Last week I delved into the topic of where ideas come from — and also why that’s not the question we should be asking. Instead, it’s more about the three things we need to help our ideas flourish: time, space, and attention.

First, let’s assume you have all three: the time to create, the physical and mental space with which to work, and enough of your undivided attention. Where do you go from there? How can you be sure you have the right idea?

This week, give yourself the time, space, and focus for a brainstorming session. For this one, grab a notebook and a pen, or open the notes app on your phone or a blank document on your computer.

Here are three different brain games you can play to uncover your next big idea:

1. What can you create right now?

When I’m feeling stuck, I make a list of what I can create right away. So challenge yourself to name as many items as you can. And by this, I mean that you don’t need any extra credentials or skills. This isn’t a You in the future, by the way. This is what you can do right this minute if you wanted to. (It’s okay if you have to stock up on art supplies first, though!)

First step: select a target number of items you want to include on your list: 25, 33, 42, 50, 100, etc. (It’s okay if you don’t get to all of them.)

Next, set a timer for 20 to 30 minutes and name as many as possible. You can also give yourself a whole day or even a week to fill in your list. Try brainstorming in a different location if you’re feeling “stuck” in one particular spot.

If you’re stuck, think of your favorite past projects and accomplishments. Can you repeat any of these or put a new spin on them? Is there something you started before and haven’t yet finished?

You don’t have to go all out with this list. The ideas can be as simple as “draw a stick figure and hang it on the fridge,” “pick flowers outside and arrange them in a vase,” or “write a two-sentence short story.” It doesn’t have to be Instagram-worthy or Pinterest-worthy. 

The final step, naturally, is to pick one item from your list and start making it!

2. What would you change?

Here’s a game that I came up with to help me see things from a new perspective. The goal is to take one thing that already exists, and make changes to it to create something new.

This could be recreating a famous painting, rewriting an old folktale, planning a “new and improved” mobile app, or redesigning a product. What would you do to “make it better,” bring it up to date, or else change it to suit your interests?

(And before anyone asks, no, I’m not suggesting ripping someone off for profit. This is purely for fun, and it’s meant to get the creative juices flowing. So don’t take this too seriously.)

Let’s say that I want to write a short story, but I’m not sure how to get going. Well, as some like to say, nothing is new any more. So I could look to previous stories for inspiration. Here I would ask: are there details that I can change to put a new spin on things? Are there ways to adapt something old to create something new?

Now that The Great Gatsby is in the public domain, we’ll use it as an example. For my hypothetical rewrite, I’m going to set this in the modern day. Jay Gatsby is a popular social media influencer who lives in Hollywood and still pines for his ex, Daisy. Nick, an entertainment reporter, meets Gatsby while doing a story, and ends up putting him back in touch with his actress cousin Daisy, who is now married to another actor but still loves Gatsby. As with the source material, chaos ensues — and this time, it’s on the internet for everyone to witness. Title: “@Gatsby.”

Terrible? Definitely. But I bet reading this awful synopsis got you thinking about a story you would change instead.

3. What are you “obsessing” over?

Yayoi Kusama’s Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets, Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY

As creatives, our daydreams and fascinations can clue us in to what we should create. After all, you’re already giving the idea your attention. Why not do something with that energy since you have it?

Say, for example, that you’re a painter. Right now, maybe you’re fascinated with the works of the pop art movement. You’re going on late-night Wikipedia deep dives, watching documentaries, and planning visits to galleries with pop art art exhibitions. If you’ve never tried painting something in that style, however, your current obsession could be a huge neon sign pointing to your next creative dare. (It’s okay to be inspired by other artists. In fact, all of the greats have borrowed from the methods of their predecessors.) 

For this activity, think not only about what currently fascinates you, but what has captivated you in the past. Some questions to consider:

  • What inspires you?
  • What can you not stop thinking about?
  • What types of media (movies, books, games, etc.) are you most drawn to?
  • What fascinated you as a child? Or as an adult now?

Finally, why are you so interested in these things? You don’t have to overanalyze this much, but it may help to understand where this fascination comes from. This will help you put your unique spin on your source material.

What flashes of inspiration did you have?

One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years is that ideas can come to you at any time and in any shape. In other words, sometimes they’re fully formed, and other times they’re mere fragments. When something inspires you or gives you an idea, document it in some way — in a notebook, on the notes app in your phone, or as a voice memo so that you can review it later. It also helps to have someone to bounce ideas off of.

Want more brain games? Check out The Muse Manifesto, a digital magazine for anyone daring to live a creative life. The inaugural Winter 2022 issue is centered around making the new year your boldest and most creative year. It includes nearly 70 pages of reflection exercises, rituals, and new routines to implement in 2022. Download the issue for free here.