The first step to have great ideas is to adopt an attitude of having lots of ideas. Going further, there are some strategies we can use to dramatically increase the amount of ideas we generate. The Idea Quota is one of the simplest and most effective of them.
The Idea Quota
I first learned about the Idea Quota through Michael Michalko’s excellent book Thinkertoys. Putting it simply, using an Idea Quota means committing to have a predetermined number of ideas during the day.
The point of committing to a quota is that it forces you to actively pursue new ideas. Instead of just waiting and hoping for ideas, you give your mind a specific challenge to work on — activating your creativity and directing it to a tangible goal.
Although you can use quotas without specifying a central theme for your ideas, the technique works best when you direct it to very specific needs, such as:
- a challenge you’re working on, either in your personal life or at work;
- an improvement you want to make in your life or business;
- finding answers to specific questions you have, either practical or more abstract.
Pump Some (Mental) Iron
Just like in a physical workout, to grow your creativity muscles you have to constantly push your limits, even if just a little bit. Every time you do that, you expand your comfort zone and make it increasingly easier to have plenty of ideas.
Thomas Edison, still the individual with the most awarded patents to date, had ambitious targets for himself: he had an “invention quota” of nothing less than a minor invention every ten days and a major invention every six months.
Even if you don’t plan to be the next light bulb genius, the point is: make sure your quota is challenging. Edison firmly believed that he could never have gone so far without giving himself very aggressive targets. The lesson he gave us is that your expectations matter a lot: if you expect to have just a few ideas, you will settle the moment you reach that amount.
How to Make the Idea Quota Work for You
1. Pay Attention to Your Problem Statement
Be extremely careful when defining your challenge: just by changing the way you state the problem, you will be able to greatly increase your idea output.
For example, when you define your challenge as “How to get a promotion”, what you may really mean is “How to earn more money” — or something entirely different, depending on your situation. By digging for your underlying motivations you avoid being distracted by situations that may be just transitory. By expanding your alternatives, you make the whole idea generation process much easier and more productive — but you also need to be careful not to make the problem too vague. Finding the sweet spot between not being too strict and not being too broad may not be easy, but it’s well worth the effort.
2. Honor Your Quota
Once you agree on a quota, commit to it. This is essential for the technique to work, as it shows you’re serious about getting that amount of ideas.
One general advice, especially valid to help you reac your quota, is to be prepared to write down ideas anywhere and at any time. By doing this, you won’t miss any ideas and will have a big head start against your daily goal. If you don’t reach your quota by taking notes throughout the day, then sit down at an appropriate time with the specific purpose of brainstorming ideas. Granted, when your creativity is low, this can be hard – but just like in a physical workout, it’s only by persisting that one can reap the greatest benefits.
3. Keep Ideas Flowing
When listing ideas, it’s important not to judge or evaluate them. The point of the technique is to come up with as many ideas as you can, so try to focus on the sole goal of reaching the quota you defined, leaving any form of analysis for later.
When in doubt about an idea, don’t get distracted by it — just write it down and move on. Two common examples of such distractions are: suspecting an idea is a duplicate of a previous one or believing the idea is completely unrelated to the subject at hand. Sure, don’t count those ideas for the quota if you prefer, but do write them down, as they may trigger other valid ideas.
4. Don’t Limit Yourself to the Quota
Sometimes, you’ll be right in the middle of a stream of ideas when you reach your quota. When that happens, don’t stop because you reached your quota. Always remember that the ultimate goal here is to have as many ideas as you can — the quota is just a guideline to help you reach that goal and should never be used to limit yourself in that regard.
Another common thought to avoid is that you should hold your ideas for tomorrow’s quota, instead of “using them up” in an already-filled quota. This only shows fear of running out of ideas, and it’s a strategy that always backfires later. Be aware that it is only by adopting a belief based on the abundance of ideas that you’ll be able to unleash your creativity’s full potential.
5. Have Fun!
To be fully creative, you have to have fun. Use your imagination to find out your own ways to make the Idea Quota always enjoyable. Here are a few suggestions:
- Work with many simultaneous challenges. Cycle them daily, or randomly draw them from a “Challenge Box”;
- Create some little incentives and rewards. Have them only after you reach your quota;
- Partner with someone and collaborate on a shared quota or compete against each other.
Test Drive It
Although it may be impractical to be in “Idea Quota mode” all the time, I recommend you try it for at least a week for a specific problem or improvement you want to make. Don’t forget to be aggressive on the quota you set for yourself and you may be surprised about how many ideas you’re capable of having.
If you try it, please share your experiences in the comments section below. Did you struggle? Did you invent any new fun ways to do it? Did you combine it with a different technique of yours?