We all know the feeling of not being able to come up with an idea, a solution, or a strategy. Sometimes my head feels as empty as the Diet Coke cans that rattle around the corners of my office. So what can be done to get those brain wheels turning?
Here are seven tips for having an original thought. Some are backed up by hard science, some are folk strategies that I keep hearing about.
1. Go for a walk. Nietzsche wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” and studies show that the combination of exercise and sunshine increases alertness, focus, and energy. Leave your cell phone behind to allow yourself to think without interruption.
2. Do a headstand. People who practice yoga swear that a headstand stimulates ideas – whether by the increased blood flow to the brain, or the reversed view of the world.
3. Think about a problem, then go to sleep. The dreaming mind keeps working and sometimes presents a solution. In one famous example, Friedrich Kekule dozed off while puzzling over the molecular structure of benzene. He dreamed of a snake whirling with its tail in its mouth, and when he awoke, he realized that benzene’s structure is a closed ring – a discovery for which he won the Nobel Prize.
4. Touch. Several friends have mentioned that touching, or being touched, helps them think—for instance, petting a dog, cuddling children, or getting a massage or manicure/pedicure. It certainly reduces stress, and maybe that’s why ideas begin to flow.
5. Public transportation. For me, looking out the window of a bus or train stimulates ideas. The changing view, the constant speed, the sense of progress, and the temporary suspension from the outside world frees my mind.
6. Shower. Taking a long shower works for lots of people.
7. Talk it out. My friend Michael Melcher, a career coach, pointed out that some people hit on their best ideas by “extroverting their intuition”; by talking to other people, they gain better access to their own ideas. Once he mentioned this notion of thinking-by-talking, I realized that how often, for me, a good idea came out of a conversation.
So what strategies am I overlooking? Do you have a way to spur yourself to think?
I have a real fondness for reading blogs by economists, such as Greg Mankiw’s Blog, because although the discussion often goes over my head, it sometimes exposes aspects of human nature that fascinate me — as in Greg Mankiw’s post today, about Giffen goods — goods for which a lower price means LESS demand.
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