Where Do Ideas Come From And How Do You Tap Into Them?

Man staring at a bunch of post-it notes

Photo: Per Loov

Where do your writing ideas come from?

Neil Gaiman says that he simply makes them up, and it’s the easiest part of the creative process. Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, reckons that ideas come from everything.

I myself am beginning to think that our entire being is made up of ideas (more on that in a bit), and tapping into that resource is simply a matter of changing our perspective.

This is an especially handy tool for writers, because I’m certain that the majority of people who Google ‘how do I come up with more ideas’ actually belong in this demographic. If you’re guilty of this, then I have good news for you: The ideas really are the easy bit.

The bad news? It’s the work that’s hard, because even the best ideas in the world won’t amount to much if you just let them bounce around in your head.

But don’t let that discount the fact that getting said ideas is an achievement on its own, so let’s go ahead and delve deeper into this topic, shall we?

You ARE ideas

I’m serious. You are an idea powerhouse.

Don’t believe me? Try sitting on your own for an hour without any distractions. If you pay enough attention, you’ll notice that our thoughts never actually cease, and that every waking moment is a constant barrage of one thing to the next.

Our mind just goes on and on about what you could have for dinner later and how you wished that guy who cut you off would get a flat tyre and that you really should start working out and how cool it would be to learn how to dance and…

It never really ends, and it’s almost always never within your control. Kinda scary when you think about it, but it’s also comforting at the same time—at least you don’t need to do the work when it comes to generating ideas.

On the same wavelength

I see our mind as a radio receiver. You get signals from different channels—who knows where they come from—and one station might be all about anger while another could be broadcasting your insecurities at full blast.

There’ll be signals from places like Happy Land, Melancholy 97.3, and Creative FM, and it’s your choice which station you want to tune in to.

And you know what? All the cartoons about an angel and devil sitting on your shoulder when you have a tough decision to make doesn’t really seem that far-fetched when seen from this perspective.

I don’t know about you, but I think this is why people choose to numb their awareness through distractions like TV, the internet, and drugs. Because they can’t handle being the receiver.

But enough about all this doom and gloom. Now that I’ve gotten you uncomfortably aware with what’s going on in your head, let’s see how we can actually use it for some creative good.

Satellite against a pink sunset

Think of yourself as an impartial receiver of all messages from the universe. Photo: Gilles Rolland-Monnet

Checking in with yourself

I know this sounds a little woo-woo, but before we go on, you should really learn to see your thoughts as messages from the ether rather than ideas that you’ve thought up yourself. It really helps keep you sane for the ideas that you’re less proud of.

Because why else would you think about that embarrassing moment that happened a decade ago, right before you sleep? Or why is it that when you’re working on a spreadsheet, you suddenly get this urge to scream at the person beside you? No? Just me?

Or how about this: Why is it that our best ideas seem to come to us while doing the dishes or in the shower? Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at ways we can actually rein in the incessant babbles of the universe.

Method #1: Meditate

I bet you thought that meditation was all about clearing your mind, but many would argue that the practice of meditation is more about observing your thoughts.

You might even hate the fact that it’s number one on this list. Why would you subject yourself to minutes of sheer boredom when there’s so many other fun things you can do?

Because it helps you tune into the inner workings of your mind. And also because it’s been scientifically proven to help you chill.

You see, there’s no greater time to discover what dominates your thoughts than when there’s nothing else but your thoughts. You learn to accept them, then to let them go.

And in doing this, you start to see your thoughts as foreign things. Things that don’t change who you are as a person. Things that you never knew were there. Things that could very well be damn good ideas.

But if that doesn’t turn out to be true, at least you’ll be getting your daily dose of zen, as proven by science.

Method #2: Journal

I swear I’m not trying to fill your days with boring practices.

In fact, let’s flip the script around, and let me tell you that some of the greatest people in history kept journals: Marcus Aurelius, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein. Or if you’re the writerly type: Franz Kafka, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf.

Not only does journalling help preserve the thoughts that you’d forget years later, they also help you tune into your inner voice, the person that keeps wanting to speak out but is drowned by the hours you spend on social media and nights at the pub.

It’s that side of you that knows who you really are, where your real direction in life is, and what’s wrong with your life, so you’d do well to listen to it.

Not only will you empower your inner voice, but you’ll also discover things you never knew were swimming in your mind, and all it takes is one or two sentences to turn into a novel—or in my case this blog post.

