chardukian

    My best ideas always seem to come while I’m in the shower or while I’m just going through my daily routine. I’ve found that they come during this time because you’re relaxed and aren’t trying to think of them. The harder you try to think of a great idea the more difficult it becomes.

    I think the part of the process I need the most work on is executing my ideas. I write everyday, and I come up with a lot of great ideas, but I’m not producing to a high enough standard. It’s better than the mediocre content on the millions of other blogs, but it’s not the epic shit I need to be influencing thousands of people.

    I’m 16 years old and have only been blogging for 6 months, but my focus going forward has to be on producing the type of valuable content that’ll change lives and that people won’t be able to live without.

  • http://lucidability.com Jamie Alexander

    I’m a huge believer that ideas come when you have clearer access to your subconscious mind. It’s the reason why people spoke about those times you listed.

    When people are distracted by something for a small amount of time they enter into a state of meditation. Once their conscious mind shuts off the ideas start popping through. So I would say waiting for ideas to come is bad.

    It’s funny you mention good ideas coming before and after sleep. I lucid dream, so basically become consciously aware I’m dreaming. I can then come up with some cool ideas for blog posts while inside the dream. It’s quite a strong technique, but if you’re dreaming for a long time you must have strong dream recall to remember everything.

    So my vote is a blanket statement: when you have clearer access to your subconscious mind no matter how you do it.

    • http://healthywealthyaffiliate.org John Gibb

      hi Jamie

      Your response intrigues me… I mean, your lucid dreaming experience… so you are conscious you’re in a dream, and you can adjust your actions, as per your choice?

      Could one experience lucid dreaming but forget everything that happened inside that dream?

      How could we remember everything we lived in a lucid dreaming state?

    • http://lucidability.com Jamie Alexander

      Hey John,

      Yeah, you raise your awareness until you’re consciously aware, or you can pass into the dream from a wakened state without losing consciousness.

      You need to build up your dream memory at the same time as building up your awareness skills otherwise you won’t remember anything when you wake up.

      Once you build up your dream memory you can remember everything, lucid or not.

    • http://energymatch.ca/ Ekaterina Ramirez

      I like your comment on subconscious mind. Good thinking!

    • http://healthywealthyaffiliate.org John Gibb

      hey Jamie

      That’s good to know, thank you!

      So how could one (a beginner such as myself) build their dream memory, are there any exercises we can do?

      And what about entering the dream state while awake, how can we do such? :)

      I’ve read some posts on your blog, but couldn’t find any information on these subjects yet.,..

      Best!

    • http://lucidability.com Jamie Alexander

      Here is a basic overview-

      Dream memory:

      When you wake up stay still, keep your eyes closed, and go over everything you remember about the last dream. After 2 minutes write it down then try to keep it in your head for as long as possible.

      Pass into a lucid dream:

      (when you’re about to enter REM sleep) Lie on your bed and concentrate on the back of your head until your inner-voice dies out (meditative trance). Pretend your head is sinking into your pillow until your body reaches the brink of sleep (hypnotic technique). Shift your awareness out of your body, your body will go to sleep and you’ll pass into a dream, hopefully lucid if you hold onto your awareness.

      Good luck.

    • http://healthywealthyaffiliate.org John Gibb

      That’s getting even more interesting…

      You’ve said…

      “Shift your awareness out of your bod” — how can that be done practically?

      Is awareness out of the body already, or?

      Thank you!

  • http://convergenceinthecommons.com/ Deborah Owen

    This is a great post Caleb, thanks! My best ideas come from what I am reading, and the podcasts to which I listen. Of course, I listen to The Fizzle Show (!) and Pat Flynn for blogging and business ideas, but for my readers (who are primarily teachers), I get a lot of ideas from Ray Edwards, Michael Hyatt, Jeff Goins, Read To Lead, EntreLeadership, and a few others. That, and all the books I read. Some of my recent ones that have been tremendously inspiring: anything by Dan Pink; Carol Dweck’s Mindset; Charles Duhigg’s Habits; John Acuff’s Start; Jeff Goins’ The In-Between; and others.

    As long as you read (or listen to) books and ideas every single day, you will never run out of ideas for your writing! I always carry my phone and immediately put my ideas into Evernote for later reference. I need to do a better job of organizing what’s in there (tags help), and then execution – as you say – is the last, often hardest, step.

    Thanks for these great reminders!

