Think outside your box

...the one your keyboard is attached to.

Now that many of us are in the process of or have finished goal planning for the year, it might be time to start brainstorming through some of the goals we have and creating plans to accomplish them. Changing our routine can help us get a little more creative.

I loathe corporate speak as much as the next guy, but I really do mean to think outside of the literal box that is your computer, laptop, mobile device, whatever piece of technology you are reading this on.

A month ago I was working on a project and for the first time in months actually got up and used my whiteboard. I found myself getting excited about the ideas that were coming out and before I knew it my whiteboard was full, more than I had come up with in the hour I was sitting at my keyboard with a blank PowerPoint slide in front of me (I also loathe PowerPoint, but that’s for another article.)

I've recently started to believe that some of my best thinking and brainstorming happened in the car, either on an hour commute to work or the eight hour drive to see my family in Iowa. Guess how many of those ideas have come to fruition...zero. However I have found that when my pen touches paper, or better yet my sharpie touches a post-it note the ideas get put to action much faster.

A while back, I was sitting in a class and we got to talking about writing down life goals. I too had recently started tracking some on my to do list that conveniently syncs across all of my devices. He then said that we should take the time to write them down, that the physical act of hand writing activates many more neuro-pathways than what are activated when we are typing and looking at a screen. I had fallen into a trap out of convenience that everything I do is on some electronic device. He reinforced and reminded me of what I had experienced just a few weeks before when I was at my white board. These same devices designed to liberate us and provide convenience are also limiting us and binding us to the same boring ideas already in our head.

How often have you sat at your keyboard waiting to type that next brilliant idea only to alt-tab over to Facebook? You take a few minutes to catch up with everyone’s posts and then you alt-tab back to look at the same blank screen you were looking at before. Then you hear the sound on a new e-mail in your inbox, so you alt-tab over to see who sent you an e-mail. Before you know it, you’re caught in a spiral of multi-tasking and at the end of the day the presentation, new idea development, or next blog post has made no progress.

So this week I went back to work on my project on the whiteboard and started to get frustrated when I couldn’t move similar ideas around. Which reminded me of another strategy for brainstorming, the good old post-it note. I then thought to go to the supply closet to see if we had any, but first checked my desk drawer. Wouldn’t you know it, there from days gone by when I was more creative and productive were a stack of large multi-colored post-it notes. Before I knew it, my wall was full of ideas categorized by color, which then I could move around and group as I saw trends or throw away if it wasn’t a good idea.

1. Phone a friend – I’m an extroverted person, which means I’m one of those people that thinks out loud. It may not even be the other person’s thoughts or ideas, but being able to explain myself to someone helps me to further develop my own thoughts. If you’re an introverted person, while you do some of your best work on your own in a dark room, having someone else throw some silly ideas your way just might help you to break out of old patterns.

Your inclination might be to phone someone who has some level of expertise about the idea you are developing, but see if you can find someone who knows nothing about it. There are two reasons this is helpful, (1) Someone who already has some level of expertise in the area you are discussing will have all of the same ideas you have and between the two of you, you won’t come up with anything original (2) You’re going to end up explaining some potentially mundane things to them, and in these explanations you might sprout ideas. (3) They’re not going to be limited to existing ideas surrounding your area of interest, they may come up with some truly innovative thoughts at the same time they come up with some lousy ones, which brings me to my next point.

2. No idea is a bad idea - …at least to begin with. Often times we will only write down ideas that are immediately workable. Let me tell you a secret: if the idea came to you that easily, someone else has probably already done it. It's probably also not that innovative. I love just throwing out the most ridiculous idea and then working backwards to something workable. That's where you will find true innovation. This is where #1 comes in helpful. Someone who doesn't have expertise in your topic doesn't have your blinders on, and will give you some crazy ideas that you can work backwards from.

3. Use post-it notes – I like to use post-it notes so that I can move things around. As you jot down more and more thoughts, patterns will emerge. You might want to group some ideas and reform your thoughts. For me, it just makes the whole process feel a little more fluid. If you're just writing down words on a sheet of paper, they get 'stuck' wherever you put them.

4. Have fun! – If at some point in this process you don’t laugh or at least smile, you’re doing it wrong.