Some low-tech ways to get more ideas

So on Tuesday, I saw this tweet from David MacIver:

What are some good low tech devices for intelligence expansion? Current list I have:

* Pencil and paper
* Cards/dice
* A second person

“Intelligence expansion” is a phrase that here means “anything you can use to understand things or solve problems that would be hard with an unaided brain”.

I wanted to reply, but I have more to say than will fit in 140 characters. So instead, in blog post form, here are my low-tech suggestions for tackling tricky topics. This isn’t everything you could try, but these are the techniques I’ve found work best for me.

Multicoloured doodling

Like David, I use pencil and paper for working out ideas, and if I can, I use coloured pencils.

When I’m thinking about something new, I just start scribbling. Nothing too organised, I just write down ideas as they come. Laying it all out lets me see what I already know, and the drawings on the page often trigger other ideas. Having colours makes it easier to break up my scribbles, and spot connections I wouldn’t see if everything was just black-and-white.

I feel like seeing a coloured diagram stimulates different parts of my brain than something monochrome – but I’m not sure if there’s anything actually behind that feeling.

Get up and move around

Anything that changes your environment gives new inputs to the brain, which can stimulate different ideas. Moving around the room is a great way to do that.

At home, I have a standing desk, so I can freely walk around the room. At the office, if I’m really stuck with a problem, I get up and walk to the end of the wing and back. It doesn’t always work, but it helps surprisingly often.

Draw the idea on a whiteboard

For group discussions, I prefer a whiteboard to paper. You can draw nice and big, everyone can see it, and it’s easy to refine ideas by tweaking an existing diagram. Same idea, different setting.

I know some people can doodle on a whiteboard if they’re the only person in the room. I feel a bit self-conscious doing this, but it might work for you.

Explain the idea to the room

If I have an empty space, I like to explain the idea to an imagined audience. This is a form of rubber duck debugging, although I don’t use an actual duck.

If there’s something I don’t understand, I explain the problem to an empty room. When I get to the point where I’m stuck, I pretend the room hasn’t understood what I’ve already said – so I explain it in a different way. If I do this several times, I get multiple explanations that lead up to my sticking point, and that can unlock new ideas.

Even if I’m not explaining something, just talking out loud can help. I think much faster than I speak, so speaking aloud will slow me down. That gives me extra time to focus on material I’ve already understood: maybe I’ll spot an earlier mistake, or an assumption that wasn’t warranted.

Always carry a notebook

Just because you’re not thinking about a tricky problem doesn’t mean it’s not ticking away in your subconscious. Ideas can pop into your head at unexpected times – how often do you have a brainwave in the shower, or the supermarket? If you always have a notebook, you can write an idea down as soon as you have it. This has two advantages:

  • There’s no risk of losing the idea. When you next come to work on the problem, the last thing you want to think is “I knew how to do this, but now I’ve forgotten”.

  • It frees up the subconscious to do other things. The idea is saved elsewhere, so you don’t have to waste brain cycles keeping it in memory. The subconscious can go off and try new ideas, rather than clinging to the one it’s already had.

(Fans of GTD will recognise this as part of the capture stage.)

Turn off your phone

My phone is a constant source of distraction. It gives my brain an easy source of rabbit holes and tangents, which are often preferable to tackling the issue at hand. So when I have a tricky problem to understand, I just turn it off.

Via my phone, the Internet is an exceptional source of reference material, but when I’m trying to understand something new, I don’t need more facts. I need to understand the facts I already have. Adding a firehose of extra information isn’t going to help.

(As a side note, I used to sleep with my phone on my bedside table. I recently swapped it for a pad of paper, and now my phone charges in a different room. It’s too early be sure, but I think the change has improved my sleep, and I’ll probably stick with it long-term.)