  • http://www.hullfinancialplanning.com Jason Hull

    The reason why you come up with the spontaneous ideas while you’re walking, running, taking a shower, etc. is because you’ve somewhat turned off your prefrontal cortex (how hard is it to shower?), which allows the right anterior superior temporal gyrus to take over the problems that you’ve been thinking about. If you try to use it, you can’t. It’s one of those paradoxes of the brain. Don’t pay attention to it, and it churns happily along, throwing ideas at you when it’s least convenient to write them down. Crack the whip on it, and it shuts down, cowering the corner, embarking on a work stoppage. http://www.ptmoney.com/make-personal-finance-stick/

  • http://theinvisiblementor.com Avil Beckford

    Years ago, James Webb Young wrote Technique for Producing Great Ideas, which was based on Graham Wallas Creativity Model in Art of Thought (published in 1926), which was an extension of Hermann von Helmholtz‘s model for how to produce great ideas. Each person built on what another person had done. What you are writing about in your post is a variation of that. Both the Art of Thought and Technique for Producing Great Ideas are excellent books.

    Avil Beckford

  • http://www.profound-impact.com Julie Gray

    Good article. Personally I think that good ideas should be purged too. Good ideas are a dime a dozen. What I focus on identifying are the ideas that I can’t not do. Those are the ideas I know I have to run with. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that we can’t do it all but there is freedom in it too.

  • http://epiclifepursuit.com/ Jason

    Best ideas came unconsciously when my minds are free. Too bad that I normally get new ideas when I’m in the bathroom. No ways for me to note in down and even worse sometime I forgot it after I came out… Wish my bathroom has a audio recorder that will help me to record all those ideas.

    But even the best idea is worthless without execution. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.studio625.net Chris

    I read an article in Computer Arts magazine (or something like that), which talked about why ideas strike when we least expect them to. Wish I knew the source, but here’s the gist…

    We have two modes of thinking: A-level and B-level.

    A is for attacking things with focus and pure willpower. It’s great for solving analytical/mathematical/logical problems with a clear-cut solution. Like arranging all of the pieces of a puzzle. You just need time and energy to resolve the problem.

    B is all about subconscious connection, like plucking meaning out of random noise. Your brain just makes rapid fire free associations, and brings interesting combinations to your consciousness for you to analyze (and ideally Document for later Oganizing, Culling, and Executing).

    The problem is that A-level thinking drowns out B-level connections. The brain is too focused on the problem at hand to bother with novel ideas.

    That’s why creative arts are so difficult for some people. They are attacking things with their analytical minds, which makes it less likely for an interesting, novel (creative) solution.

    The article went on with this advice: define the problem. Understand it. Then go do something else. Hit the pub for a beer. Do something unrelated. The goal is to shut off your A-brain and allow those random connections to happen subconsciously.

    That article has always stuck with me and provided some scientific backing that makes it easier to justify what might seem like “goofing off” as an actual necessity for the creative process. If anyone else read that article and remembers the source, I’d love to read it again.

    • http://energymatch.ca/ Ekaterina Ramirez

      Sounds like a good article. What I’m taking away from your summery is to unplug… unplug as often as possible. Thanks!

  • http://healthywealthyaffiliate.org John Gibb

    hi Caleb

    I understand it’s key to capture, organize and execute your best ideas, the however the hardest thing is to know with (almost) 100% accuracy what makes an idea great vs. weak or not worth the time/investment…

    So, how do you know which ideas are worth tackling and which aren’t if you’ve never been there, and done it, as they say?

    • http://energymatch.ca/ Ekaterina Ramirez

      I would talk to people who are experienced in the field. Look for honest ones. They would be able to tell you.

  • http://energymatch.ca/ Ekaterina Ramirez

    I always come up with something useful and great when being outside. Usually walking.

    Also when listening to other people talking at events or masterminds… especially if they are my target market. :)

    And my best ideas come from life experiences. Recently I talked to a friend who got into a messy situation in business. She was so sad about it. I told her that this is juicy stuff. Later on she will use it to create a deeper connection with her audience/clients because the situation was very very interesting, even though painful for her.

    Like you talk here on Think Traffic: have epic life and you will create epic shit, right?

  • http://chucksandstilletos Shortie

    Funny… I just started doing this. I used to think of all kinds of ideas and then when i got home or by the time i found my phone in my purse I’d forget what the hell I was thinking about. Now… I keep a legal pad by my desk and just dot down whatever comes to mind.. amazingly enough it helps me get back to whatever i was doing before ( distractions..lol) AND it gets the stuff out of my mind. If I’m on the go i have this list app that i use and i just write it in under the file name LOVE IT!!!

  • http://microblogger.com Jim Wang

    My ideas seem to come most often when I’m running. I didn’t start running until about two years ago and after getting better at it so that the physical demands didn’t cloud out my thoughts, I found that I was able to think a lot about my concerns this way. The downside is that I can’t write anything down, which is itself a form of culling I guess, but there are few distractions. So far it’s been working for me!

