Problem Solving – Litemind Exploring ways to use our minds efficiently. Mon, 01 Jan 2018 20:43:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Framing Changes Everything Fri, 05 Mar 2010 11:46:37 +0000 How you frame a problem profoundly influences the solutions you get. And it’s too easy to fall into thinking traps when it comes to it. Let’s look at one of these traps — and offer some ideas on how you can overcome it.

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Framing Is Everything

A young priest asked his bishop, “May I smoke while praying?” The answer was an emphatic “No!”

Later, when he sees an older priest puffing on a cigarette while praying, the younger priest scolded him, “You shouldn’t be smoking while praying! I asked the bishop, and he said I couldn’t do it!”

“That’s odd,” the old priest replied. “I asked the bishop if I could pray while I’m smoking, and he told me that it was okay to pray at any time!”

As this joke shows, the way you frame a problem profoundly influences the solutions you get. The same problem, when seen from a different angle can lead to a directly opposite interpretation!

Skillfully framing problems is paramount for better problem solving and decision making.

On the flip side, it’s too easy to fall into thinking traps when it comes to framing. Let’s look at one of these traps — and offer some ideas on how to overcome it.

A Brief Pause for You to Save Some Lives

Let’s make a thought experiment, shall we?

Suppose the government is gearing for the outbreak of an unusual disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed, and you must choose which one you think is better. These are the estimates of the outcomes for each program:

  • Program A: 200 people will be saved.

  • Program B: There’s a 1/3 chance that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 chance that no people will be saved.

Make a note of your choice.

Now suppose that, instead of those two programs above, you’ve been presented with the following two programs instead. As in the previous situation, pick the one you think is better.

  • Program C: 400 people will die.

  • Program D: There’s a 1/3 chance that nobody will die, and a 2/3 chance that 600 people will die.

Are You Being Consistent?

Which programs did you pick for the two questions above? (Hint: Most people pick A and D.)

This question was asked in a famous experiment by Tversky and Kahneman (which led to a Nobel Prize for Kahneman), with 72% of participants choosing option A over B, and 78% choosing D over C.

Well, I don’t know about you, but for me these are astonishing results!


In case you didn’t notice, programs A and C are identical, as are programs B and D. They’re objectively the same — the same number of people live and die, with the same odds — but they’re presented — or framed — in different ways!

If people were to act consistently, it would be expected they would pick either A-C or B-D. But the change in wording alone was enough for people to shift their choices from the first option to the second. Many people chose inconsistently compared with their previous choice.

And that’s how powerful framing is.

No matter how “rational” we think we are, emotions and mental images play a large part in our decisions — many times preventing us from seeing the real content behind our options.

The Problem is Not Risk Aversion. It’s Loss Aversion.

Have you ever heard that people are in general averse to risk?

Well, the experiment we looked at strongly suggests that that statement may not be entirely true. When the programs were presented in terms of lives saved, the participants preferred the safe program (Program A). However, when the programs were presented in terms of expected deaths, participants chose the gamble (Program D). If people were risk averse, they’d always choose the safe option.

People are willing to gamble — but usually only when the gamble can avoid losses.

It turns out that in our minds losses are much stronger than gains. We feel much stronger negative emotions when losing than positive emotions when winning (about 2 times stronger according to some studies).

We feel much more disappointed losing $1000 than happy when earning $1000. Saving 200 lives is good, but it is not as appealing as the possibility — even if not that favorable — of avoiding the loss of 600.

Framing Tools

If framing has such an impact in how we decide and solve problems, what is the “correct way” of framing a problem? How can we protect ourselves from our biases? Here are four ideas.

1. Try multiple different perspectives.

Never accept the initial framing without at least some thought — whether it was formulated by you or by someone else.

Try different perspectives and look for distortions in thinking. Play with your problem definition.

Because our perceptual positions determine how we view things, it’s important to learn how to shift perspectives and look at a subject in different ways.

2. Make all-encompassing and neutral statements.

To avoid the biases of posing your problem as losses or gains, state the problem in a neutral way — one that combines both positive and negative perspectives. Make it in such a way that it is redundant, simultaneously encompassing multiple reference points as objectively as possible.

In our previous example with the disease programs, it could become:

  • Program A: 200 people survive. 400 people die.

  • Program B: 1/3 chance for 600 people to survive and 0 to die, and 2/3 for 0 people to survive and 600 to die.

Regardless of which of the options you end up choosing, you can now evaluate them in a much more balanced way.

3. Invert the situation.

Take your problem, invert it and see how you feel about it.

For example, if it’s about earning $1000, imagine that you already have it and now would lose it. In the same manner, if it’s about losing $1000, imagine that you’re $1000 behind and that you’ll earn it.

Check how that feels comparing to the original situation. If you notice a strong asymmetry between your feelings in both situations, this is a strong signal that you’re being affected by the framing of the question.

4. Detach yourself from it.

Check for elements in your problem that trigger disproportionally emotional responses. It’s always useful to be aware of the role our own emotions play when we make decisions. Acknowledge and express your emotions — it would be impossible not to, anyway — but don’t let them cloud your vision.

To separate the rational and the emotional components of the problem, detach yourself from it: Imagine the situation is happening to someone else, someone you don’t know. Conversely, get the opinion of other people who are not involved.

Tune the emotions down for a minute to add a new perspective to your problem. Then feel free to tune them back up.

What About You?

Now, it’s over to you… Have you ever been affected by misframing a situation? Were you able to reframe it? How did it work? Share in the comments!

(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: Framing Changes Everything.

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10 Best Ways to Harness the Power of Questions Wed, 29 Apr 2009 18:35:10 +0000 Our brains love questions. They have the power to engage us and to shift our mindsets. They drive knowledge and growth, and fuel both creativity and critical thinking. Here are 10 ways to ask questions more intelligently you can start using today.

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“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” –Naguib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize Winner)

Our brains love questions. They have the power to engage us and to shift our mindsets. They drive knowledge and growth, and fuel both creativity and critical thinking. Here are 10 ways to ask questions more intelligently you can start using today.

1. Questions for Creative Problem Solving

One of the most effective ways to approach any problem is to ask questions about it. The greatest thing about questions is that your brain automatically starts working on them as soon as you ask them. Not only that, but it’ll keep working on them in the background, when you’re not even aware of it.

For an initial set of more than 50 sample questions you can use in just about any problem, try the SCAMPER technique. Another effective technique you can use is asking why until you get to the core of your problem.

2. Questions for Shifting Your Perspective to a Problem

Just like it’s useful asking questions about a problem, so it is turning the problem itself into a question. We know that properly defining and stating problems is essential for great problem solving, and framing problems as questions is one of the techniques that can definitely boost your effectiveness as problem-solver.

In general, statements trigger our brains’ logical and analytical skills. Many times, they encourage you to try and reach conclusions as soon as possible. Questions, on the other hand, trigger our brains’ imagination and creative thinking skills. They encourage you to take a more exploratory approach, which tends to foster a whole new set of insights.

For example, try changing a problem statement such as “Ways to Improve My Life” into questions such as “In what ways can I improve my life?”, or “Is there an opportunity for improving my life here?”, and check how it feels.

3. Questions for Directing Thinking and Debate

Questions guide and direct our thinking process. Depending on the situation, it might be more useful to ask “open”, or “expanding” questions: they elicit new ideas, opinions and grow possibilities. Examples include “What are your thoughts on this idea?”, and “Can you think of other usage scenarios?”.

On the other hand, sometimes it might be more productive to ask “closed” or “narrowing down” questions: they converge focus, direct thinking, and bring discussions to a more objective, “down-to-earth” level. Examples include: “What are the tasks that need to get done?”, “How much will this cost?”.