So don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Go get yourself a notebook and fill up one page a day. You’ll be surprised what you’d get after a year of doing that.

Ideas Journalling - Ava Sol

It’s talking to yourself, is what it is. Photo: Ava Sol

Method #3: Discipline yourself

No, really, I’m not trying to stop you from having a good time in life, but my third point does allow you to connect with who you are on a deeper level.

If journalling was getting to know yourself in an intellectual way, then disciplining yourself is doing so by feel. Nowhere do you learn more about yourself than by forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to.

Let’s not even start on the effect that discipline has on your output, because if you build enough of it to get you through your work, it’s only a matter of time before you build your own success, right?

But more importantly, you get to know the real you that talks you into quitting when you still have that last mile to run. The one that begs and pleads when it’s five in the morning and all you want to do is stay under that warm blanket.

It could be that little voice that urges you on, or that whiny version of you that thinks it’s impossible.

You want to cultivate discipline because you want to connect with your better self, the one who gets things done, the one that beasts through a workout on a day when you’re not feeling your best, the one that gets you to pick up the phone to make one more sales call.

The one that’ll turn your ideas into reality.

So start a running programme. Aim to wake up earlier without the snooze button. Take cold showers. Make yourself do what you don’t want to, so that you’ll be able to do what you want.

The takeaway idea

In the end, it’s up to you to tap into your inner world and create something out of nothing. But whether or not you choose to act, you should know that your ideas are already there, little sparks just waiting for a little tinder to turn ablaze.

Because when it comes to that next big idea, it’s not the outside world you should be looking at. It’s already within you. You just need to learn how to listen.

“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.”

—Stephen King

39 thoughts on “Where Do Ideas Come From And How Do You Tap Into Them?

  1. I completely agree- ideas are the easy bit for me. It’s putting them into practise that’s hard as you say. As an added tip – I often generate great ideas when I go for a walk in nature – everyday I try to walk through my local park and often find my best ideas come from it. I write them on phone when they come to me. Great post Stuart- thanks for the advice 🙏

    • I too get my best ideas from walking! Nature really does switch your mind’s gears, doesn’t it? Too bad it’s a stretch for me to get to somewhere that isn’t concrete. Thanks for sharing your tip!

  2. The idea about discipline is very important.. i can understand that bit. Its like saying, i dont ever truly feel the meed to binge watch Netflix unless i know i have an assignment to submit by tomorrow. Its when you dont get something that you want to do that.. and the satisfaction of watching the show after i finish the assignment is great. Like a well deserved break.

    • Oh yeah, they say that all our vices are best enjoyed after we get our responsibilities out of the way. When I used to drink, those glasses of whiskey never tasted as good when I still had things to do, and that’s when I learned the importance of finishing your stuff before going ahead and enjoying. Great point you made!

  3. wonderful post, Stuart. I agree that many people are not comfortable just sitting in silence and letting their thoughts run free. My quiet time is when I exercise; I don’t listen to any music, but instead, just try to focus on the moment and let my mind drift away. I also get many of my ideas from reading. And Steve Jobs has admitted that he got many of his great ideas from stealing; referencing the quote: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

    • I envy you that you can let your mind drift when exercising, because all I can focus on during those moments are thoughts on how not to die.

      It feels pretty damn vulnerable to work out without music though, I’ll give you that, because that’s when you have to face down the slacker side of yourself, and he always has great arguing points.

      • I just like checking my heart rate, watching the clock move along, counting down how much longer, etc. And I wish I could listen to music or a podcast while working out, but I could never get into it. Plus, if I am walking outside, I want to hear my surroundings…

        and it sounds like you are working out harder than I am!

  4. Hey there :) I see your blog post formatting is very much in tune with Medium articles ;) that’s something I have very little practice with lol and definitely need to take a leaf out of your book :) I do agree with your analysis of trying to brainstorm ideas – in particular, this part is true for me which is journaling your thoughts. I have come up with some great ideas for short stories just writing down my thoughts offline daily. Some days are much better than others but it definitely works :) Awesome post!

    • Yeah, I’m frankly surprised at how these little nuggets of ideas sometimes seem even better than the ones I’m fleshing out in my head.

      Little bits like ‘head North’ or ‘refrigerator with AI wants to escape imprisonment in your home’ could actually turn out to be legit ideas. And it sucks if we don’t catch them as they arrive.