  • http://www.enwealthen.com J

    Benefits of being a newbie, my best ideas come from insight gained from articles like this while I’m learning the blogging ropes: headlines, content, marketing, etc.

    Given I’m writing on personal finance and wealth, most of my ideas come from my personal experiences and sharing the things I’ve learned while exploring different alternatives for business and finance.

    From a process perspective, I use Todoist to track my post ideas. Wherever I am, I can create an action item on my phone whenever an idea comes to me.

  • http://wil@eatova.com Wil

    Caleb,

    This is an unusually awesome blog post. I don’t think about the process of turning an idea into a success. That has to be the reason that my great ideas are only worth $20.

    Not to fear, I am going to get that Draft app now and utilize that. I will read this post a few more times and really let it sink in.

    It’s funny, I haven’t read Think Traffic in a long time. Just so you know, the email title is what made me not put this message in my Think Traffic folder. I read it as soon as I saw it and am so glad that I did.

    Thank you for the many resources that you provide throughout the post as well. The information is refreshing and eye-opening. Thank you for your hard work. I really appreciate this post.

  • http://scribemeetsworld.com H.R. D’Costa

    Caleb,

    Very helpful article, especially for someone who has tons of ideas in an assortment of notebooks!

    Do you have any more specific advice on organizing multiple ideas within one category (the less tech-dependent, the better)? This is my biggest issue with idea cultivation.

    Julie G, I agree — sometimes it’s wise to purge good ideas too. But that doesn’t mean a good idea has to be crossed off forever. I think it’s a smart strategy to cull good ideas that you know you don’t have the skills to execute yet, and then approach that idea later, when your skill set is more developed.

    John G — listen to your gut. It can tell you the difference between a great idea and a not-so-great idea. The more experience you have, the better able you will be to sense the difference. For example, in screenwriting, as you develop your craft, you know what is a commercially viable concept and what will be a box office dud.

    If you don’t have enough experience, or you don’t trust your gut, Ekaterina nailed it on the head: talk to more experienced people in your field. Pay for a consult if necessary. It’s worth it in the long run.

  • http://www.sproutspire.com/ Carlie Hamilton

    If people are wondering to know how to evaluate what is a good idea and which isn’t, for me the easiest and quickest way is to do the idea and see how it goes. Or do what is known as the minimal viable version of the idea (taken from the idea of The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – the Minimal Viable Product). Do the least you need to do to get your idea up and running, and see how it performs.

    The more you do, the more results you will have on what works and what doesn’t work, and that way you will quickly see which of your ideas are more likely to be “good” ideas and which ones are not.

    I have seen that you can ask people if they would like something or see it as a good idea, but what they say and what they actually think/do is two separate things.

  • http://www.growthguided.com Kael

    I love it!!

    Thank you so much for this post.

    I think one of my most useful times for idea creation comes from observing peers in conversation. When I am really in the moment and actively listening I hear and pick up on the most insightful things.

    We are surrounded by creativity all around us but rarely take the time to settle into the moment and all the excellence held within!

  • http://newmemoms.com Charlene Woodley

    I must say that I am guilty of not always making a note of my ideas which really hinders my progress along the lines of creating blog posts. I am in the process of trying to build my confidence in what I am trying to do as well as make sure that I am progressing productively in the beginning stages of my work, but short term memory issues do not help. I am definitely one that will need to carry notes with me around the house, because ideas do come to me at the most unexpected times such as while washing dishes, cooking, or even falling asleep. This post was very helpful and I will be sure to keep these tips in mind from now on, thanks!

  • http://justinbrand.com.au/ Justin Brand

    Culling your ideas is a good suggestion. Not only do the bad ones take your focus away from the good ones but, as someone who records all their ideas, my bad ones are a constant reminder of a time when I didn’t have as much of a clue AND a list of the ideas I never got around to executing and never will. I need to cull mine and focus on the best ones.

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  • http://www.websitetips4u.com/ Glenys

    I think some of the best ideas spring from other ideas that you might be concentrating on. That is, once you have “seeded” an overall concept that you might want to flesh out into an article or a post, then you can often be drip-fed ideas when you are concentrating on something else altogether.

    This is where having a note pad handy, or its digital equivalent, is extremely important because you can jot down these snippets as they come into your mind and then return to them when ready.

    By the time you do get around to writing your article, you can often find the list of ideas has grown substantially and can possibly be used for a series of posts.

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Up Next:

When to Say No to New Ideas & Opportunities (FS054)

A bunch of ideas. They’re written on index cards and spread all over the table. They’re all yours. Which one (or ones) do you choose? You don’t want to waste time on a dud idea.

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