The idea is to purposefully use different kinds of questions at different times to consciously drive your thinking process towards the most productive direction.

4. Questions for Education and Leadership

Great teachers and coaches know that true learning can only happen when students think by themselves. Questions are a great way to stimulate thinking — and, if used skillfully, work vastly better than just dumping knowledge into someone’s head.

Instead of simply showing concepts and solutions to students, teachers can use questions to instigate collaborative exploration: ” What would happen if we increased the angle here?”, “How would it behave without air resistance?” and so on.

Also, questions work not only for teachers, but can be extremely useful in business environments. In corporations, for example, leaders (formal or not) can, by asking questions and guiding people to think for themselves, encourage shared pride and ownership of the solutions generated. Typical questions include “What solutions can we see here?” and “What do you think we should do?”.

5. Questions for Creating Conversation and Empathy

Questions are the glue of empathetic communication: they energize and enliven conversations, inviting people to participate and to share insights and opinions. When you use them properly, people feel included and listened to and, therefore, will be much more likely to engage in meaningful and productive conversation.

Lately, I started noticing that many discussions are, in fact, more like simultaneous monologues: instead of listening, each person is just waiting his turn to talk. Simple queries such as “How can I help?”, or “Did your son get better since last time we talked?” are the easiest way to show that you’re listening, and that you honestly care about what’s being shared with you.

6. Questions for Critical Thinking

Skillful use of inquiry is the cornerstone of critical thinking. Again, it’s only through questioning that we can truly think by ourselves — instead of blindly accepting whatever we’re told as the right thing to do or the only acceptable answer.

When I say ‘skillful use of inquiry’, this does not mean necessarily getting fancy: oftentimes, it means being playful and “thinking like a child”. Great critical thinkers don’t get embarrassed to ask seemingly naïve questions: these are usually the most effective — as well as the ones snob intellectuals are more prone to overlook.

As an effective initial set of questions to use, it’s hard to beat the famous 5Ws (what, where, who, when and why). “Where did you see it?”, “What are the causes of it?”, “Why is the emperor naked?”.

7. Questions for Shifting Your Focus

Reframing self-limiting situations as questions has long been celebrated as an excellent way to instantly changing the way we feel.

Suppose you’re feeling down but, even so, you dare to ask yourself “What am I excited about?”. At first, you’ll get irritated by the question. However, if you put honest effort in answering it, you will indeed find something worth feeling better about. And that’s not denial: it’s just shifting your focus.

Also, disempowering statements such as “This is impossible!” increase your stress and prevent you from searching for solutions. Turn it into “How can I make this possible?” or ” What’s good about this?” puts you back in the driver’s seat and direct your focus on solutions.

8. Questions for Inspiration, Goal Setting and Action

A great way to set goals is by asking yourself “What if…?”. This question alone has the power to direct our imagination to create a vision for ourselves — and then spawn the thought processes that help it become reality.

A technique I use to think about “higher-levels” goals — as well as roles and areas of responsibility — is to turn them into questions. Statements may work fine for to-do lists, but I find that for thinking about the big picture they’re overly dull and uninspiring.

For example, suppose that you identified ‘Health’ as a general area that is important to you. Now, one way to track and assess progress under that area is to think generically about this label “Health” and what actions you can take. Contrast it with the much stronger alternative of turning it into a question: “How can I improve my health today?”.

Thinking that way motivates and primes you for action. In fact, it’s so strong that it’s hard not to take action, don’t you agree? The same holds true for goals and even lower-level projects: the goal “Get 10 new customers by the end of the week” may be what some call a SMART goal, but “What can I do now to get a new customer?” is the one that motivates action the most.

9. Questions for Self-Reflection

As powerful thinking tools that they are, questions can help you examine your life and help you get in touch with your inner self. They work very well with standard self-reflection techniques, such as many forms of journaling.

A great exercise is to create a list of 100 consisting only of questions — the questions that matter the most to you at the moment (these can range from “Where did I left my keys?” to “What’s my life mission?”). From that list, narrow it down to ten or twenty items, creating your own List of Great Questions, which you can revisit often to reconnect with the pursuits that really matter to you.

An extension of that technique you may want to try is taking each of those questions and journaling about them, devoting a journal entry for each question, just like in the Topics du Jour technique. This gives you the opportunity to focus your attention on each question at regular intervals.

10. Questioning as a Way of Life

Developing the habit of questioning is perhaps the greatest hallmark of highly-developed minds. I believe that questioning is the ultimate tool to stimulate thinking and, as such, it’s hard to dispute the usefulness and importance of cultivating this habit.

But how do we develop the habit of questioning? The answer, just like everything else in life, is practice, practice, practice. Always carry a notebook with you and keep writing questions down as they come to you.

Question everything. Become comfortable with unanswered questions. Don’t see them as problems, or as a necessary evil in your way to answers. Welcome them. Play with them. Your brain will thank you.

(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: 10 Best Ways to Harness the Power of Questions.

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Einstein’s Secret to Amazing Problem Solving (and 10 Specific Ways You Can Use It) Tue, 04 Nov 2008 12:32:17 +0000 Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had 1 hour to save the world he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution. Here are 10 strategies you can use to tackle the most important step when solving problems.

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Einstein's Secret to Jaw-Dropping Problem Solving

Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.

This quote does illustrate an important point: before jumping right into solving a problem, we should step back and invest time and effort to improve our understanding of it. Here are 10 strategies you can use to see problems from many different perspectives and master what is the most important step in problem solving: clearly defining the problem in the first place!

The Problem Is To Know What the Problem Is

The definition of the problem will be the focal point of all your problem-solving efforts. As such, it makes sense to devote as much attention and dedication to problem definition as possible. What usually happens is that as soon as we have a problem to work on we’re so eager to get to solutions that we neglect spending any time refining it.

What most of us don’t realize — and what supposedly Einstein might have been alluding to — is that the quality of the solutions we come up with will be in direct proportion to the quality of the description of the problem we’re trying to solve. Not only will your solutions be more abundant and of higher quality, but they’ll be achieved much, much more easily. Most importantly, you’ll have the confidence to be tackling a worthwhile problem.

Problem Definition Tools and Strategies

The good news is that getting different perspectives and angles in order to clearly define a problem is a skill that can be learned and developed. As such, there are many strategies you can use to perfect it. Here are the 10 most effective ones I know.

1. Rephrase the Problem

When a Toyota executive asked employees to brainstorm “ways to increase their productivity”, all he got back were blank stares. When he rephrased his request as “ways to make their jobs easier”, he could barely keep up with the amount of suggestions.

Words carry strong implicit meaning and, as such, play a major role in how we perceive a problem. In the example above, ‘be productive’ might seem like a sacrifice you’re doing for the company, while ‘make your job easier’ may be more like something you’re doing for your own benefit, but from which the company also benefits. In the end, the problem is still the same, but the feelings — and the points of view — associated with each of them are vastly different.

Play freely with the problem statement, rewording it several times. For a methodic approach, take single words and substitute variations. ‘Increase sales’? Try replacing ‘increase’ with ‘attract’, ‘develop’, ‘extend’, ‘repeat’ and see how your perception of the problem changes. A rich vocabulary plays an important role here, so you may want to use a thesaurus or develop your vocabulary.

2. Expose and Challenge Assumptions

Every problem — no matter how apparently simple it may be — comes with a long list of assumptions attached. Many of these assumptions may be inaccurate and could make your problem statement inadequate or even misguided.

