Archimedes boasted that if you gave him a lever long enough and a place to stand, he could move the world. Today we have a great appreciation of the incredible “leverage” we can get from physical tools. There are few difficult physical tasks that we would attempt without powerful tools. But without hesitation we still attack tough mental problems empty-handed. Try using a tool such as a note- book or a tape recorder in finding solutions.
“It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers.” JAMES THURBER
Thinking tools come in two different types. The first type cap- tures ideas when you create them. One idea will spawn more ideas. When you lose an inspiration, you not only lose that idea, but also all of the ideas it could have created for you. Seize all of the con- cepts you create. If you can capture and use a few of the thoughts you have every day, they will lead to many more useful ideas.
Many great thinkers have kept notebooks. Note spaces like note- books or note apps are perfect for capturing new, incomplete ideas. They provide a record of thinking that can be reviewed and added to. It is especially important to capture your outside-the-box think- ing. Ideas that don’t fit in your usual thought patterns can easily disappear because there is no context in which to fit them. They must be recorded if they are to be remembered.
If you find yourself in an idea slump, try going back through your note space. Old Chris Concepts can serve as inspiration. Remembering previous good and bad ideas will open the paths into more creative areas of your brain.
It isn’t always practical to write your ideas in a note space. Install an audio recorder on your phone to capture your thoughts when you can’t write. You can take notes while driving, in bed, or standing in line. These times when your mind is free to wander are fer- tile opportunities for creative thinking. Make the most of them by recording your ideas.
Ideas can be like Samuel Coleridge’s incomplete poem “Xanadu.” Coleridge awoke from a dream that he recorded as a poem. But before he could finish, he was interrupted. Later he could not remember the dream or how to end the poem, which is unfortunate because it is one of his best. You have probably had lots of good ideas that you have lost because you couldn’t record them.
Even if you never listen to the note, you have strengthened your thought process by taking time to verbalize the idea. Use your audio recording to stimulate more ideas while you are driving. Just replay the stream of your thoughts. As you listen, the concepts you recorded will be strengthened and you will have new, complemen- tary ideas as well.
An audio recorder is also useful for capturing all those mundane thoughts that tend to clutter our thinking. It isn’t as intimidating as video. If you are constantly reminding yourself to pick up the dry cleaning, simply record a note to do it. Then return to focusing on your core problem.
You won’t always have your phone with you, so master one invalu- able memory trick. Learn to create silly pictures in your head. Our minds have a remarkable ability to remember images. Even if you can’t remember your brother’s phone number, you can store enough images to choke a computer. When you have an idea that you cannot record, visualize it as a picture. If you think of two screws that you can eliminate from a product design, then picture yourself punting a couple of giant screws out the door while money washes over you from above. Make that picture memorable by enlarging key features to enormous proportions or by making the action ridiculous. You will find it easy to remember your idea until you can record it.
“One dull pencil is worth two sharp minds.”
The second type of thinking tool helps you create ideas. They aug- ment the mind’s native problem-solving abilities by presenting con- cepts in a different way. Tools are powerful leverage for thinking like Einstein.
Big, blank sheets of paper are magnets for ideas. When there is a place for them to go, ideas seem to pop out of thin air. Using a computer may give you a neater record, but great thinking isn’t always neat. Blank paper inspires imaginative ideas. Have lots of blank paper around. Otherwise, the paper shortage may inhibit your idea output.
Tough problems are not black and white. You should not think about them in black and white. Bright, bold colors bring out bright, bold ideas. Keep colored markers close at hand and use them when you are thinking.
Music stimulates your brain’s creative centers. Try playing a select- ed piece every time you work on your target problem. The music will help reconnect you to ideas you had the last time you worked on the problem. Here are some of my favorite selections for cre- ative thinking:
Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2
Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”
When most people think about a problem, they make a list. To inspire new thinking, make a non-list instead. There are many types of non-lists. Draw a picture of the problem. If your local bank faces stiff competition from a large national bank, then draw your situa- tion. Use caricatures or metaphors for the elements of the problem. Perhaps you would draw a huge monster rampaging through the streets of your city, tipping people from their homes. Or you could draw a legion of zombies marching from the rival bank. Humorous pictures are particularly powerful vehicles for breaking out of your mental rut.
You could also create a map of the problem. Idea maps list the elements of a situation and connect them to show relationships. If you are creating an idea map for the problem of the local bank competing with the large national bank, then draw the flow of money in your town. Show the sources of big payrolls and deposits. Sketch where money goes from your bank and the rival bank. Adding the deserts, castles, mountains, and swamps of your problem will inspire even more creativity. Maps are a great use for blank paper and colored markers.
You may wish to draw the Einstein Thinking circles and plot where you are in the process of breaking patterns and breaking rules. Use arrows to connect steps and ideas. Be sure to identify and break those key rules.
Non-lists don’t need to be on paper. You could put together a problem box. Collect objects relevant to your problem in a box. Handle the objects. Smell them. Listen to them rattle about. Even taste them. It will focus a different part of your brain on the problem.
Looking at complex, visual patterns stimulates your right brain and can enhance creativity. Simply look at a complicated pattern or pic- ture. Your brain will sort out the spatial relationships and bring new sets of neural pathways on line to do it. These new pathways will then also work on your target problem.
In Chapter Seven, “Growing a Solution,” we discussed the importance of cerebral sex in developing mature solutions. Discussing a problem or solution with someone else really does help. Keep a phone list of friends who will discuss ideas with you. When you need a bit of creative inspiration, call one.