How to come up with ‘new’ ideas

First of all, forget new ideas. There aren’t any. See through toaster? Already exists. Dusting drones? Done. DIY bath milk? What are you even talking about Harriet, that’s not a thing. Oh alright then, it is.

Whatever you come up with, it won’t be new. New is just old + old smooshed into a ball. All the way back to, “I wonder what happens if I bang these rocks together?”

Think about it. See through toaster = toaster + window. Dusting drones = drone + your Nan. You can work out the bath milk one.

Point is, you’ve got nothing. I’ve got nothing. Nobody’s got anything – every thought has been thought before. The good news is, it doesn’t matter. Smashing old ideas together is a valid way to become Elon Musk/Cardi B/any other entrepreneur you can think of.

How is it done though?

Years ago, this dude J.W.Young wrote a thing about how to come up with fresh stuff. He was in advertising, so we can assume he had to produce every day. He didn’t believe in ‘new’ either.

Here’s his method:

  1. Collect ‘materials’. Both general materials and those specific to what you’re making.
  2. Digest the stuff. Here we have to be like a ‘curious octopus.’ Pick each thing up, feel it all over like a randy, sorry, curious octopus. Feel for the meaning of it. Bring two things together, see how they fit. You’re looking for relationships and ‘synergies’.
  3. This is my favourite part. ‘Make absolutely no effort of a direct nature.’ I read this as: take the afternoon off and go to the pub.
  4. The ‘A-ha’ moment. Yes! This is what we’ve been waiting for. The ‘new’ idea hits us as we soak in a tub full of bath milk. There’s nowhere to write it down so we squirt it as best we can on the wall in Original Source Shower Gel.
  5. Idea meets reality. “The cold, grey dawn of the morning after.” We’ve all been there. See if the thing has legs. Tell people whose thoughts you value for feedback.

The good idea, according to Young, has ‘self-expanding qualities.’ If a friend thinks of things to add, you may be onto something. If they say nothing but nod politely as their eyes glaze gently over, you might want to drop it.

Coming back to his method years later, Young added that pursuing ‘general materials’ for the idea producer’s reservoir is best done as an end in itself, rather than whilst boning up for something.

With thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings for an article about Young and a bunch of other stuff on creativity, productivity and how to be a human in the world.

Do creative projects have a life of their own?

“There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.

The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” – George RR Martin

This gave me great hope when I read it a few weeks ago.

“Maybe I’m a gardener!” I thought to myself, watering some tomato plants. Maybe that’s why I’m rubbish at writing long stuff. I get scared by the bigness of a project and dive into a completely alien way of working.

Maybe, I think, if I work out what all the sections of this are, and plan it to the nth degree, then eventually I’ll just fill in the detail in all the little compartments I’ve created and the thing will be finished and beautifully structured.

But I just don’t work like that. Neil Gaiman explains his writing method:

“Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, it can — you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life. Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Then, I’ll sit down and type. I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.” – Neil Gaiman (The Tim Ferriss Show”)

Another gardener! Write it, allow anything at all to happen, and then pick out the bits that make up an elegant plot in draft 2. He even goes on to say he prefers hand-writing his first drafts because then he can pick out the bits he wants when typing up, rather than having to delete whole pages of work on the computer.

Then I listened to another interview today which suggests that we may not be in control of our creative projects at all.

A true creator knows that you follow the thing to where it’s going, not where you think it ought to go.” – Adam Savage (via Tim Ferriss, again.)

Now that’s really interesting.

Is it that a creative project has a life of its own, and we’re not the master of the thing we came up with at all?

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo

It’s all very well for people of extraordinary vision like Michelangelo, but not everything is captured inside a block of marble. And if it is, not everybody can see the statue. Some just see a very difficult and painful afternoon.

I guess if you look at it from outside your own skull and the point in time that you’re at, every creative project has a trajectory and a rate of ‘success’, but we can’t see all of it from the beginning.

So maybe the point is just to set off along the path, and see where we get to.

The Pomodoro technique

I’m writing this post because today marks the start of a writing bootcamp. I will be turning in 2,500 words a week for the next four weeks, and others on the bootcamp will be turning in between 1,000 and 10,000 words. No one is going to read them, but we’re holding each other accountable for getting words on paper.

2,500 words doesn’t sound like very much. But shall I tell you how many words I’ve written this week?

0

I’m not sure what it is I’ve been doing, but apparently it’s anything other than writing.

So I thought to kick things off, (do these words count towards the 2,500? You bet your ass they do) I’d write about writing.

Yes, I am procrastinating.

But bear with me. This is a useful technique and the only thing that has kept me on the straight and narrow when I have been on the straight and narrow.

The Pomodoro technique

pomodor

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.

The idea is that you work in 25 minute chunks, with short breaks in between. The word ‘pomodoro’ means tomato in Italian. The technique is named after the tomato shaped timer Francesco used as a student.

I bought one of these in January and I use it every time I write. Somehow the quiet ticking keeps me on task. Deep work is tricky to get into but when you’ve a metronome ticking away in the background it keeps the mind focussed.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

So to do the Pomodoro technique, you set your tomato timer for 25 minutes (and you don’t need a tomato shaped timer for this!) and you work solidly, with no interruptions, on the task at hand. Put your mobile on airplane mode, lock the kids in the shed.

No. Distractions.

Then when the timer buzzes, you take 5 minutes off. Do something completely different. You keep a record of your pomodoros and breaks on a sheet of paper. Do four at a time and then take a longer break of 20-30 minutes.

After a while you start to get a feel for how many pomodoros each writing task will take.

If you have top productivity tips, for writing or anything else (cleaning productivity tips extremely welcome), please drop me a note in the comments.

Wish us luck! I’ll report back once the bootcamp is finished on June 11th.

 

Put that frog in the way

The Brian Tracy book, Eat That Frog, tells us to do the important, biggest, baddest and most unpleasant task of the day first.

Fine, but it really doesn’t appeal at all. The frog is lumpy, warty, unpleasant, still alive, and most importantly there are loads of other things to do which look more fun.

But there are some things that will make it less difficult to eat. I’m going to dispense with the frog analogy now because it’s getting annoying.

The point is, if there’s a horrible task to do, put it in the way. Make it something you have to get around, over or through to get to the fun stuff. Don’t let it hide.

Last week I had to book my daughter into the doctor for some vaccinations. This was boring, and I didn’t want to do it. OK, to be brutally honest, six months ago I had to book my daughter into the doctor for some vaccinations.

Last week, I remembered I still hadn’t done it. Irritating job. Really easy to do. Would have taken me 2 minutes, but I just wasn’t doing it.

In the end, the solution was to get her red book (where her vaccination records are kept) out of the bookshelf, and leave it on my desk. I wouldn’t let myself put it away until I’d booked her in.

It kicked around on my desk for days. In the way. Really annoying me. But I wouldn’t move it until I’d made the phone call. A little later in the week it annoyed me so much I wrote the doctor’s phone number on a post it note and stuck that to the book, so it was even easier to do the job. Still didn’t do it for 48 hours though. 48 hours in which I did all sorts of other stupid unproductive things, like play with my phone, which wasn’t getting me anywhere.

Eventually, this attritional (if that’s a word) technique worked. I did it, it took 2 minutes. So put that frog in your way.