The first step to get rid of bad assumptions is to make them explicit. Write a list and expose as many assumptions as you can — especially those that may seem the most obvious and ‘untouchable’.

That, in itself, brings more clarity to the problem at hand. But go further and test each assumption for validity: think in ways that they might not be valid and their consequences. What you will find may surprise you: that many of those bad assumptions are self-imposed — with just a bit of scrutiny you are able to safely drop them.

For example, suppose you’re about to enter the restaurant business. One of your assumptions might be ‘restaurants have a menu’. While such an assumption may seem true at first, try challenging it and maybe you’ll find some very interesting business models (such as one restaurant in which customers bring dish ideas for the chef to cook, for example).

3. Chunk Up

Each problem is a small piece of a greater problem. In the same way that you can explore a problem laterally — such as by playing with words or challenging assumptions — you can also explore it at different “altitudes”.

If you feel you’re overwhelmed with details or looking at a problem too narrowly, look at it from a more general perspective. In order to make your problem more general, ask questions such as: “What’s this a part of?”, “What’s this an example of?” or “What’s the intention behind this?”.

For a detailed explanation of how this principle works, check the article Boost Your Brainstorm Effectiveness with the Why Habit.

Another approach that helps a lot in getting a more general view of a problem is replacing words in the problem statement with hypernyms. Hypernyms are words that have a broader meaning than the given word. (For example, a hypernym of ‘car’ is ‘vehicle’). A great, free tool for finding hypernyms for a given word is WordNet (just search for a word and click on the ‘S:’ label before the word definitions).

4. Chunk Down

If each problem is part of a greater problem, it also means that each problem is composed of many smaller problems. It turns out that decomposing a problem in many smaller problems — each of them more specific than the original — can also provide greater insights about it.

‘Chunking the problem down’ (making it more specific) is especially useful if you find the problem overwhelming or daunting.

Some of the typical questions you can ask to make a problem more specific are: “What are parts of this?” or “What are examples of this?”.

Just as in ‘chunking up’, word substitution can also come to great use here. The class of words that are useful here are hyponyms: words that are stricter in meaning than the given one. (E.g. two hyponyms of ‘car’ are ‘minivan’ and ‘limousine’). WordNet can also help you finding hyponyms.

5. Find Multiple Perspectives

Before rushing to solve a problem, always make sure you look at it from different perspectives. Looking at it with different eyes is a great way to have instant insight on new, overlooked directions.

For example, if you own a business and are trying to ‘increase sales’, try to view this problem from the point of view of, say, a customer. For example, from the customer’s viewpoint, this may be a matter of adding features to your product that one would be willing to pay more for.

Rewrite your problem statement many times, each time using one of these different perspectives. How would your competition see this problem? Your employees? Your mom?

Also, imagine how people in various roles would frame the problem. How would a politician see it? A college professor? A nun? Try to find the differences and similarities on how the different roles would deal with your problem.

6. Use Effective Language Constructs

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for properly crafting the perfect problem statement, but there are some language constructs that always help making it more effective:

  • Assume a myriad of solutions. An excellent way to start a problem statement is: “In what ways might I…”. This expression is much superior to “How can I…” as it hints that there’s a multitude of solutions, and not just one — or maybe none. As simple as this sounds, the feeling of expectancy helps your brain find solutions.
  • Make it positive. Negative sentences require a lot more cognitive power to process and may slow you down — or even derail your train of thought. Positive statements also help you find the real goal behind the problem and, as such, are much more motivating.
    For example: instead of finding ways to ‘quit smoking’, you may find that ‘increase your energy’, ‘live longer’ and others are much more worthwhile goals.
  • Frame your problem in the form of a question. Our brain loves questions. If the question is powerful and engaging, our brains will do everything within their reach to answer it. We just can’t help it: Our brains will start working on the problem immediately and keep working in the background, even when we’re not aware of it.
  • If you’re still stuck, consider using the following formula for phrasing your problem statement:
    “In what ways (action) (object) (qualifier) (end result)?”
    Example: In what ways might I package (action) my book (object) more attractively (qualifier) so people will buy more of it (end result)?

7. Make It Engaging

In addition to using effective language constructs, it’s important to come up with a problem statement that truly excites you so you’re in the best frame of mind for creatively tackling the problem. If the problem looks too dull for you, invest the time adding vigor to it while still keeping it genuine. Make it enticing. Your brain will thank (and reward) you later.

One thing is to ‘increase sales’ (boring), another one is ‘wow your customers’. One thing is ‘to create a personal development blog’, another completely different is to ’empower readers to live fully’.

8. Reverse the Problem

One trick that usually helps when you’re stuck with a problem is turning it on its head.

If you want to win, find out what would make you lose. If you are struggling finding ways to ‘increase sales’, find ways to decrease them instead. Then, all you need to do is reverse your answers. ‘Make more sales calls’ may seem an evident way of increasing sales, but sometimes we only see these ‘obvious’ answers when we look at the problem from an opposite direction.

This seemingly convoluted method may not seem intuitive at first, but turning a problem on its head can uncover rather obvious solutions to the original problem.

9. Gather Facts

Investigate causes and circumstances of the problem. Probe details about it — such as its origins and causes. Especially if you have a problem that’s too vague, investigating facts is usually more productive than trying to solve it right away.

If, for example, the problem stated by your spouse is “You never listen to me”, the solution is not obvious. However, if the statement is “You don’t make enough eye contact when I’m talking to you,” then the solution is obvious and you can skip brainstorming altogether. (You’ll still need to work on the implementation, though!)

Ask yourself questions about the problem. What is not known about it? Can you draw a diagram of the problem? What are the problem boundaries? Be curious. Ask questions and gather facts. It is said that a well-defined problem is halfway to being solved: I would add that a perfectly-defined problem is not a problem anymore.

10. Problem-Solve Your Problem Statement

I know I risk getting into an infinite loop here, but as you may have noticed, getting the right perspective of a problem is, well, a problem in itself. As such, feel free to use any creative thinking technique you know to help. There are plenty to choose from:

You may want to give yourself an Idea Quota of problem statements. Or write a List of 100 problems to solve. SCAMPER your problem definition. These are just some of dozen techniques you can try.

Of course, how much effort you invest in defining the problem in contrast to how much effort you invest in solving your actual problem is a hard balance to achieve, though one which is attainable with practice.

Personally, I don’t think that 55 minutes of defining a problem versus 5 minutes acting on it is usually a good proportion. The point is that we must be aware of how important problem defining is and correct our tendency to spend too little time on it.

In fact, when you start paying more attention to how you define your problems, you’ll probably find that it is usually much harder than solving them. But you’ll also find that the payoff is well worth the effort.


(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: Einstein’s Secret to Amazing Problem Solving (and 10 Specific Ways You Can Use It).

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Brainwriting is Brainstorming on Steroids Tue, 12 Aug 2008 12:56:19 +0000 Wherever you ask, when it comes to group problem-solving, brainstorming is always the default tool of choice. Brainstorming certainly gets all the fame and glory, but is it the most effective tool for groups to generate ideas? Not necessarily. Traditional brainstorming pales in comparison with a technique called Brainwriting. Brainwriting can easily lead to more […]

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Wherever you ask, when it comes to group problem-solving, brainstorming is always the default tool of choice. Brainstorming certainly gets all the fame and glory, but is it the most effective tool for groups to generate ideas? Not necessarily.

Traditional brainstorming pales in comparison with a technique called Brainwriting. Brainwriting can easily lead to more than double the ideas generated in a typical brainstorming session. Also, it’s not as tricky as brainstorming to work well for you.

