Want better ideas? Go catch your swarm

We often romanticize ideas as an isolated ‘aha’ moment; however, they are built upon a foundation of multiple thoughts and information sources coming together. Bodong Chen, an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, describes ideas more as a swarm than of a single entity.

Great ideas come from a collection of hunches and “half-baked” ideas waiting to be connected with each other. These are thoughts that look promising, but are perhaps missing that key piece to make them ready to stand alone. It is tempting to throw them away as trivial or irrelevant, but they are the ingredients to your next big idea. Chen says the best thing to do with your swarm is to catch it:

Keeping a slow hunch alive poses challenges on multiple scales. For starters, you have to preserve the hunch in your own memory, in the dense network of your neurons. So part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down… We can see Darwin’s ideas evolve because on some basic level the notebook platform creates a cultivating space for his hunches; it is not that the notebook is a mere transcription of the ideas, which are happening offstage somewhere in Darwin’s mind. Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper.

Luckily, it is incredibly easy to catch your hunches — it can be as simple as carrying around a physical notebook or using the multiple functions of your smartphone. Mobile apps like Evernote and Pinterest allow you to collect web clippings and upload your own data. Alternatively, cloud services such as Google Drive and Adobe Creative Cloud make it easy to access your achieved hunches wherever you are. Even your camera phone is an excellent visual recorder (and is probably always on hand).

The key here is to record the information, but not spend any time categorizing it. First of all, who has the time to shift random information into preorganized categories? Secondly, you want all the information and hunches to mix together. Great ideas come from combining two seemingly unrelated hunches. In order to accomplish this, Chen says you need to keep the hunches alive by rereading through your notes. After all, it’s hard to connect hunches together if you no longer remember them.


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