Idea Generation When You’re Idea-less

November 30, 2009·

I have been asked this question a lot recently.

I've got an idea!
I've got an idea!

“What do you do when you run out of ideas? How do you keep generating new ideas or new content when you feel like you’ve exhausted everything?”

Maybe it’s because the holiday’s are afoot and people’s minds are stretched thin? I don’t know. Maybe we are, after a gazillion years, just starting to run out of ideas. Well, don’t fret, we are never going to run out of ideas. Now, let me say this, at this point, it is very hard to reinvent the wheel – no one is going to come up with a new invention of the wheel. BUT, we can come up with new ways to make the “wheel” better or whathaveyou. The “wheel” in this case, is a metaphor.

Okay, so you are a creative, or a writer, or a business owner, or a student, or a person and you have to generate “ideas” for things – but after awhile, you have trouble coming up with new ideas. Suddenly, idea generation is not your best friend. Being an improviser, I am trained to think on my feet and take one suggestion to inspire an entire show and an entire set of ideas. I then use ideas to inspire new ideas. So, here are a few things that I, personally, do to help when I am starting to run out of ideas.

1. Lists of TEN (or more)

If you’re writing something (i.e. a blog post, new marketing material, story, etc.) start with a category – then write down IN RAPID FIRE the first TEN (or more) things that come to mind that fall under that category – the first five will be easy, the last five will be harder.
If you find yourself at ten and you can keep going, then by all means, KEEP GOING. Stop when you stop.
For example – if I were writing a blog post about MUSIC I would come up with the first ten things that came to mind:

1. Michael Jackson
2. Songwriters –> singers
3. My favorite band
4. My favorite song
5. Why I wish I knew how to play guitar
6. My favorite song to sing
7. My karaoke song of choice
8. Why I hate karaoke
9. Why I love karaoke
1o. Why are people obsessed with karaoke?

…and so on.

WHY DO THIS? I’m no brain scientist, but our brain associates different ideas with different categories. By spitting out whatever comes to mind, you will be able to cross off ideas that are no good and focus on the ones that are awesome. Most likely, at least eight of the ten ideas you come up with are going to be bogus or bad ideas. You then have two AWESOME ideas to choose from. Makes sense, right? I sometimes makes rapid fire lists a couple times a day. It never hurts to generate information right away in order to be able to weed it out later.

2. The Free-Association Game

Start with ONE word – any word that may fall into a category that you are interested in writing or talking about etc… (whatever project you are working on, large or small). Then free-associate from that word. Go out as far as you can away from that word, but then try to make the conscious effort to COME BACK to the word, having gone full circle. (This is a big-time improv exercise and warm-up. In fact, some improv groups open their entire improv SHOW with this exercise. It’s a huge idea generator.)

For example, I will do a free-association with the word(s) ICE CREAM –

Ice Cream –> Cold –> Snow –> Nicknames for Dandruff –> Head & Shoulders –> Body Parts –> Big Toe –> Tow Truck –> Large Fines –> Hefty Fee –> Hefty Trash bags –> Odorless –> What’s that smell? –> Mmm chocolate –> ICE CREAM!

See what I did there? I started at ice cream and then just wrote down the next thing that came to mind, and free associated off the previous word, and eventually, I made my way back to ice cream. Damn. Now I want ice cream.

WHY DO THIS? Sure, free-associating off the word ice cream may seem silly, but we were able to see what one word can lead to. No idea in this exercise is stupid. Start with one thing and you are able to give yourself A LOT of ideas. Ideas = gifts to yourself. Awesome.

3. Get Random

Sometimes you don’t want to write or work in your niche area. You want to STEP OUT and try something different. Try something new. Get to know a different side, a different angle, a different approach. Well, then get randomWhat do I mean? Well, the interwebs are FULL of  AWESOME random “thing” generators that can become your best friend.

1. Wikipedia RANDOM ARTICLE generator. ( / if the link doesn’t work). This will take you, quite literally, to a RANDOM article on Wikipedia. Find a random article, read about it, see what ideas come to you when you learn something you perhaps didn’t know before. Education can be the best idea generator.
2. Flickr INTERESTINGNESS. Flickr is an AMAZING network of photographs. Flickr created INTERESTINGNESS, which compiles new photos that have interesting tags, great comments, or a ton of views. But guaranteed, these photos are interesting. This links to the INTERESTING photos from the last 7 days. Check out the new photos – are there any that catch your eye? Any that seem to inspire you? Use the photos for inspiration and ingenious idea generation.
3. Google Wonder Wheel. I discovered the Google Wonder Wheel a while ago and I immediately fell in LOVE. When you do a Google search, click on the little “show options” button. Look about 3/4 of the way down on the left, and you will see the WONDER WHEEL link. The wonder wheel does a cloud of information and links that connect to whatever you are looking for. It is amazing. (I could talk about the Wonder Wheel all day… but I won’t do that here. Maybe I’ll write a whole blog post about the Wonder Wheel… ahh! Look! An IDEA!)
4. Love the words of Famous people. Find a random famous quote. Read it. What does it make you think of? Use it as a jumping off point to a new thought or new idea. Write YOUR OWN quote. Words are extremely powerful and have a huge effect on our imaginations.

WHY DO THIS? Stepping outside of our comfort zone and exploring something that is different, and literally, RANDOM, is fuel for idea generation. We tend to get stuck in a rut when we write or work on the same thing every day. Try something different. I guarantee you will surprise even yourself.


I hope that my crazy brain and my crazy ideas have helped you a little bit.

Tell me: Have you ever tried any of the things that I do? Do you have any techniques of your own? Leave a comment with some of the things YOU like to when writer’s blog hits and when you have simply run out of ideas.


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