The Shortcomings of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is by far the most widely used group idea generation tool. We all know the drill: get together in a room and let the ideas run wild while building on each other’s ideas.

One of the reasons brainstorming is so popular is because of the widespread notion that grouping people together is always more effective than letting participants work in isolation. On a first look that makes sense, but is it really so?

That’s not what some recent research shows. Several studies (notably Diehl and Strobe’s, from 1987 to 1994) tested brainstorming teams extensively and realized that participants working in isolation consistently outperformed participants working in groups, both in quantity and quality of ideas generated.

The fact is that brainstorming, the way it’s carried out, has some fundamental shortcomings that are hard to overcome. Here are the top 3 reasons why brainstorming usually isn’t as effective as you might think:

1. “Blocking”

This is by far the number one deficiency in traditional brainstorming: only one person can speak at a time.

The problem with that lies in the fact that our short-term memory can’t effectively develop new ideas while keeping old ones in active storage. If we can’t announce our ideas because we have to wait for someone else to describe theirs, we will end up judging or editing them — or even forgetting them altogether.

Not surprisingly, this makes all the difference in our idea output. Even when we do get a chance to describe an idea, we may get to offer only one or two comments before someone else breaks in.

The larger the brainstorming group, the bigger the amount of “blocked” participants, and the fewer the ideas produced compared to an equal number of people generating ideas independently.

2. Evaluation Apprehension

This relates to the fact that some group members avoid expressing what they consider to be wild ideas based on how the other members will privately judge them.

“Suspend judgment!”, “Be wild and outrageous!”, “Speak with no fear!”: this is advice that is hard to take when you’re in company of an authority figure, such as the guy who gets to decide how small your annual bonus will be.

Despite the soundness of the advice to let ideas run wild, the truth is that many groups are not mature or prepared enough to follow it. “Maybe my idea” — they think — “will be seen as way off the mark, so why take any chances?”

3. Personality Face Off

Brainstorming sessions can easily become an arena of clashing human personalities. True, diversity is a necessary part of effective brainstorming, but it also makes fertile ground for all sorts of unproductive behavior.

Examples? Overpowering people trying to dominate the session. Passive people speaking the minimum possible to get by unnoticed. Stubborn people getting overprotective about their ideas and not accepting others’. Fearful people being reticent and evasive, and only presenting safe ideas. The list goes on and on.

The bottom line is that personality differences, if not dealt appropriately, can harm more than help problem solving.

Enter Brainwriting

If brainstorming groups are usually outperformed by individuals working alone, should we quit forming brainstorming groups then? Or is there a way to brainstorm together while sidestepping those fundamental shortcomings? Time to meet the Brainwriting technique.

As in traditional brainstorming, in Brainwriting everyone sits at a table together to simultaneously tackle a problem. The difference is that in Brainwriting each participant thinks and records ideas individually, without any verbal interaction. As we’ll see, this small change results in a fundamental difference in the idea generation effectiveness.

Here are the steps in a typical Brainwriting session:

  1. Participants sit around a table and each one gets a sheet of paper with the same problem statement written at the top. Just like in traditional brainstorming, you also need a moderator for the session.
  2. At the moderator’s signal, each participant has 3 minutes to write down 3 ideas on the sheet of paper. Just like in traditional brainstorming, the ideas should always go unedited. The difference is that now they are being recorded in private. The number of ideas and duration can vary, but I found that “three ideas every three minutes” works particularly well.
  3. When time is up (or when everybody’s done), each participant passes the sheet of paper to the participant to the left.
  4. Each participant now reads the ideas that were previously written and a new three-minute round starts. Each participant must again come up with three new ideas. Participants are free to use the ideas already on the sheet as triggers — or to ignore them altogether.
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat. The group can agree to stop after a fixed number of rounds (such as when sheets come to a full turn around the table) or when participants feel that contributions are exhausted.
  6. After the idea-gathering phase is completed, the ideas are read, discussed and consolidated with the help of the moderator, just like in traditional brainstorming.

So, what does this small change of having the ideas written, instead of spoken accomplish?

  • The amount of ideas generated can be amazing. Since ideas are generated simultaneously, participants never get to block each other. With everyone generating 3 ideas every 3 minutes, a group of 5 people is able to produce 100 ideas in 20 minutes.
  • Participants still get to cross-pollinate and build on each other’s ideas. That is, they still get the benefits of brainstorming in a group, while avoiding its main shortcomings.
  • Ideas are recorded the moment you get them: no ideas are lost while you wait for a chance to speak.
  • No one gets overshadowed and everybody contributes equally, regardless of personality type or personal agenda.
  • Ideas are contributed in private. In less mature environments, there’s no fear of being openly judged by other participants. The ideas can be kept anonymous and participants have freedom to be truly wild with their ideas.
  • Everyone’s given a clear task: to fulfill a specific idea quota in a specific time frame. The quota adds an element of healthy pressure that can help unlock your creativity, as it can be seen as a fun challenge.

Closing Thoughts

To be fair, there are ways to make traditional brainstorming work better (that may be the theme for a future article). However, using Brainwriting is always my preferred choice, as it often generates many more ideas and it’s way easier to get it right.

Here are some additional recommended resources on Brainwriting:

  1. Mycoted Brainwriting Page: The Mycoted wiki is an amazing online resource of creativity techniques (make sure to check their index page). The Brainwriting page has several interesting variations of the technique. Highly recommended.
  2. Michael Michalko’s book Cracking Creativity. An impressive resource. It has a great wealth of thinking and creativity techniques, including Brainwriting. Michalko’s book always tops my recommendations of books on creativity.
  3. MindMeister online mind mapping tool. MindMeister is the best tool I found so far for web-based, real-time, collaborative mind mapping. Even though it wasn’t specifically designed to support Brainwriting, it works very well for that purpose.

Also, to make sure you don’t miss complementary content, such as templates for Brainwriting and idea-generation in general, sign up for the free Litemind Newsletter.

Over to you now: share your experiences with brainstorming and Brainwriting. Have you ever faced the problems I described with brainstorming? Have you tried Brainwriting? If you have any experience with specific online thinking tools (designed for Brainwriting or not), sharing your experiences here would be invaluable. Thanks!

(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: Brainwriting is Brainstorming on Steroids.

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Topics du Jour: Give Your Life Direction in Less than 10 Minutes a Day Mon, 14 Jul 2008 12:56:50 +0000 Topics du Jour is a powerful journaling technique you can use to review, plan and put your life in perspective within no more than 5 or 10 minutes of your day. Here’s how it works: Number down a page from 1 to 30. Write in each line one aspect of your life that you would […]

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Topics du Jour

Topics du Jour is a powerful journaling technique you can use to review, plan and put your life in perspective within no more than 5 or 10 minutes of your day. Here’s how it works:

Number down a page from 1 to 30. Write in each line one aspect of your life that you would like to monitor. Then, each day of the month, look at the corresponding topic and write a paragraph or two about it.

You may end up writing about your plans, or maybe about a specific problem you’re facing in that area. Or perhaps you will end up just babbling — it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you’ll be spending those few daily minutes specifically giving attention to what matters in your life. That’s why I like this technique: it’s quick, intuitive and, above all, it gets you into the daily habit of connecting with what’s important in your life.

Here are a few examples of topics you can write about:

  • Career
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Health
  • Money
  • Spiritual Life
  • Learning
  • Leisure
  • Aging
  • Contribution

Bear in mind that the topics don’t need to be limited to the usual notion of ‘life areas’. You can, for example, pick themes such as ‘Successes’, ‘Dreams’, ‘Goals’, ‘Frustrations’, ‘Procrastination’; or anything else you believe would be interesting to revisit regularly.

