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

Written by Caleb Wojcik

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 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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