3 Ways to Come Up With a Great Idea Without Overthinking It

Mind-blowing creative won’t just materialize into existence (unfortunately)

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When Dan Wieden hired me almost 16 years ago, I was excited and terrified. As a junior copywriter working at a small unknown agency in Salt Lake City, I used to carry around a little piece of paper in my pocket that said, “I am a copywriter at Wieden+Kennedy.”

I was terrified that I wouldn’t have what it takes to survive among all the creative giants. Although I had worked incredibly hard on my portfolio, every piece of work felt like it had come in moments of inspiration that I had no idea how to reproduce. I felt like a magician who didn’t know the secrets of his own tricks and had no idea how to reproduce them. Each new assignment felt like being pushed out onto the stage to pull another rabbit out of the hat, but I didn’t have a hat, didn’t know where the rabbit was and the rabbit might end up being an eel or a shovel or a hamburger or nothing at all.

It is this state of paralyzing anxiety and crushing self-doubt that most creatives feel every day. It comes in part from the fact that our creative partner, creative directors, team, clients and even career all depend on something we can’t control: the glorious arrival of a mind-blowing, totally original idea.

And we’re right. We don’t have direct control over when a truly great idea will come, which I will now demonstrate. Pull out a piece of paper and pen and set a timer for 10 minutes. Now summon every brain cell you have and force yourself to come up with an original, culture-shifting creative idea for a toothpaste brand.

Nothing? Try squinting your eyes and grimacing to squeeze the idea loose from the folds of your brain—but hurry, because time is running out and everyone’s counting on you, and if you fail, you might get fired and default on your mortgage. And don’t forget it needs to be a huge idea.

For great ideas, you need to give your subconscious mind the stage, and you do that by doing less thinking and more doing.

Mind-blowing ideas don’t show up on command, and the worst way to come up with a mind-blowing idea is trying to come up with a mind-blowing idea. The pressure will either paralyze you or get you stuck in your head, which is the last place you’ll find a brilliant creative idea. Your conscious mind is a pretty boring and unoriginal place.

For great ideas, you need to give your subconscious mind the stage, and you do that by doing less thinking and more doing. By being prolific. By coming up with an unholy number of ideas. The Beatles became the best band in the world by being the most prolific band in the world. Michael Jordan missed more game-winning shots than anyone because he took more shots than anyone. The most successful creatives I’ve worked with have not been the most naturally talented; they’ve just been the most prolific. Because if you consistently come up with a  mountain of ideas, at least one of them will be amazing.

So, how do you become an idea-generating machine? Here are a few ideas.

Stop trying to come up with great ideas

Find your self-critical creative quality filter and switch it to the off position. Your goal is quantity, not quality. Don’t worry if you come up with tons of mediocre ideas; you’ll accidentally come up with a great one. But for now, keep that a secret from your brain or you’ll scare it. It’s critical that you don’t worry whether the ideas are good.

Start pumping out ideas like 99 cent burgers

Stop staring at the wall and waiting for ideas to come and take action instead. You need to come up with methods and practices to help generate more ideas in a day than most creatives do in a week.

Create ambitious, specific goals with deadlines that have negative consequences for failure, preferably involving physical suffering, loss of money or personal humiliation. For example, if you or your partner don’t have 25 ideas written down by noon, they have to buy the other one lunch. Or you both have to fill an entire notebook with ideas in five days or your partner gets to send an all-agency email from your account asking if anyone has hemorrhoid cream you can borrow. Or tell a coworker that if you and your partner don’t have 100 headlines by 6 p.m., they get to pick outfits of her choosing for you to wear the next day. The key is to create strong motivation for you to be as prolific as possible. Remember: It doesn’t matter if all 100 ideas or headlines are terrible.

This is not the time for crafting art direction or scripts. If your goal is to come up with 10 different “looks” for a campaign, keep it to broad strokes and concepts. If you’re generating ideas for scripts, just write down the concept or the beginning, middle and end of the story. Crafting will come later.

Share ideas with your partner

Most of them will be terrible, but you’ll find that some of your terrible ideas will spark a great idea from your partner. And some of your ideas might actually be good—one of them might be amazing. Put the good ideas on the wall, and go back to pumping out ideas. The goal should be to make your space look like some kind of insane Beautiful Mind-level idea explosion.

As you focus on something you can control (quantity) instead of something you can’t control (quality), fear and loathing will be replaced by fun and a sense of fulfillment. Something magical will happen. As you’re pumping out ideas, you’ll periodically enter a state of flow where things feel effortless and your subconscious mind (the way more interesting part of your brain) has taken over. That’s when things get really interesting. That’s where the good stuff is.

You’ll occasionally have what feels like an out-of-body experience, like you’re an observer watching with amazement as ideas from some unknown source fly out of your fingertips. Some of these ideas will surprise you so much that you’ll laugh out loud. It’s the opposite of trying. No fear. No anxiety. Pure joy. And when that happens, you’ll be amazed that you get paid to do this.