A note about the number of topics: to be fair, you don’t need to define 30 topics to write about: the only requirement is that you keep a schedule to cycle between your topics, no matter how many of them there are. My schedule, for example, consists of 10 topics rotated biweekly, weekdays only.

Top 3 Benefits of Topics du Jour

1. Touch-Base All Life Areas

We usually don’t need complex tools to find out how to improve our lives. All we need is to get into the habit of connecting with our inner selves and listen. However, this is not as easy as it seems at first, as we tend to get stuck in just one or two dominant aspects of our lives and think only about those.

That’s exactly how Topics du Jour can help: it serves as a framework you can use to regularly connect with yourself and methodically focus on each and every important aspect of your life.

2. Get Instantly Motivated to Action

Facing the different aspects of your life on a daily basis is an act of courage. Bringing long-standing issues to the surface can be scary. Getting to regularly overcome the resistance to face these issues gives you an immediate sense of power and control.

Even more important is the fact that, by consciously bringing those issues to the surface, you can actually do something about them.

And here’s a suggestion, which is the only “rule” I have in my Topics du Jour sessions: once you’re done, look at what you’ve written and define at least one action you can do to move you forward in that area. Think of the smallest step possible you can take and, if at all possible, don’t even write it down: do it immediately! Maybe it’s a phone call; maybe it’s just tidying up your desk or deleting an old file on your computer. The motivating effect of immediate action, no matter how tiny, never ceases to amaze me.

3. Uncover Patterns

Contrary to regular journal entries, which are usually long and digressing, Topics du Jour entries tend to be short and to-the-point, making them perfect to be reviewed at a later time.

You can take, for example, several entries for just one particular topic and read them all in sequence. By doing that, you can get new insights about your advancement in that area, as well as uncover recurrent thinking patterns and struggles.

Another interesting way you can review your entries is by reading the entries in all topics for a certain period of your life. That way, you can find relationships between different aspects of your life (such as how one area impacts others).

How Topics du Jour Complements Getting Things Done (or How I Stopped Worrying About ‘High-Level’ Life Reviews)

Topics du Jour stands on its own as a self-knowledge journaling tool. The surprising discovery I made is that it really shines when used together with productivity systems such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). For me, Topics du Jour picks up exactly where GTD leaves off. Let me explain.

GTD is a great bottom-up approach to get your life in control. In order to put your life in perspective, you need a certain level of control in your life first. “If your ship is sinking, it doesn’t matter where it’s headed at”, Allen usually says. So, organizing low-level tasks and projects is a great place to start to get your life under control.

But once the organizing part is taken care of, you need to climb up and review your life from ‘higher altitudes’ — otherwise you’ll be trapped in mindless, never-ending micromanagement of tasks. Granted, GTD mentions that you should have those kinds of higher-altitude reviews, but it offers little guidance on how to do them.

In my case, even when trying to adopt other, more top-down oriented approaches — such as Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — I could never form the proper habits to make these reviews work. After many years of trying, I finally found out why.

Why High-Level Reviews Didn’t Work

The problems with my high-level reviews were twofold:

  • Too analytical. Linear, left-brain thinking may be great for managing to-do lists, but it failed me miserably when doing high-level reviews. For years I struggled trying to find the perfect structure for my high-level reviews: checklists of questions, improvement charts, SWOT matrices — I tried them all. And, no matter how my logical mind told me that these methods should work, I kept struggling. The very structures that I set up were preventing me from gaining access to the abstract thinking that’s required for high-level reviews.
  • Too frightening. The idea of sitting down to define goals and major directions for my life was always dreadful to me. I used to set my goals all at once (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?). No wonder that the mere idea of such big ‘life reviews’ overwhelmed me.

As you already figured out by now, Topics du Jour resolved both problems.

No More High-Level Reviews

After journaling for a while, I noticed that I didn’t need those dreadful, big bang-like reviews. As it happens, I dropped the idea of ‘life reviews’ altogether in favor of Topics du Jour sessions. In a truly kaizen style, my higher-level thinking is now spread daily, and consists of nothing more than the Topics du Jour journaling sessions.

It came as an unexpectedly nice surprise to me how a journaling technique solved, quite by accident, an age-old problem I had. Here’s how:

  • Too analytical? Topics du Jour (as any form of journaling) can be a truly sensorial experience. Put an ambient light on, grab a comfortable pen or a nice and sexy text editor, and just write. Let go of your overly-dominant left-brain and let your intuition speak: no projects list, no estimating, no priorities. It’s refreshing being able to include a ‘soft’ tool like journaling to the highly-structured world of productivity systems.
  • Too frightening? Topics du Jour allows me to review my life one bit a day, splitting up a once huge and frightening task into several smaller, more manageable parts. In fact, I now look forward to my daily journaling sessions. There are no expectations whatsoever about these sessions — and, therefore, no unfulfilled expectations. The directions, the goals, the frustrations: they all just seem to emerge naturally instead of being forced upon me at a particular, pre-defined review date.

Try It

For a long time I’ve been reading about the benefits of keeping a daily journal. However, I always thought it wouldn’t be practical in my life, as it would take too much of my time. With the Topics du Jour technique, I don’t spend more than 10 minutes a day (well, I created a focused time box around it, just in case). And I can say that I actually gained time, as I spend much less time setting goals or worrying about those big, dreadful life reviews.

The Topics du Jour technique — like almost everything else I know about journaling — was learned from the excellent book Journal to the Self, by Kathleen Adams (click here for the book summary).

Give it a try. If you need further topic suggestions, I recommend you check the ones from the book (they can be found in the book’s mind map).

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Creative Problem Solving with SCAMPER Mon, 02 Jun 2008 20:25:27 +0000 SCAMPER is a technique you can use to spark your creativity and help you overcome any challenge you may be facing. Click for a complete SCAMPER primer, along with two free creativity-boosting resources.

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Creative Problem Solving with SCAMPER

SCAMPER is a technique you can use to spark your creativity and help you overcome any challenge you may be facing. In essence, SCAMPER is a general-purpose checklist with idea-spurring questions — which is both easy to use and surprisingly powerful. It was created by Bob Eberle in the early 70s, and it definitely stood the test of time.

In this posting, I present a complete SCAMPER primer, along with two free creativity-boosting resources: a downloadable reference mind map and an online tool that generates random questions to get you out of a rut whenever you need.


SCAMPER is based on the notion that everything new is a modification of something that already exists. Each letter in the acronym represents a different way you can play with the characteristics of what is challenging you to trigger new ideas:

  • S = Substitute
  • C = Combine
  • A = Adapt
  • M = Magnify
  • P = Put to Other Uses
  • E = Eliminate (or Minify)
  • R = Rearrange (or Reverse)

To use the SCAMPER technique, first state the problem you’d like to solve or the idea you’d like to develop. It can be anything: a challenge in your personal life or business; or maybe a product, service or process you want to improve. After pinpointing the challenge, it’s then a matter of asking questions about it using the SCAMPER checklist to guide you.

Consider, for instance, the problem "How can I increase sales in my business?"

Following the SCAMPER recipe, here are a few questions you could ask:

  • S (Substitute): "What can I substitute in my selling process?"
  • C (Combine): "How can I combine selling with other activities?"
  • A (Adapt): "What can I adapt or copy from someone else’s selling process?"
  • M (Magnify): "What can I magnify or put more emphasis on when selling?"
  • P (Put to Other Uses): "How can I put my selling to other uses?"
  • E (Eliminate): "What can I eliminate or simplify in my selling process?"
  • R (Rearrange): "How can I change, reorder or reverse the way I sell?"