      Haha, am glad that it looks Medium-ish. Am trying to take a page out of Mark Manson’s book in that regard as well.

      Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate it!

      • That’s a good book :) I wish I could harness that attitude but my problem is I care too much about what other people think and I am my worst critic. I think the most important person to win over is yourself and I haven’t done that yet lol still trying…

  5. I found this post oddly endearing. I know right?! Inner discipline helps in connecting to one’s thoughts. Also, this stream of consciousness concept is kinda freaky. When my head goes crazy fast sometimes and I try to write down all the ideas frantically, it gets really hard. As the speed of your writing/ typing can’t match up to the speed of your thoughts. I sometimes think if it was possible to write every idea down in my notebook, a one-day entry would be the size of a novel. Sometimes I try to speak out my thoughts loud (I do that quite a lot these days) and people at home can’t help wondering I’ve found this imaginary friend to talk to. They’re convinced I am ghost-talking, lol. Once again, awesome post. Keep it up!

    • It is freaky indeed. This one time I tried ‘controlling’ my thoughts, trying to stop them and only think what I wanted to, but after realising that I couldn’t really stop the chatter, I got freaked out for a bit. But now I’ve gone back to looking at it as a very talkative friend. It’s either that, or I could need therapy, lol. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Excellent post. I agree, the idea is the easy part. Taking that kernel and putting the work into it is the hard part. On a personal note: as cliché as it sounds, I get my best ideas in the shower. It’s probably because it is the closest I get to meditating most days! Thank you for another thought-provoking article.

  7. Some brilliant nuggets of wisdom here. But this once especially stood out for me:

    “You see, there’s no greater time to discover what dominates your thoughts than when there’s nothing else but your thoughts.”

    Great post! 👌

  8. These ideas about ideas really resonate with me! I get ideas (or germs of ideas) all the time, but its usually about the time I try to drift off to sleep that the great ones drag me out of bed to jot them down. Some of the best ideas I’ve had were WHILE I was asleep though, and trying to jot those down after I wake up is a real challenge. My phone is chock full of notes I make throughout the day. All of that works for me, but the benefits of a method to corral all those thoughts is definitely appealing.

    • You could try putting pen and notepad beside your bed like me. But I’m staring to learn that whatever I jot down in the dark of the night ends up becoming gibberish the next day, despite how clearly I dreamt the idea. Entries like ‘AI so big round kills everyone’ and ‘chicatrane dance (yeah I don’t know wtf that is either)’ make up most of the list.

      But yes, it’s interesting how our mind works, and how much of those ‘spammy thoughts’ could actually be real legit ideas, gifted to us from the ether.

  9. Really great post! Journaling helps a lot for sure. I am one of those people that have a very hard time concentrating on just one thing and that can sometimes make me forget stuff easily but when I write stuff down I am forced to focus on one thing and that helps a lot.

    • Yeah, there’s a definite change in focus when you’re journalling, almost as if you have to listen in on a specific bandwidth (that relates to words), instead of the jumble you get (images, songs, feelings, experiences). It’s super interesting, really. Anyway here’s to hoping your migration goes by without a hitch!

  10. On the one hand, ideas come easy to me. I have almost a whole notebook filled with story ideas and bad poetry. On the other hand, I rarely have the time to do anything with them, since I take so long to write a single manuscript!

  11. Good thoughts here, Stuart. I have journaled for a long time but lately it’s been a rare occurrence. You’ve inspired me to open my journal this morning and write in it. Discipline, too, is something I want to work on. It would make a world of difference to my writing if I were more disciplined.

    • You have no idea how much it warms my heart to hear that I helped nudge you to start journalling again.

      I’ve learned that it doesn’t take much to cultivate it. Rangan Chatterjee’s book, Feel Better In 5 is an awesome look into how you can do big things with just five-minute habits.

      And while you’re at it, Atomic Habits is a good book too if you haven’t read it already.

      Here’s to finding that discipline you’re looking for!

  12. I’m a HUGE fan of journaling. It’s so helpful. But I also use my journal for scratching down notes. Inspiration is everywhere and all we need to do is invite it in.
    Another stellar post Stuart. xo Thanks for being you.

    • Right? I’ve started learning to draw, and one day I hope to have both text and illustration in my journal entries. Inspiration is everywhere indeed. Thanks for stopping by Faye!

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