Creatively blocked? Stumped solving a problem? Caught in circular thinking? Need new ideas?
Making lists might be your answer.
The idea is simple. Write down the problem. List possible solutions and ideas. Come up with as many as possible to ensure you have mined the alternatives at a deep level. Do your list all in one sitting until your brain feels challenged. Pretty soon you'll run out of the obvious solutions and then your brain will have to come up with novel ideas. Unexpected solutions will appear as patterns and new connections emerge. Sometimes it feels miraculous when a fresh idea pops out of the gloom.
I first read about the list concept in the "Fiction Writer's Brainstormer" by James V. Smith, Jr.
I picked up his book at a long ago Maui Writer's Conference and was immediately hooked on many of his brainstorming ideas.
His main point is "don't settle" for the first idea or ideas that comes into your mind.
Among many brainstorming gems in his book, Smith suggests that when you are faced with a writing dilemma you can use a bracketing tool which uses nineteen categories for pushing your mind to explore potential solutions. If you don't like his categories, make up your own.
In his process, you write out the plot problem and then you start filling in ideas in each of the categories below. Come up with as many ideas for each category as possible. Use your own definition of what the category means to you. You'll instinctively know whether an idea is commonplace or it's over the top. The more ideas you generate in each category, the higher likelihood of coming up with something innovative that will make the scene come alive.
16. Over the top:
No matter how ridiculous the idea is, add it to the list. This method really works, but only if you are willing to push the process as far as you can. If you give up too early, you won't come up with enough alternatives to push beyond circular and commonplace thinking. If you're tempted to give up too early, remind yourself about Smith's mantra: "Don't settle". I have it on a digital post-it note on my second monitor to continually remind myself of this while I'm working on a novel.
Several years later, and still using Smith's bracketing method, I ran into James Altucher's suggestions about becoming an idea machine. It appears in many of his blog posts and books.
His method? Yep. You guessed it. Lists. His recommendation to exercise the idea muscle is to select a topic or problem and write a minimum of ten solutions/ideas. Every day. Eventually, your brain becomes primed to pump out ideas. Like weightlifting builds muscle, daily use of the list process develops mental capacity. Creativity can be improved.
(Google Altucher. His ideas can be controversial, but there are many useful techniques and strategies to be mined from his blog and books.)
If ten ideas are good, what about making a list of 100 ideas!
Micheal Gelb, author of "How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci", recommends a Da Vinci notebook exercise of making a list of 100 questions/ideas. As usual, the first twenty ideas will be off the top of your head. The next 30 or 40 will really make your brain work to find new connections. And the last 40 or so will be where the unexpected and profound ideas will be found.
Another example of this method is found in author Kathleen Adams' "Journal of the Self". It includes 100 topics to develop a list of 100 ideas about. I've been meaning to explore that.
A common key to optimizing each of these methods is to do the lists in one sitting. This forces your brain beyond the usual boundaries since you're not giving in to avoidance behavior by getting up and telling yourself you'll come back to it later. Painful? Yep. Productive? Yep. Rewarding? Oh yes!
I like to combine list making with mindmapping. For example, using Smith's categories, I'll choose a category and then rapidly mind map solutions. This seems to help me break out of the linear mode more readily than list making alone.
If you'd like to try the list method, here's a particularly good exercise to start with. Write down 100 things you are grateful for. Gratitude practice is particularly good for you emotionally, particularly if you do it first thing in the morning because the day flows mindfully and with greater ease and joy after you've done the exercise. It could be the most important and rewarding activity of your day. I start a new gratitude list every day so I don't just go through the motions. Most of the items are the same, but writing about them again fires off the gratitude synapses and it never fails to make me feel better.
Pick a number. Ten. Twenty. Fifty. One hundred. Make lists and push your imagination. Do it daily and become an idea machine.