These questions force you to think differently about your problem and eventually come up with innovative solutions.

A classic example is MacDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. In hindsight, it’s easy to identify many of the ideas he used through the SCAMPER lens: selling restaurants and real estate instead of simply hamburgers [P = Put to other uses]; having customers pay before they eat [R=Rearrange]; letting customers serve themselves, avoiding the use of waiters [E=Eliminate] — just to mention a few.

SCAMPER Reference

You will find below a comprehensive help guide to using SCAMPER. There are more than 60 questions that can be asked, along with almost 200 words and expressions you can create associations with.


Think about replacing part of the problem, product or process with something else. By looking for replacements you can often come up with new ideas. You can change things, places, procedures, people, ideas, and even emotions.

Helper Questions

  • Can I replace or change any parts?
  • Can I replace someone involved?
  • Can the rules be changed?
  • Can I use other ingredients or materials?
  • Can I use other processes or procedures?
  • Can I change its shape?
  • Can I change its color, roughness, sound or smell?
  • What if I change its name?
  • Can I substitute one part for another?
  • Can I use this idea in a different place?
  • Can I change my feelings or attitude towards it?

Trigger Words

alternate, colorize, exchange, fill in for, locum, proxy, relieve, rename, repackage, replace, reposition, reserve, shape, stand in for, surrogate, swap, switch, take the place of


Think about combining two or more parts of your problem to create a different product or process or to enhance their synergy. A great deal of creative thinking involves combining previously unrelated ideas, goods, or services to create something new.

Helper Questions

  • What ideas or parts can be combined?
  • Can I combine or recombine its parts’ purposes?
  • Can I combine or merge it with other objects?
  • What can be combined to maximize the number of uses?
  • What materials could be combined?
  • Can I combine different talents to improve it?

Trigger Words

amalgamate, become one, blend, bring together, coalesce, come together, commingle, conjoin, fuse, intermix, join, link, merge, mingle, mix, package, relate, unite


Think about adapting an existing idea to solve your problem. The solution of your problem is probably out there already. Bear in mind that all new ideas or inventions are borrowed to some degree.

Helper Questions

  • What else is like it?
  • Is there something similar to it, but in a different context?
  • Does the past offer any lessons with similar ideas?
  • What other ideas does it suggest?
  • What could I copy, borrow or steal?
  • Whom could I emulate?
  • What ideas could I incorporate?
  • What processes can be adapted?
  • What different contexts can I put my concept in?
  • What ideas outside my field can I incorporate?

Trigger Words

acclimatize, adapt oneself, adapt, adjust, alter, amend, become accustomed, bend, change, conform, contextualize, copy, emulate, familiarize, find your feet, fit, get a feel for, get used to, incorporate, make suitable, match, modify, readjust, refashion, revise, rework, settle in, transform, vary


Think about ways to magnify or exaggerate your idea. Magnifying your idea or parts of it may increase its perceived value or give you new insights about what components are most important.

Helper Questions

  • What can be magnified or made larger?
  • What can be exaggerated or overstated?
  • What can be made higher, bigger or stronger?
  • Can I increase its frequency?
  • What can be duplicated? Can I make multiple copies?
  • Can I add extra features or somehow add extra value?

Trigger Words

amplify, augment, boost, enlarge, expand, extend, grow, heighten, increase, intensify, lengthen, make seem more important, multiply, overemphasize, overstress, raise, strenghten, stretch out

Put to Other UsesPut to Other Uses

Think of how you might be able to put your current idea to other uses, or think of what you could reuse from somewhere else in order to solve your own problem. Many times, an idea only becomes great when applied differently than first imagined.

Helper Questions

  • What else can it be used for?
  • Can it be used by people other than those it was originally intended for?
  • How would a child use it? An older person?
  • How would people with different disabilities use it?
  • Are there new ways to use it in its current shape or form?
  • Are there other possible uses if it’s modified?
  • If I knew nothing about it, would I figure out the purpose of this idea?
  • Can I use this idea in other markets or industries?

Trigger Words

abuse, apply, avail yourself of, behave, benefit, bring into play, contextualize, deplete, draw on consume, employ, enjoy, exercise, exhaust, expend, exploit, get through, handle, luxuriate, make use of, manage, manipulate, mistreat, operate, reposition, source, spend, take advantage of, take pleasure in, tap, treat, use up, utilize, waste, wear out, work

EliminateEliminate (or Minify)

Think of what might happen if you eliminated or minimized parts of your idea. Simplify, reduce or eliminate components. Through repeated trimming of ideas, objects, and processes, you can gradually narrow your challenge down to that part or function that is most important.

Helper Questions

  • How can I simplify it?
  • What parts can be removed without altering its function?
  • What’s non-essential or unnecessary?
  • Can the rules be eliminated?
  • What if I made it smaller?
  • What feature can I understate or omit?
  • Should I split it into different parts?
  • Can I compact or make it smaller?

Trigger Words

abolish, control, curb, destroy, disregard, do away with, eradicate, exclude, excrete, expel, exterminate, get rid of, jettison, kill, lessen, limit, liquidate, lower, moderate, modulate, pass, play down, purge, reduce, reject, remove, restraint, restrict, shorten, simplify, temper, throw out, tone down, underemphasize, waste, wipe out

RearrangeRearrange (or Reverse)

Think of what you would do if part of your problem, product or process worked in reverse or were done in a different order.

Helper Questions

  • What other arrangement might be better?
  • Can I interchange components?
  • Are there other patterns, layouts or sequences I can use?
  • Can I transpose cause and effect?
  • Can I change pace or change the schedule of delivery?
  • Can I transpose positives and negatives?
  • Should I turn it around? Up instead of down? Down instead of up?
  • What if I consider it backwards?
  • What if I try doing the exact opposite of what I originally intended?

Trigger Words

adjourn, annul, back up, change the date, change, delay, drive backward, go backward, invalidate, invert, move backward, move, overturn, postpone, put off, quash, readjust, rearrange, relocate, render null and void, reorder, reorganize, repeal, reposition, reschedule, reshuffle, retreat, swap, switch, transpose, turn around, undo, withdraw

(icons by Everaldo Coelho)

SCAMPER Resources

1. SCAMPER Random Question Tool

SCAMPER Random Question Tool

There are many ways to use SCAMPER. For example, you can sequentially go through all the questions in the previous section as fast as you can; or you can stay on each question until you think you exhausted all possibilities.

However, when it comes to creativity, getting random — and unexpected — input can really help your mind find a solution for that ‘impossible’ problem. With that in mind, as a companion to this article, I created the SCAMPER Random Question Tool: it shows you an unexpected question drawn from all the SCAMPER questions in the previous section. Think about a problem that has been nagging you then give the tool a try to see how many options you can generate.

2. SCAMPER Reference Mind Map

SCAMPER Reference Mind Map

I’ve put together all the SCAMPER questions from the previous sections in a mind map, formatted for a single printed page. Think of it as a handy one-page reference you can use whenever you are stuck or just need a kick start to get your creative juices flowing.

3. Thinkertoys Book

Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques at

The best resource I know about SCAMPER is Michael Michalko’s wonderful book Thinkertoys: it has more than 40 pages dedicated to SCAMPER alone. Michael’s book is the most comprehensive creativity reference I have put my hands on: there are more than 40 creativity techniques that should suit every taste — from the most logic to the most intuitive types. Highly recommended!

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Put Yourself in Any Mental State With a Mental Sanctuary Tue, 25 Mar 2008 17:10:15 +0000 How about using your imagination to create a place that you can go to at any time to generate or recreate any feeling, emotion or memory you feel like?

