Tired Mind, Fresh Ideas: Generating Ideas When Energy is Missing - Michelle Gibbings

A person sitting in a green jacket in an office chair with paper airplanes flying around them on a orange background.

We all face those days when we find ourselves up against fatigue and what feels like an impenetrable idea block.

The thought of starting something new, coming up with a different idea, or being able to approach something from a different angle feels way too hard.

The esteemed economist John Maynard Keynes said: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones“.

It can be hard to let old ideas go. But when you’re tired, your motivation is usually lower, so thinking about coming up with fresh ideas feels elusive. It’s like the brain’s battery has drained, and the charging station has stopped working.

So, what do you do if having a doona-break day isn’t an option? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Recognise The Motivation Lever
We have this curious notion that motivation magically appears, and so we can wait for it to strike. It doesn’t. It comes from starting.

When you don’t want to do something, sit down and start whatever you need to work on. Yes, this takes discipline, so setting a mini-goal helps. You say to yourself, ‘I’ll work on this for 15 minutes, and after that, I can have a cup of coffee’ (or, in my case, tea).

By the 15-minute mark, you will likely keep going to get the task finished.

Tap into Both Motivational Sides
In the 1970′s, psychologist Edward Deci conducted an experiment demonstrating how incentivising students with money to solve puzzles made them less interested in working on them after being paid. The students who weren’t financially incentivised worked on the puzzles for longer and with more interest.

Deci’s work highlighted the difference between extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside sources, and intrinsic motivation, which comes from within yourself.

Pay raises, promotions, winning, status, fame, and the like are all forms of extrinsic motivation. In contrast, doing a task or achieving something based on purpose, growth, curiosity, enjoyment, and self-expression are all intrinsic forms of motivation.

Author Daniel Pink found that extrinsic rewards only work for non-creative behaviours and much less for work that requires innovation and unconventional thinking.

The challenge with constantly relying on extrinsic forces is that they are primarily outside your control. As socialised beings, it’s effortless to fall into the trap of social comparison. When we compare ourselves to others, it can demotivate us, negatively impact our self-esteem and leave us searching for more because we don’t feel like we are enough (or have enough).

When you focus on why something matters to you and make it matter, your intrinsic motivation will likely kick in.

Expand Your Definition
It also helps to challenge your definition of idea generation and creativity.

Consider – Is being creative coming up with a completely new idea, or can it also be taking something someone else has created and improving it?

For me, creativity is both because it comes in many shapes and sizes. Consequently, rather than labelling yourself as ‘non-creative’, it’s time to seek out structures and activities that can help you tap into your creative ability and find new ideas.

The challenge is we convince ourselves that we are not the ‘idea person’. We also very easily box people into the category of ‘creative’ and ‘non-creative’. Yet, we all have the capacity to be creative, just in different ways and to different degrees.

For example, you can find an idea by reshaping, adding or subtracting from an existing idea. The best ideas aren’t always starting from scratch. Sometimes a tiny tweak or alteration can turn an average idea into an awesome one.

Create Your Value
In his book, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, psychologist Paul Bloom discussed how we value things that involve hard work and effort.

He shares research from an experiment conducted by researchers at Duke University. In the experiment, participants were given either a pre-assembled product or the parts and instructions to create the product. They were then asked to value the item. The researchers found that the product’s value increased when it was successfully self-built. In fact, the participants who assembled their own item were willing to pay 63% more than those who got the pre-assembled product.

Incidentally, this is known as the ‘IKEA Effect’; anyone who has successfully assembled something from a flatpack will know how good it feels, and how frustrating it is when you can’t assemble it.

Explore What’s Different
A recent study at Harvard University found that people who do better at creative tasks often have more creative hobbies and achievements.

In the study, the participants were asked to complete a test of ‘divergent thinking’. This alternate-use task test involved people thinking of new and unusual uses for everyday objects. The study also identified the different areas of the brain used in creative activities, concluding that “the creative brain is ‘wired’ differently and that creative people are better able to engage brain systems that don’t typically work together”.

Consider taking up a hobby or activity totally different from your day job. Doing this will activate different regions of your brain and help create new neural pathways and capabilities.

As part of this, read widely. If you only read from one genre or style, you narrow your field of view. You expand your boundaries when you read widely and seek knowledge from a broad range of sources. Over time, you’ll find that you will be able to bridge gaps and draw new connections.

Shift Yourself
When you move to a new space or place, your brain shifts and thinks differently. So, when you are stuck, move somewhere else and see how the new environment sparks new ideas.

As part of this, get moving. When we move and exercise, we release endorphins, which can help spark new ideas and thoughts as the tiredness and stress of the day dissipate.

It can also help to buddy up with a friend or colleague. Working with someone with different experiences and knowledge will help you see the world and the problem differently. Diversity of ideas is only generated from diversity of thought.

Manage Your Energy
Your brain needs a break, so sleep on it.

Sleeping or resting is often when we come up with our best ideas. By stepping away from the busy energy of the everyday, we create space to see things differently. That’s why new ideas and perspectives often arise when you are on holiday or during the middle of the night.

Keep a notebook by your bed. Ideas can arise during the night when your subconscious brain is processing. Before you go to sleep, ask yourself the question you want to solve or the problem you want to expand, and you’ll be amazed at what pops up during the night.

Remember the wise words of the writer and polymath, Goethe “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power and magic in it“.

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