J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

30-Day Experiment: Daily Idea List

photo by Adriano Agulló

photo by Adriano Agulló

For the last month or so I’ve been practicing James Altucher’s habit of writing down ten ideas every day.

I agree with Altucher that you can exercise the “idea muscle” and improve your idea-generating abilities. Almost any kind of intellectual activity can be improved with practice, and at the same time degrades with lack of use. I’m not even sure that I believe in “general intelligence” anymore. Human beings are either good or bad at doing particular things. 95% of that ability is determined by the amount of active practice (not just practicing but actively trying to improve your skills and knowledge). But what about innate ability? Sure, we all have genetic proclivities, but babies who might become geniuses still can’t do anything except cry and shit their diaper. Life takes practice.

Some abilities function as meta-abilities, conveying benefit to nearly all other abilities. Learning how to learn is one such meta-ability. So is learning how to think critically. Writing might be a meta-ability, because writing forces you to think more clearly, and thinking clearly has limitless benefits. Chess and mathematics might be meta-abilities for the same reason. Some sports that have both deep strategic and physical elements (jiu-jitsu, American football, tennis) might qualify too.

The ability to generate ideas rapidly and prolifically is definitely a meta-ability. What if every time you had a problem you could easily come up with ten or twenty possible solutions, instead of zero or one?

Pick a Topic and Brainstorm

I found it was easier and faster to complete the exercise when I picked a single topic or category. Sometimes I picked a serious topic, sometimes completely frivolous. Sometimes my list was directly relevant to my own life, sometimes not. I put zero onus on taking action on any of the ideas — the point was simply to exercise my idea-generating “muscles.” Altucher mentions that he sometimes creates a “first steps” column next to the idea column (Richard Branson’s first step after getting the idea to start an airline was to call Boeing and ask if he could lease a plane). For this exercise I didn’t even do that much — I just made a quick list of roughly ten ideas every morning.

Some of my idea list topics/categories:

  1. Creepy Villains
  2. Vlog Topics
  3. Iconic World Aspects
  4. Clothing Item Wish List
  5. Today’s Complaints
  6. Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Elements
  7. Living Room Furniture Changes
  8. No Car Month Transportation Challenges
  9. Housing Options for a Family Member
  10. Small Household Repairs That Need Doing
  11. Restoration Scenario Short-Story Ideas
  12. TV Shows
  13. Ways Bay Area Could Improve
  14. General Ideas (no particular topic)

Effects

After about a month of doing this exercise I noticed two subtle but potentially powerful changes in my thinking, including:

  1. More often, I would find myself taking a few more minutes to think of additional ideas before starting to take action on a task or tackling a problem. Idea generating takes effort, but it takes a lot less effort than leaping into an inefficient (or worse, ineffective) approach to a problem.
  2. For creative work, I noticed that my first few ideas were sometimes too easy, obvious, or overused. I started to think in terms of “cliche clearing” — get those first few ideas written down and out of the way so I can move on to meatier, more interesting material.

The expression “ideas are cheap” doesn’t quite work for me. Good ideas are valuable, and require effort to generate. While the best ideas often seem to “come out of nowhere,” I think we’re more likely to luck into the occasional brilliant epiphany by putting some conscious effort into idea generation.

What’s your experience with generating ideas? Do you rely on luck? Exercise? Long showers? Walking in the woods? If you’ve tried Altucher’s exercise, what was your experience?

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9 Comments

  1. stuff comes up for me when driving. I drive 1 1/2 hours to MA down 91 from VT to family and rental property, friends etc. easy highway.., and I can muse along the way while munching on dark chocolate and drinking my cocktail of green and tulsi teas, w/ fresh squeezed lemon and a few oz of kombucha or Kevita. I often forget the big ideas though;-) most of my big ideas are art related for painting, or constructions.
    I also can get a spontaneously self arising good one after meditating.
    or mowing. I mow often daily for 30-45 minutes. or digging in the garden on hands and knees. The carrying out of these ideas can take weeks or months to start on my reply to your 7 word mission is an example I saved that email of yours for months, and just finally gt to it. it still looks worthwhile perusing further. so it is now in my ‘act now’ folder.

    • You must have a big lawn!

      • we do;-) my husband mows a lot of almost meadow, and around the apple trees w/ a big Italian walk behind w. clutches etc.., and I mow the front large lawn and around the back garden w/ a wonderful electric EGO. It has headlights and sometimes I mow at night. we’re out in the sticks;-)

  2. Sparrow

    I wrote my first book in my head while in the bathtub. Admittedly, it was a very slender book.

    I agree with the idea of clearing out the stuff that’s on top. Interestingly, almost always the same things–maybe why you find some writers always tackle the same subject matter (or always write solely from first-person pov, etc.).

  3. The lists work great for me. It’s a free flow, no rules thing. There’s also the techniques of Natalie Goldberg of the Writing Down the Bones fame. I use that when I’m stuck either emotionally or in my writing. It’s the same thought process.

  4. Daniel Lawhon

    Fantastic post. I’ve been researching and experimenting with idea generation and verification processes; I try to do something like this post every day. Another great exercise is reading up on the people behind serious discoveries or accomplishments and practicing the underlying skills that they possessed.

    For instance, Einstein’s years of work as a patent clerk required him to practice visualizing inventions and how they worked. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he also used thought experiments (visualizations) for many of his discoveries.

    Great read! Looking forward to the next one already.

  5. Great concept! I also read the Altucher. Going to try this. Thanks!

  6. Nurj

    I create 3-5 different topics for my 10 ideas a day. That’s 30-50 ideas a day. 210-350 ideas a week. 840-1400 ideas a month. It’s been almost 1 month and a half since i started this practice. My experience? Most of the time, i use this when i feel stuck. When i feel discontent. When i need to relieve my boredom. When i need to think of solutions. One subtle change is that i’m no longer stuck up on searching for the one perfect solution. I realized that i can generate a lot of ideas, and be comfortable that i can generate crappy ideas. Another subtle change is that i am now comfortable in generating crappy ideas. As long as i’m producing something, something good will come out of it. This realizations have spilled over to how i approach making art. I used to be the perfectionist, “i need to create one perfect piece, and i don’t need to create another one”. This practice is Life changing, i’ll tell you.

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