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Mental Sanctuary

We’ve already seen how to develop perfect memory by building palaces in our minds. That’s an amazing technique, but a great memory is only a hint of how powerful mental environments can be.

How about using your imagination to create a place that you can go to at any time to generate or recreate any feeling, emotion or memory you feel like?

This place can serve as a relaxing place for meditation, a place to feel energized, to bring good memories or feelings, overcome fears, solve problems or perform any change in your mood. In fact, how about creating a place that can achieve all of this and more?

Enter the Mental Sanctuary

The Mental Sanctuary is a metaphor for a specially designed place that exists only in your imagination. Think of that place as your personal fortress — a safe haven that you can “enter” at any time to recreate any feeling or mental state.

The place you choose as your mental sanctuary may be based on a real place you know well, or on one completely made up. Anything goes, as long as you can vividly picture it in your mind.

In that regard, the Mental Sanctuary is a virtual environment that works in the exact same way as the ones in the Memory Palace technique. (If you haven’t done so, I really urge you to read the article explaining the technique, as it lays out the foundation and shows the basic principles on how to create mental places.)

Ideally, your mental sanctuary should be a place with many ‘sub-places’ or compartments — such as a house with many rooms. The Mental Sanctuary can have a vast multitude of uses; each one of these uses will be associated with one specific sub-place. For every emotion you want to recreate — for every mental state you want to put yourself in — you should have a specifically designed place in your sanctuary.

That’s why I recommend that your mental sanctuary be an actual construction — such as a palace or big house. The highly-structured way these places are built — based on rooms, doors and corridors — makes them very effective as the basis for creating our visual environments. Of course, you can design your sanctuary in any way you want — just make sure it’s a pleasant place and make it as rich as you can so you can use it in many ways and expand it in the future.

Let me show how a mental sanctuary works by sharing some ideas of what you can do with it.

Ideas for Your Sanctuary

Here are some ideas you can use for your own sanctuary, based on the most important rooms of my own (which is a medieval castle in a mountain):

1. Relaxation Room

Relaxing is perhaps the reason people most often mentally transport themselves to other places (don’t you ever daydream about your next holiday destination?). In your sanctuary, you can have a special place to relax, and set it up the way it works for you.

As for me, this is the flat rooftop of my sanctuary. From there I can enjoy a magnificent view of green mountains. I can also hear the splashing of a waterfall nearby. The room is completely empty except for a small cushion on the floor I sit on to meditate.

In my imagination, my eyes are wide open, absorbing the visual richness of that virtual world. And this is how I meditate: instead of using common meditation techniques — such as focusing on a mantra or on your own breathing — my object of focus is simply keeping the imagery vivid at all times. I found that very effective for focusing and training the mind to ignore fleeting or unrelated thoughts.

2. Energization Room

Just like there are times when you must relax, there are also times when all you need is to be filled with enthusiasm. Here, again, your mental sanctuary can help. How about having at your disposal one environment especially designed to energize you?

In that room, you can place objects or people that are sources of motivation and inspiration for you. You can, for example, have a big LCD screen on the wall highlighting goal-achieving moments that are yet to come.

In my sanctuary, right next door from the stairway to the meditation rooftop, there’s a wooden door that takes me to what I call my ‘Vision Room’: a room that has the sole purpose of getting me motivated and energized about my goals. There, I have three pictures on the wall that represent my lifelong goals. Whenever I go in that room, I choose one picture, take a careful look at it and commit to do one action — no matter how small — towards that goal as soon as I get back out of the sanctuary. Grabbing the doorknob as I leave the room is the trigger to make sure I don’t forget to set that action.

3. Gratitude Room

Having a specific place and time to be thankful for all the things that you care about is a great way to put your life in perspective. This is a place that I believe every Mental Sanctuary should have, as it’s a terrific way to make you feel good — especially when done regularly.

How you set up this room — just like all the others — is a very personal choice. You can have objects, pictures, sculptures — anything. You can even meet real people that are important to you — either alive or those who already passed away.

One thing that I recommend is making this room the entrance hall of your sanctuary, so that it is impossible to miss it both on your way in or out.

Empowering Rituals as Journeys

Just like it happens with the Memory Palace technique, you tap into the full power of the technique when you define specific walkthroughs in your sanctuary, instead of just imagining isolated scenes.

By defining and following predefined routes in your sanctuary, you can easily go through any kind of standard ritual, procedure or checklist you have. Some quick examples:

  • If you have some kind of empowering morning ritual, you can easily transform it into a walk in your sanctuary. You can, for example, pay a visit to your gratitude room, and then head to your goal room to kickstart the day.
  • Instead of having just a relaxation room, you could, for instance, have a relaxation path, where you visit multiple rooms; maybe a corridor or outside path, where you progressively relax as you walk.
  • Follow through any checklist you like, even the ones that are ‘more technical’. If you’re into
    Getting Things Done
    for example, you can make your weekly review a virtual walk. By adding this sensory dimension to it, you can make it much more enjoyable than going through a dull, linear checklist.

You’re the Architect

Remember that you are the master of your mental sanctuary and, as such, its design is only limited by your imagination.

There are an unlimited number of ideas that might work for your Mental Sanctuary. You could have, for instance, a ‘Creativity Room’. Or maybe a place to talk to your future self. If you’re afraid of talking in public, you could build an auditorium and fill it with people.

The point is: the Mental Sanctuary gives you a structured framework that accommodates any visualization technique you like, in a very personal and powerful way.

As you become more familiar with your sanctuary, you’ll start ‘paying attention’ — creating, that is — sounds, scents and smells and all sorts of tiny details, just like a vivid dream. Being able to be in such a realistic and pleasant place at will is a truly rewarding experience.

Although my own sanctuary has only a few rooms, I’m enjoying the benefits from it and am really excited about expanding it.

Do you have your own Mental Sanctuary? Would you like to share some creative design ideas for new rooms?

(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: Put Yourself in Any Mental State With a Mental Sanctuary.

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Boost Your Brainstorm Effectiveness with the Why Habit Tue, 11 Dec 2007 11:44:40 +0000 If you’re stuck trying to find ways to achieve a goal or solve a problem, there’s a quick analysis tool that can put you back in perspective and save you hours of frustrated brainstorming. It’s as effective as it’s simple: all it takes is asking ‘why’… Finding Your Motivation Behind every goal you set or […]

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Boost your Brainstorm Effectiveness with the Why Habit

If you’re stuck trying to find ways to achieve a goal or solve a problem, there’s a quick analysis tool that can put you back in perspective and save you hours of frustrated brainstorming. It’s as effective as it’s simple: all it takes is asking ‘why’…

Finding Your Motivation

Behind every goal you set or every problem you’re working on there’s a motivation. Even though the reasons we’re doing something are usually clear, next time you’re brainstorming solutions for a challenge you’re facing, take a few seconds and deliberately ask yourself:

“Why do I want this?”

Knowing your motivation is the most fundamental step before taking any action; after all, if you don’t know the reason for doing something, why do it in the first place? While this may seem blatantly obvious, the truth is that we often don’t consciously clarify the reasons for our actions beforehand.

Suppose you have the goal “Get more customers to my business”:

“Why do I want to get more customers to my business?”
—”To increase sales” you may say.

Don’t try to be particularly clever about your answer: just give the first and most evident reason. While you may regard “to increase sales” as the most obvious of the possible answers, consciously bringing it to light accomplishes a lot: it gives you a fresh new perspective about your challenge.

