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.

Find Time to Write in 2019

A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. – Don DeLillo

For the first half of last year, I was failing to write. I had the time, but I wasn’t taking the time. My diary was a mess of commitments all over the days and evenings, with no regular space to write. So despite having hours between school runs, I wasn’t doing it.

What I was doing was soaking up every spare minute on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And a bunch of other things. I felt I was being productive and staying on top of stuff. I was drinking from a fire hose of information.

In the end I had to carve out the time to write. I had to protect that time. And I had to get over the fear of failure that meant I was allowing myself to drift.

I haven’t entirely got this thing licked, but here’s a four part guide to what I’ve done so far:

1 – Identify the best time to write

Work out when you write best. Personally it’s mid morning. Your mileage may vary.

There’s a fair chance that this time won’t be available to you. You’ll be at work, studying or looking after your kids, parents, or dog.

So now you have two choices.

Work out the second best time to write, or move your life to create a chunk of time for yourself every day.

2 – Protect the time

Once you’ve found and cleared time to write, protect it fiercely. Don’t schedule things in or around it. You will fail, you will schedule a haircut over it by mistake, or be hungover and miss it, but don’t give up.

Keep making that commitment to protect the time, and eventually you’ll get there if you want it enough. Eventually it will seem insane to you to arrange something during this time, this is your writing time. Every day.

3 – Look after yourself

You’re not going to do your best writing if you’re tired or stressed. Make another commitment to yourself, to sleep properly. To drink water. To eat meals at the proper times. To exercise. To fill the creative well by reading and watching films and looking out of the window and being in the world so that when you come to write, you have ideas.

When you come to write, you’ll likely find your brain is full of nonsense. So your first task when you sit down to write is to empty your mind as much as possible.

Journal (write about how you feel and what you’re doing that day) for as long as it takes to get all this bilge out of your system. Interesting off shoots can be saved for the beginnings of creative ideas later.

Then finally, write. Not in a vaguely committed way, but in a 100% committed way. There will be days when this doesn’t work. But go back to it, day in, day out, and use these strategies to make it easier for yourself:

The red carpet

Anything that makes it easier to sit down and write is a red carpet. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Find a space that you’ll write in. Keep it clear and comfortable.
  2. Put your writing stuff out so that it’s easy to start.
  3. Use timers. Set an alarm to remind you that it’s writing time. Use a timer to keep focus. Either a pomodoro timer, or an app like Be Focused or Flora.
  4. Make a playlist that you’re only ‘allowed’ to listen to while you’re writing. No coffee until your writing time! Be strict with yourself.
  5. If you’re stuck for ideas, remember that writing is a 3 bucket problem.

The velvet rope

Anything that dissuades you from procrastinating is a velvet rope.

  1. The hours you’ve set aside for writing are sacred. No coffees with friends or phone calls or meetings during this time.
  2. If you’re at home, you’re not in ‘home’ mode. You’re in ‘work’ mode. No doing housework because you’ve got writing to do. (That’s my excuse for not doing the ironing and I’m sticking to it.)
  3. Log out of apps every time you use them. Remove any that aren’t essential. Turn notifications off. Recently I’ve used Apple’s ‘Screen Time’ feature to lock my apps down between 9 and 3. Airplane mode is your friend.
  4. Consider how many social networks you need. I deleted LinkedIn and Instagram last year, and I don’t miss them much. Consider also whether reading 100 tweets on 100 different subjects is good for your focus. I find it scattering. I’m trying to avoid reading my Twitter feed even outside of my writing time.
  5. Consider deleting good but addictive apps. If DuoLingo is what gets you back into a phone based spiral, it might need to go, no matter how good your Mandarin is getting.

4 – Publish/perform

There’s nothing like putting your work into the world to make you actually finish it. And what you have to do to achieve this, if you’ve not already, is embrace failure.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett

Stop aiming for perfect and get your stuff out there. There is no other way to get proper feedback on what you’re doing. If it stinks, it stinks. You will know by the big, fat bundle of tumbleweed that rolls in gleeful donuts around your work. And then what do you do? You make a fresh cup of tea and write something new.

I’ve found it enormously helpful to book hard deadlines for myself in the form of comedy gigs. Nothing gets me writing more than the thought of standing on stage with nothing to say. There’s no need to choose something this terrifying, but whatever works for you.

My friend Lynda sent me another tip – “At the end of the day/writing slot finish halfway through a paragraph. Or even a sentence. That way you don’t have to come up with a fresh idea from the start. You just pick up the last one and then you’re off.  That’s the theory anyway.”

I like this ide…



Edinburgh show: Meet in the Middle

Show posterIn three days time, Nicola Houghton and I will be heading up to the Edinburgh festival to perform our brand new show, Nicola Houghton & Rachel Wheeley: Meet in the Middle.

The Edinburgh fringe is the single biggest celebration of arts and culture on the planet. Last year there were over 50,000 performances of 3,398 shows in 300 venues all over the city and this year there will be even more.

This year, one of those 3,000 shows will be ours!

Nicola and I are neighbours with three kids each, but we’re from very different backgrounds. Nicola grew up in a working-class household on the gravy-soaked cobbles of The North, surviving thanks to raffle prizes, knitted underwear and treasures found in skips. Meanwhile I was growing up at Eton College, entirely failing to get off with Prince William and mixing with teenagers who had never seen an onion. I didn’t go to school there, because they don’t accept women. This is the story of how that panned out.

If you’re going to be in Edinburgh between the 4th and the 11th, drop into Bar Bados on Cowgate at 6pm to see what we’ve been working on! We’re hugely indebted to Steve Cross and Andrew Smith for photography and poster design respectively. Thanks to everyone who came to see our London previews. I’ll let you know how it went when I get back!

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?


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


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.