New Ideas Require Mental Space

I’ve been spending time lately developing better processes for how to think about my job, how to think about the products I’m building, and how to prime myself to come up with better ideas. The topic of how to “ideate” has been written about ad nauseam, and I’ve read and listened to much of the advice. There’s a lot of good information, and some bad information out there. I think much of the advice is personal, what works for one person may not work for another. Having tried many different methods with varying results, one thing is clear to me - giving my mind space to process and make new connections that lead to new ideas is extremely important.

Giving the mind this space is hard, especially in the always-on tech community. We live in a world of Twitter, Facebook, and the eat-sleep-code mentality of many startups. Here’s what currently works for me:

Exercise

Exercise is the single most important tool for clearing the mind. A good workout session removes stress, increases blood flow, and simply gives time to process the events of the day. I’ve repeatedly come up with answers to tricky problems while exercising. My preferred exercise is running. Running is cheap, time efficient, available everywhere in any weather, and you can get one heck of a workout in an hour. Again, everyone is different, find what works for you.

Quit Social Networks

There is no mental space with social networks, they will soak up every free minute given to them. I find them to be almost assuredly a waste of time. It has been more than a year since I’ve made any use of social networks and my life is better for removing them completely. They give the illusion of being valuable - there is the occasional gem of knowledge. However, the amount of time that they steal from me isn’t worth the benefit. The good stuff makes it into other channels soon enough.

Learn How to Meditate

Meditation is a discipline and a skill with the sole purpose of giving the mind space, and being present in that space. Cultivating this practice is like giving your mind fertile soil from which new ideas grow. I try to meditate daily, a practice that feeds itself - the more you do it, the more you want it, and the more you get out of it.

Find a Limited Set of Reliable Inputs

I don’t try to consume everything, which is not only impossible, but infuriating, and stress inducing. It’s more important to spend quality time with a good article, really thinking about the message, than to be a completionist and feel the need to mark all inputs as read. I keep my inputs limited, and manageable. This means I’ve had to unsubscribe from some good sources.

I like books, podcasts, and a carefully curated RSS feed to nourish my mind with new ideas. All three input types allow for me to be in charge of when and where I consume them. They’re not a Twitter feed that I have to keep up with.

For books, I try to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. I like fiction for the craft of writing, which is always something I’m working on. For non-fiction I like to mix general business, with history, and memoirs/biographies. My podcast list and RSS feeds are also limited, but varying, and cover topics ranging from tech, to architecture, to storytelling, to entrepreneurship.

Create Time to Think

I try to make sure I have time each day that is without input, to see what thoughts come up. I go running without music. I walk to the store without listening to a podcast. I eat a meal without reading along side. I drive to work without listening to the radio. Some might call this a form of meditation, and it is, but instead of quieting the mind, or focusing on a single idea or mantra, let the mind wander and be active, and see where it takes you.