I’m a pretty prolific blogger — between regular posts at Zen Habits, and writing regularly for blogs such as Web Worker Daily, FreelanceSwitch, NorthxEast and more, and writing guest posts for other blogs (such as the excellent Skelliewag), I write a lot of posts every week.
And what’s asked of me most often, besides “How can you write so much?”, is the more difficult question: “How do you come up with so many ideas for posts?”
That’s not so easy to answer.
Coming up with ideas is a skill, actually, something that’s become easier with practice. And I don’t have one single method of coming up with great ideas for articles, except this one:
I’m ALWAYS on the lookout.
Seriously. Always. Whether I’m in the shower, eating, reading, driving, exercising, talking, IMing, emailing, working, writing or playing with my kids, I always think to myself, “You know, that would make a great post!” It’s a bit sad, actually.
With that in mind, if you’re trying to find sources of great, wonderful, unique ideas, whether that’s for a blog post or a painting or a poem or a new product … here are my favorite ways.
1. Carry a notebook. Seriously, carry it everywhere. I can’t tell you how many awesome ideas I’ve lost simply because I forgot to bring my notebook. And you know why I can’t tell you? Because I didn’t write them down. Carry your notebook everywhere, always have some kind of writing implement, and write things down immediately. Of course, you may need to pull your car over to avoid an accident … or just start riding mass transit instead, to avoid that problem. Another good article on capturing ideas.
2. Keep a list. I have a simple Google Doc that I can pull up at any time with a few keystrokes (I use AutoHotKey to open all my most commonly used documents and programs instantly). On this list, I write down all my ideas. When I need to write a post, I am never short of ideas. Actually, I have dozens more ideas than I can ever use, so if anyone needs any, let me know. Just $5 an idea. 🙂
3. Exercise. OK, you’re going to skip past this one. That’s OK. I’m not saying you have to start exercising to have amazing ideas, but from personal experience, exercise is one of the absolute best ways to come up with ideas. It seems it is literally impossible to go for a run or a walk without coming up with an idea that will knock you on your butt. Which is why I now wear padded running shorts.
4. Driving. There’s something about the mindlessness of driving that allows me to come up with some of my better ideas in the car. To make this work, you have to drive slower than some of the maniacs out there (try it, it’s calming), and ignore the rude antics of your fellow drivers. Concentrate on avoiding an accident, but don’t worry if someone cuts you off or is driving slower than your average toddler can walk. Just stay in your Zen zone, and watch the ideas come to you effortlessly.
5. Read a lot. I’m reading a book every day, several times a day. It might take me a week to finish the book, but that’s because I take my time and enjoy the book. In addition, I’m always reading stuff on the Internet. Reading is one of the very best ways to find new ideas. And yes, you have to read the articles, not just the pictures. 🙂
6. Find inspiration. I find inspiration from many sources, including other bloggers, from friends and family, from life itself. Sometimes, an idea can be totally unrelated to the source of your inspiration, but the key is that spark, that energy, that ignition that gets your mind going. Whatever does that for you is worth its weight in gold. Failing inspiration, just rip off ideas (and make them your own).
7. Listen. One of my favorite ways to get ideas is by listening to other people talk. When someone talks to me, I try to talk as little as possible, and just listen to them and understand. That’s difficult when talking to engineers, of course. Those guys can talk! I also like to eavesdrop on conversations held by loud people when I’m in public places. Yes, that makes me weird.
8. Find twists. Found a great idea by someone else? As mentioned before, if you aren’t inspired by someone else, just rip off their ideas. But don’t just spit out the ideas verbatim — take them to another level by finding new twists on those ideas. How can you take this great idea (or even a common idea) and give it a new twist? Sometimes you can find the best ideas by putting a new spin on an old idea.
9. Examine your life. Take a few minutes now and then to step back and take a look at your life. What are you doing? Where are you going? Who are you? What are you all about? What’s important? What are you trying to achieve? What are you doing right and wrong? Ask yourself these types of questions, think about what it is you do every day and why. This kind of examination can produce dozens of new ideas.
10. Question everything. When you find yourself thinking or following traditional ideas that everyone assumes are right, question them. Ask yourself if it’s really true, and if so, why? Why does everyone think this? Is it possible there are other ways of doing things? Question everything, and you might come up with some surprising answers.
11. Trawl through fresh sources. Sometimes, if you drive home the same route every single day, it’s good to drive a new route, even if it’s a little longer. Change things up. Similarly, you should visit new web sites, read new authors, break out of your niche, talk to new people, start clicking on links in blogrolls and see where they take you. Get outside your familiar territory, and find new ideas in new places.
12. Bounce stuff off others. Got an idea? Bounce it off a friend or colleague. Sometimes their responses can spur new ideas in you, and vice versa. It’s amazing what can form when two people put their heads together. Avoid more than three people talking about ideas, though … “ideas by committee” is not a smart approach.
13. Reader emails. I get lots of emails from readers, and while it can take a lot of my time to read and answer them, it’s well worth the effort. Some of my best post ideas have come from the suggestions of others. If you don’t get a lot of reader emails, don’t let that stop you … find a way to solicit suggestions from others, asking for emails or comments on your blog or whatever it is you do. Let others come up with the ideas!
14. Forums. Similar to some of the items above, online forums can be amazing places for ideas. You can get suggestions from others, you can bounce ideas off people, you can read and be inspired by great ideas from people on the forums. And there are so many forums online that it’s practically impossible to run out of ideas from them.
15. Ask. When I’m running dry, or need a fresh source of ideas, I’ll ask my readers. I’ll do a post and ask them for suggestions for different topics. And let me tell you, there is no shortage of great topics when I do this. A few months ago I asked if they had “health and fitness” topics they’d like me to write about. I haven’t even gotten halfway through the list of ideas yet!
16. Magazine rack. When I go into a bookstore or grocery store, I like to spend a few minutes at the magazine rack. I don’t even read all the articles … I just read the headlines on the cover, or flip through the magazines. And I don’t just read the ones I’m interested in … I glance at them all. I’ve found some amazing ideas in these racks.
17. Look deep inside yourself. This is a difficult one. It’s similar to the “examine your life” suggestion, but it’s a deeper look at yourself. Really reach deep inside, and search the person you are, search your soul for your deepest desires, your innermost secrets, your most secret dreams and ambitions. You can find some of the most wonderful ideas deep within yourself.
18. Learn from your mistakes. While mistakes can be embarrassing, I love making mistakes. Sure, they’re sloppy and painful, but they’re anything but unproductive. Mistakes are the way we learn, and if we can harvest the power of mistakes to come up with great ideas, we are using our mistakes to their fullest potential. Think about the mistakes you’ve made in your life, recently and over the years. What can you learn from them? What can others learn?
19. Be inspired by nature. I love going outside, to take a breath of fresh air, to stretch, to get natural light into my computer-strained eyes. And to take a look at the beauty of the nature around me. Our world has some of the most incredible natural beauty in the universe … take advantage of the nature around you, and find inspiration in it!
20. Music. I like to play a good CD or tune in to my favorite radio station, to get myself moving, to sooth my savage beast, to make my soul leap with joy. Music can be the most inspiring thing in our lives, if we open up our hearts and minds to it.