Getting Ideas Out of Your Head

Issues by Giuseppe Milo licensed under CC by 2.0

Getting Ideas Out of Your Head

Note to self: Brilliant idea! All you have to do is...

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Far too often, I sit down to write an email, finish a project, or write up an idea I had earlier in the day only to be met with the blinking cursor of a “trapped” thought. Within seconds, I am hypnotized by the steady rhythm of the flashing caret. Seconds and then minutes pass. And, for some reason, the room always feels darker. I can literally feel time passing. But here’s the worst part: I know the idea is in there, I have it in there somewhere, but I don’t know how to access it.

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t unique to me. For many, as soon as they sit down to write out a new idea or concept, the brilliance escapes them. Either they do not know where to start or the writing becomes too disjointed for anyone else to make sense of it. Then, two things either happen: the idea doesn’t come out and it stays within the person--or somehow, in a burst of energy, the writing comes. If you were to ask them, “How did you do it?” the most common answer is, “I don’t know.”

The following five tips will help you on both fronts; they will help you develop creative solutions AND track the process you used so you can use it again for repeatable results.

1. Find Your Format

Your idea might be limited by “writing” because writing isn’t always the answer--at least at first. You might need to first draw a picture on a whiteboard to see it visually before being able to write it out with words. Opening the idea process up to other mediums will help with translating the idea in your head to a physical form. You might find that you are more comfortable drawing/sketching out the idea, verbally explaining it, or writing it out by hand first before sitting down to type it out.

An example of breaking the conventional format is visual note-taking. 



The Sketchnote Handbook popularized visual note-taking and brought the concept into progressive workspaces.

Find the format that works for you. Keep in mind that there are a variety of ways to creatively translate what is in your head to physical form. The process can range from making spreadsheets to taking pictures or making a video. Once the idea has been manifested in another way, it will be easier to write about (if you still need to write about it) and share with others.


2. Location, Location, Location

Location can disrupt your thinking process. Often, I find myself getting great ideas in one location (or doing an activity, like running, taking a shower, or washing dishes) and when I leave the space, I cannot explain my concept as clearly as I did when I thought of it.

Room 90  by  Andreas Levers  is licensed under  CC by 2.0

Room 90 by Andreas Levers is licensed under CC by 2.0

According to research conducted by Psychology Professor Gabriel Radvansky at the University of Notre Dame, “Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away.” This “Doorway Effect” explains why you have a hard time remembering what you talking about in a meeting once you get back to your office. A less trivial example is when you go into a room with the intention of doing “something” only to forget what you needed to do.   

Capture the idea as soon as it hits you. Make sure you write down your idea as soon as you can  (or use one of the formats discussed above). Since many of us don’t have time to even write a quick note, what I do is make a voice memo on my iPhone. After a meeting, coffee conversation, event, or after finishing a project, I record my impressions in a voice memo. Since I can talk much faster than I can type and listen faster than I can read, this is a quick way to go back to the tone and mindset I was in while I experienced the event. By doing this, I am also able to recall my exact feelings in that moment. When recalling why I did something a certain way on a project, I have a 30 second clip summarizing my intentions.


3. Reframe Your Brain

Try to view your problem or idea from another vantage point. One way to do this is to look at the essence of the problem.

In Art Markman’s book Art Markman Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done, he writes about a creative problem solving activity he conducted with his students. The students were given the task of coming up with a new product: develop exercise weights that are easy to travel with. Weights are, as their name implies, heavy and hard to pack in a suitcase. Take a moment and think about how you would solve this problem.

Need help? Think about the essence and the function of an exercise weight. Think about what types of items people travel with. What are some traits of other packable equipment? What are “big” items people travel that can be shrunk and packed away? Markman’s class came up with water weights: dumbbells that can be filled with water (the weight) once you reach your location, and drained and easily packed away when you need to travel again.

By looking at what the essence of a problem is, it is easier to reframe or “flip” a problem so it can be viewed from a new perspective.


4. Pick Your Posture

It might be as simple as “sitting down.” Most people sit when they write, but not all. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote standing up. Truman Capote and Marcel Proust got their best ideas lying down.

Public Domain Image

Public Domain Image

Watch how children solve problems. For most of them, it is a task in itself to sit still at a table or desk for longer than a few minutes. Give a child a problem to solve and let them loose in a classroom: many are lying on their belly with feet up in the air, scribbling away. They are pacing, counting on their finger (and toes) to solve the problem. They are stretching and rolling around--jumping, role-playing, and actively engaged. To keep in contact with this non-judgement creativity, I try to move around as much as possible--standing desks are great for this. I try to only sit when I am eating or getting coffee/tea with people throughout the day. A body in motion is less likely to fall into fits of lethargy.

Changing your posture can influence the creation, explanation, and flow of crafting an idea.


5. Say It Simply

Writing doesn't come naturally to me. It is something I have had to work at. That being said, I sometimes send an email or share a document and, based on the feedback I get, it's clear that I am the only person who understands what I have written. 

In the last few years, I have been practicing writing clearly and simply. I think about how I would explain my idea or problem solution to a classroom of freshman undergraduates. While I am writing, I have faith in my audience. I do not want to insult their intelligence by explaining every minor detail. At the same time, I want to give enough background and context so they can understand me without assuming they know too much.

After a first draft, I ask: Can someone else reproduce an exact copy my explanation? Does my explanation lead people into the same mindset I am currently in? If not, I go back and add more details or revise a section so the ideas flow more naturally.


I hope this gives you some ideas to reframe your problems more creatively. Remember, writing is not the only format to express your ideas: there are many creative ways to physically engage with an idea. When you do get an idea, find a way to record it, either by taking notes or making an audio recording. If you get stuck trying to explain your concept, trick your brain by looking at your project from a new angle. Don’t forget to listen to your body--ideas flow more freely when you allow your body to rest naturally (usually this is not sitting behind a cramped desk). Finally, express your idea simply so you do not bore your audience, but rather, invites them to participate with you.  


More than luck, friends!


Andrew J. Wilt

SEI Analyst

Apprenticeship Program