One of the difficulties I come up against again and again in my creative work is this feeling of never having any new ideas. It’s a theme that has been threaded throughout my life, despite having trained as a photographer and working in the creative industries for a number of years – this constant feeling of not being able to think of anything new.

And it has lead, over time, to a fear of having to generate new ideas (which is not all that helpful when you’re trying to set up and run a business). Any time I was asked for advice in my old roles, any time a new project appeared, I’d find myself unable to produce even an iota of an idea under the pressure of looming deadlines, or fellow ‘creatives’ awaiting my answer.

As soon as I need to think of something, it’s like my brain empties itself of any and all things it has ever thought and kindly presents me with a ‘gone for lunch, back in 20!’ sign.

But it turns out I’m not actually alone in this. While there are people who are excellent at thinking up things on the spot, for most of us it just doesn’t work that way.

In fact, it doesn’t work that way for any of us, really.

A torso of a person in a white long-sleeved top reading an open notebook with a cup of coffee

Good at ideas, bad at remembering

When you’re trying to think of something new, your brain isn’t really looking to create something never-before-seen. Creativity is, when you get down to it, the combining of existing ideas in a new way. I’m reminded of a quote from Audre Lorde; “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.”

When we have a ‘new idea’, we’re really just mining all the things that we’ve seen and (crucially) remembered from our past, recombining them and coming up with something a) relevant and b) useful. This is what happens whether you are excellent at thinking on the spot or not. You pull from your mental library of useful things to see what is there and what might be relevant to the current context.

And we do have plenty of ideas, too – brains have around 6000 distinct thoughts a day, and arguably more if you’re dealing with something like ADHD. Added to which we are constantly taking in new information, learning new things about the world which form the building blocks of our ideas.

When you have a new idea or learn a new thing, it goes into short term memory. But see, short term memory is unreliable – you can hold between 4 and 7 things in it at one time for around 30 seconds and things will quickly get replaced when your brain decides something else has come along that’s more important. Additionally, it’s really tough to get something to go from being in short term memory into long term memory by pure willpower.

Remember late-night revision right before all of those supposedly life-changing exams? How much of that do you actually remember now?

Essentially, the ideas are there –  the problem is that we’re really bad at remembering them.

Capture your ideas

To combat this (and show yourself that you do indeed have plenty of ideas), you need a way to bypass your own unreliable memory.

How?

Capturing those ideas. Immediately.

Yes, I mean right when it appears. Not an hour later, or even 10 minutes later. There and then, write it down.

Think about it – the stereotypical creative person carries something to record ideas with, whether that be the artist with a sketchbook or the writer with a moleskine. What sets them apart is not that they have better ideas, they simply have a lot of them and they capture them when they occur. Then they’re free to continue mulling things over in their mind, safe in the knowledge that they can let that last thought go and move on. It’s somewhere safe in the pages of their paper-based companion.

Capturing your ideas immediately does a few things. Most obviously, it gives you a tangible record of your thoughts that you can refer back to, not only making retrieving ideas much easier, but over time allowing you to prove to yourself that you do, in fact, have ideas. It also frees up your brain, meaning you’ll have the mental space to come up with even more ideas (anyone else have their best thoughts in the shower when you’re not actively thinking?). And it means you’re never starting from a blank page – you always have a catalyst to begin from, none of which you’re trying to dredge up from half-remembered past thoughts.

That clamming up that my brain does when someone asks me for my thoughts? Gone. I’ve got a whole bank of them to refer to, if you’ll just let me grab my laptop.

A hand holding an orange pen, poised above a page in an open notebook

Building an idea bank

The actual process of capturing ideas is relatively simple and adaptable to your own ways of working, too. On it’s surface, it is literally just writing down your ideas (yes, even the ‘bad’ ones), but with a little more organisation, it becomes something far more useful.

First, limit where you capture your ideas. There is nothing worse than remembering that you just recently had a brilliant idea that would be perfect for this new article, if only you could remember where you put that damn post-it note.

Give yourself a maximum of two places you’ll capture things. My own set up is to use one digital (Google Keep on my phone) and one analogue (my Bullet Journal) – because this allows me to accommodate the majority of my life. My bullet journal is always on my desk while I work, and my phone goes pretty much everywhere else with me.  Think about how you move through life already, the apps you use and the journals you keep. What would be easy to start using? Where makes the most sense for you?

Second, process your ideas. Having an idea and writing it down is great, but making sure it gets reviewed and possibly used is just as important. A notebook full of ideas is only worthwhile if it’s used. Every few days, collate all your ideas from your chosen capturing methods into one central place. Go through them and add some context – what were you thinking about at the time, what is this relevant to in your life, which other ideas you’ve had are related?

Giving the ideas context makes them more relevant to your life and so more likely to find a use, while the review process gives you space to refine and adjust things, or even combine two ideas into something new entirely. Your bank of ideas becomes a place to think in, while you are free to think with your brain, rather than trying to hold the ideas in your mind, juggling them alongside something else you just realised was relevant,  what you’re currently working on and that one brand new thought you just had that keeps popping into focus and then back out again as you reshuffle your mental cards.

And finally, build the habit. To begin with, it’ll feel a bit weird to just pull out your phone to write something down in the middle of a conversation, but go ahead anyway. It’ll become second nature with time and, as you do it more, you’ll start noticing more and more ideas. Write them all down. Even the ‘bad’ ones – often the key to getting to the good ideas is getting the bad ones out of the way.

Some parting advice – don’t get hung up on the system. I know it’s so tempting to want to set up the perfect way to capture everything right from the beginning, but it’s more important to just start capturing. The system can and will adapt over time. Start by using something that is already part of your day: your bullet journal, a Field Notes notebook, a Google Keep note. You can change your mind later – just get yourself going.

Your creative endeavours will thank you for it.

You have more new ideas than you think - pin it