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Your own private think tank: Part 1
The structure for thinking

Steve Bruner
August 2000

 Limit outside distractions
 Set the mood
 Stick to it
 Be prepared
 Be organized
 Getting the ideas
 About the author

In the business world, ideas are the rocket fuel, and today's landscape is changing at a such a fast pace, that if you snooze you might not even recognize the world when you wake up a loser. Here's how to keep pace.

If Rip Van Winkle slept even 100 days in our climate of rapid change, he would wake up to a completely different business model, his killer B2B idea lost in the alphabetical archives, between "almost" and "better luck next time."

Now, I can't give you ideas, because let's face it, if I had any worthwhile ideas along this line, I'd be pecking out my business plan for the mighty VCs, rather than typing this article! But I can tell you about the creative process itself. And the good news is, there's less mystique to it than you may think.

Waiting for inspiration, or working for it
Some people seem to be endowed with the good fortune of being able to sit back, relax, and have ideas hit them at regular intervals, like Newton's proverbial apple to the noggin. Some people are just that lucky. The rest of us can use skill and treachery to keep pace. As with the ideas themselves, I'll leave the treachery up to you and focus, in this article, on the skill part.

The first step in the creative process is to "get thinking." Walt Disney, a guy both cognitive and creative, once said (and I'm paraphrasing), "To get things done, stop talking and start doing."

Never underestimate the value of discipline, as it's one of the most important, if not the most important, aspects of the process. More gets done when it's planned to get done. If you want something, you take steps to get it; you don't just wait for it to fall from the sky. Coming up with ideas is a lot like that, too — that's the simple fact, like it or not. The most creative people I know sit down and, well... get creative.

Here are some tips on how to set your creative stage, and how to use it effectively once you've got it.

Limit outside distractions
Set aside time for brainstorming. During this creative time, keep disturbances at a minimum. Let your answering machine do its job, and you do yours. Concentrate on the important "stuff," whatever that is, or is going to be. Have it be a standing rule that "creative time" is also "do not disturb" time. Remember how cranky Darren Stevens got when he was working at home?

If you work at home, get a sitter. Turn down the phone. Limit distractions. Get to work.

Thinking is like eating. When you're starving, you can do it anywhere, but some places are more suitable and make the dining experience more pleasant. Power lunches aren't usually held in the men's room at the bus station, for good reason. If you want the "idea session" to be productive, allow the creative atmosphere to have some, uh... atmosphere.

Set the mood
Being disciplined doesn't mean that the creative can't take a nap, have a snack, or go for a walk first. But the day can be wasted if, the harder the idea or the problem is to solve, the longer the walk is. Now, different people attack problems and even crises successfully in different ways, and I have read of one CEO who takes 20 minutes to rest before attempting to create a solution, no matter how dire the circumstance. But know this: If you take 20 minutes to warm up your bat, you'd better at least hit a triple.

If setting your mood means going through a ritual like playing music, do it. We've all heard of surgeons that play classical music while they're operating. Well, I hope it helps them focus. Classical, jazz, white noise, the smell of exhaust, or the sound of traffic you're not in. The point is to find things that help the mood, and limit everything that hinders it.

Stick to it
It's very important to remember not to waste your time getting your ducks in a row, because it'll never happen. Like sharpening your pencils five times an hour. Or (depending on your OS of choice), rebuilding your computer's desktop, or recompiling your kernel. This is just activity, not to be confused with actual creativity. It's a poor imitation and mostly interferes with getting an idea rather than helping to foster one. You can find a million useless things to do to take up your day and feel like you've done "something" when you've actually done nothing at all. So unless you're writing so much that the pencils really need that much sharpening, know that by doing this, you're just finding excuses not to work.

Even if inspiration doesn't hit the first (or the tenth) time you isolate yourself in your private think tank, that's OK. You're training your brain to think, allowing creativity to land in fertile soil. Remember, great musicians spend lots more time practicing than they spend performing.

Don't get discouraged. Unfortunately, just because you plan a time to be creative, and you really sit down and use that time to think, that doesn't mean it'll all come down according to schedule.

Be prepared
Unlike almost any other work, coming up with ideas is a 24-hour job. You can't (or at least, you probably shouldn't) turn off your brain. The point is, inspiration and creativity don't always collide, no matter how diligent your discipline is. Your mind may be presented with the inkling of an idea at an odd hour when you're out of your think tank. This does not mean that your disciplined thinking time is not working. On the contrary! The thinking time is practice. The fact is that inspiration often happens when the mind wants it to, and not when we want it to. The solution is to carry your techno version of a "pad" everywhere. Or you can try the paper-and-pencil variety: It's less likely to crash and erase data. [Pencil: archaic form of stylus — Eds]

When an idea pops in from "nowhere," you must seize it with both hands and not let it escape. It's a necessary part of discipline to be ready to grab inspiration whenever it hits.

It's important to have many tools to help you save an idea when it happens upon you. I have a computer, a notepad, and a digital recorder. Some tools are less obtrusive than others, tailored for different surroundings. The computer is for my disciplined writing, when I go over old ideas or try to make a passable joke a good one, or a new joke a great one. In the car, the recorder helps; at a party the notepad is the easiest. Don't lose inspiration; it's too rare an animal for you to expect it to reoccur at your whim. Like most cats I've known, inspiration comes when it feels like it, not when it's called.

Be organized
It's also important to transfer all ideas onto your main medium as soon as possible. Having one central source of ideas assists with organization, which is a help in most steps of creativity. Imagine a painter needing red to finish his inspired sunset, but he left the tube at his house, instead of on the easel. One central source for your creativity is a must.

Getting the ideas is only half the battle
For the ideas to flow, you need to give yourself the time to come up with them, a place in which to come up with them (one that works for and not against you), and a way to catch the ideas if you get them outside of your creative space. Because when the inkling does hit you, you want to not only nurture that spark, but hang on for the ride it might give you. Then your disciplined time, at the temple of creativity, can be used to put the new idea into workable action.

Next time, in Part 2 of this think tank series, we'll talk about freeing the thought faucet and the ideas that follow — and the fun of idea formation. Following that, in Part 3 we'll cover the weeding through those ideas to separate the winners from the whimpers.


About the author
Steve Bruner graduated from the University of California — Davis with majors in Economics and Political Science, and a minor in Speech. He has been a stand-up comic for 13 years, having performed and written material for several TV shows. Steve spends much of his time traveling between performances at clubs, on college campuses, at corporate events, and on cruises.

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Updated: January 25, 2001 (KB)

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