How to have ideas

On the one hand, much doctoral research is about careful analysis of what is already known, and exact, incremental, logical steps towards newer knowledge. On the other hand, the most interesting research is based on interesting ideas, innovative approaches, or impressive problem solving. 

Some people seem to have 10 ideas before breakfast, 9 of which wither before lunch–still leaving an inspiration every day (Reader, I married him). Other people tell me they aren’t creative, they don’t have ideas, or they often get stuck. 

So if you are starting on a new research project, wrestling with a difficult problem, or struggling to come up with an original contribution to knowledge, try these tips.

Some of them are things you should do regularly, others are things you might try as acute interventions to get things moving.

    1. Surround yourself with other people’s ideas. Read widely. Listen to podcasts. Watch documentaries. Go to exhibitions. Ideas in, ideas out.
    2. Get outside your field. Innovation happens in a thing called the zone of the adjacent possible. So you want enough knowledge widely dispersed to see the gaps between what you already know and what other people already know and to bridge those gaps or build out into those spaces.
    3. Have enough sleep/food/exercise/fresh air. Zombies have no ideas.
    4. Take a ‘critical distance break’. This is what I call any time off that helps you to get away from your desk and return with a sharpened mind. Go for a ten minute walk, or take a nap, or have a bath, or wash the dishes, do a crossword or Sudoku puzzle, or sleep on it over night, or walk away from the desk for two weeks (depending on the size of the puzzle and how stuck you are.) This is a deliberate break, and I can’t tell you how often I have come back and gone ‘Oh I know the answer to that! That’s so obvious to me now!’ (Your subconscious has been mulling it over while you’ve been away and it works really well!)
    5. Don’t only type up research, or program, or do calculations. Use all the skills you have to explore ideas: write longhand in a journal, draw cartoons, make videos, dance your PhD, talk to friends down the pub. You may notice I bake bread to think about writing a lot! Sometimes using a ‘creative’ method to think about your area of expertise helps produce ‘creative’ answers.
    6. Keep a dream journal. Keep any kind of journal. Blogging also works! Reflecting and writing regularly is proven to help you have more ideas. Also, using your emotions, subconscious, or your dreams to problem solve is sometimes a way to make break throughs.
    7. Write every day. People who write everyday have more ideas and produce more than people who ‘wait to feel inspired’.
    8. Switch up your day. If you write best in the morning, spend some time problem solving in the evening with a glass of wine. If you think clearest in the afternoon, spend some time sketching out possibilities first thing in the morning before you’ve had coffee. (Research says you may be more creative when you are tired.)
    9. Have room for failed ideas. Give yourself an afternoon or an hour a week to try out possible ideas that may, or may not, work out. You can try out ideas by writing about them, experimenting with them, or exploring them with a friend or colleague. You are likely to have a lot of failures, but also more small successes than you might expect. And sometimes you might get a real breakthrough for truly original work !


10: An idea is great, but then you have to get back to the work of researching it, verifying it, testing it, workshopping it, writing it up. Ideas are only useful if they turn into something you can use in your thesis, teaching, publishing or further research.

Oh actually… one more idea!

And 11: Creative people have way more ideas than there is room for in a 3 year doctoral program! Work out which ideas are great, but belong in a later project– maybe your post doc, or an article you write after your PhD is finished. Work out which ideas are great but not right for you (start recommending these ideas to smart undergraduates and eventually recommend them to your doctoral supervision candidates).
Work out which ideas were fun to play with but will be stale or flat if you came back to them in a few hours, months or years time–these are fun brain bubbles, play with them while they are pretty and then let them rainbow wobble off into the sunset. There are plenty more ideas where they came from. 

Thanks to all the students and researchers who shared their experiences with me for this post. Do you have any techniques to prompt creative thinking that work for you? Let me know in the comments!

Photo by Stainless Images on Unsplash


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

Between the paragraph and the word is the ‘line edit’

There is another intermediate stage of editing, which is typically called ‘line edits’ in creative writing. This is the edit that is all about style and grace, about flow, about clarity and voice. In other words, this the edit that is absolutely not essential and many academic writers don’t bother with it. It’s a ‘nice to have’, a cherry on the cake, which is why I haven’t written about it before.

Read More

Getting back into the swing of this

The book is now in with the series editor and going out to reviewers (2 weeks late, but also 2 weeks before the deadline I had written on my otherwise trusty whiteboard… a story for a later post!!). So in this little writing block I had in my day—too small for getting back into another big project—I thought I’d warm up the blog machine.

Read More

Five finger exercises for academic writing

If you have ever learned the piano, you may have had to do ‘five finger exercises’—little pieces that are less about their musical value, and more about making you use all five fingers on your hands, to improve your technique. They are warm-ups, strengthening and skill-building exercises. They are part of the invisible part of performing music—I have never seen a concert performance of these exercises, but I’m also certain that every concert pianist I have ever paid to listen to, has done hours and hours of them in their time.

Read More

Get the latest blog posts