That simple answer gives you an entire new dimension of brainstorming possibilities: if what you really want to accomplish is increasing sales, you don’t necessarily need to get more customers — What about making bigger sales each time? What about making your customers return more often?

Focusing too narrowly on a goal or problem without understanding your underlying motivations prevents you from coming up with many creative and effective solutions.

Motivation Comes in Layers

You can extract full benefit from this technique by realizing that your motivations are layered: each motivation is a way to fulfill a higher-level one. To find out upper levels of motivation, all you need is to keep asking ‘why’. In our example, the exercise could unfold like this:

—”Why do I want to get more customers to my business?”
—”To increase sales.”

—”Why do I want to increase sales?”
—”To expand my profits.”

—”Why do I want to increase my profits?”
—”To retire earlier.”

—”Why do I want to retire earlier?”
—”To spend more time with my family.”

Working the motivation ladder in this manner is a great way to find the perspective you’re more comfortable working with. You may be paralyzed about “getting more customers”, but brainstorming ways to “spend more time with family” may be much more appealing to you.

The trick is to find the motivation layer that resonates better with you and then work from there. When you purposefully think in terms of motivations, problems become multidimensional: you can always choose more effective approaches to get unstuck immediately.

More surprisingly, each level of motivation can bring you new insights that may drastically change the direction you approach your goal. In the example above, consider the high-level motivation “to spend more time with my family”: blindly tackling your lower-level motivation of “getting more customers to my business” may force you to spend even more hours at the office — which is the exact opposite of what you really want, isn’t it?

5 Main Benefits of Asking Why

There are many more reasons why considering your motivations can make all the difference in a brainstorming session. Here are just a few:

1. Multiplying your Creative Output

If you were stuck with only one goal to go after, now you have many more to choose from: that means that if you could accomplish it in a hundred different ways, now you can do it in five hundred ways or even more.

2. Bringing a Sense of Purpose

Even if you end up choosing the original challenge you had at hand, you’ll now work on it with a clearer purpose in your mind. This may give you just that extra enthusiasm boost that you need.

3. Spotting Misalignments

Just like in the example of discovering that ‘getting more customers’ really meant ‘spending more time with family’, you may find that a lower-level goal is misaligned or conflicting with a higher-level motivation. In this case, simply drop your lower-level goal and approach your objective from a higher-level one instead.

4. Finding broader solutions

Brainstorming at higher levels of abstraction can give you solutions that encompass multiple areas of your life and address many issues in a single blow.

5. Uncovering Personal Values and Mission

If you keep climbing the ‘why ladder’ as high as you can, you’ll notice that soon enough you’ll inescapably uncover your core personal values — and ultimately your life mission. This is an extremely simple and practical “bottom-up” approach to understanding what really matters to you.

It’s a Habit

We’re so used to just spitting out solutions to problems that, more often than not, we just get into auto-pilot mode — forgetting to connect with our underlying motivations. But asking ‘why’ is nothing more than a habit. In fact, it’s so simple and effective that all you need to do is to just get started.

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Tackle Any Issue With a List of 100 Tue, 06 Nov 2007 11:04:38 +0000 The List of 100 is a powerful technique you can use to generate ideas, clarify your thoughts, uncover hidden problems or get solutions to any specific questions you’re interested in. The technique is very simple in principle: state your issue or question in the top of a blank sheet of paper and come up with […]

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Lists of 100

The List of 100 is a powerful technique you can use to generate ideas, clarify your thoughts, uncover hidden problems or get solutions to any specific questions you’re interested in.

The technique is very simple in principle: state your issue or question in the top of a blank sheet of paper and come up with a list of one hundred answers or solutions about it. “100 Ways to Generate Income”, “100 Ways to be More Creative” or “100 Ways to Improve my Relationships” are some examples.

One hundred entries? Isn’t that way too many?”

Bear with me: it’s exactly this exaggeration that makes the technique powerful.

When starting your list you may believe that there’s no way to get it done. But then, at some point during the exercise, you will naturally have your subconscious mind naturally engaged in the process. That’s when you will uncover many new and surprising answers, and ideas will start flowing again. Making a List of 100 is a beautifully articulated cooperation between the conscious and subconscious minds tackling one single problem.

Unlike the related Idea Quota tool — whose primary goal is to acquire the habit of coming up with ideas — the goal of a List of 100 is to take your mind by surprise. While both techniques are based on the concept of getting good ideas from lots of ideas, the ideas generated by each method are usually different in kind. With the Idea Quota you tend to have more elaborate ideas, because you have time to incubate them throughout the day (often without being aware of it). With a List of 100 you tend to get more unexpected ideas, because you catch your subconscious off guard, not giving it any time for its behind-the-scenes editing.

Ground Rules

There are only two simple principles to keep in mind when making Lists of 100:

1. Do it at one sitting

This is the one crucial element for the technique to work. If you end up doing your hundred entries, though over many sessions, you’ll defeat the point of the technique. Before starting your list, make yourself comfortable and try to block all potential interruptions.

2. Eliminate distractions

Just like most brainstorming techniques, you should strive to eliminate all activities unrelated to idea generation during the brainstorming session. Just focus on getting the ideas out of your head as quickly as possible following these rules:

  • Don’t judge or evaluate ideas; you’ll review them later.
  • Don’t write complete words or sentences if that slows you down.
  • Don’t stop to wonder how far in the list you are; number the lines from 1 to 100 in advance or use numbered lists if you’re using a word processor.
  • Don’t worry too much about repeating entries; duplicates can shed light on your patterns of thought.

The Dynamics of Making Lists of 100

To understand why creating a List of 100 works, consider what happens during the process of making one. There are three distinct phases you will usually go through when making your list:

1. First 30 entries or so: where you escape circular thinking

The first items are the easiest to come up with. In this first phase, your conscious mind is still in charge and you’ll most probably just dump ideas you’re already familiar with.

2. Next 40 entries: where patterns emerge

In this phase you’ll start noticing recurring themes and patterns of thought. Phase two is usually the hardest one, as you may find it difficult to let go of the ideas you had in the first phase in order to come up with new, distinct ones.

Bear in mind that it’s exactly this struggle that enables you to get to the third and most fruitful phase, hence the importance of not giving up at this point.

3. Last 30 entries: where the gems are

At this point you will already have exhausted most “logical” answers, allowing your subconscious mind to express itself more freely. Don’t be surprised if you get at least one or two really nonsensical or seemingly illogical entries. You may feel tempted to not write them down (“How on earth did I think that?”). Write them down anyway: these wacky entries may sound far from profound, but it’s exactly those items you’re after.

Also, after coming up with so many entries, it’s not rare to experience a shift in perspective: items that you first felt as being awkward will seem to better fit now than when you started the list. Moreover, your whole attitude towards the problem can change as you develop your entries: you may even come to the conclusion that you should be dealing with a different list topic altogether.

Applications of Lists of 100

Although I have known a variation of the List of 100 technique for several years (thanks to Michael Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci), it was only recently that I realized the technique’s full potential by reading Kathleen Adams’s Journal to the Self: 22 Paths to Personal Growth. This is an excellent book that has many great journaling techniques — and the List of 100 has its own chapter.

Journal to the Self: 22 Paths to Personal Growth

The List of 100 technique can be used for a lot more than solving specific problems; it is a general-purpose personal development tool that can help increase your self-knowledge, motivate yourself, and much more. To illustrate its myriad of uses, find below a List of 100 Lists of 100. The list was mostly taken from Journal to the Self, and slightly adapted with some of my own ideas.

100 Things to Write a List of 100 About

  1. 100 Things I’m Grateful For
  2. 100 Ways I Could Nurture Myself
  3. 100 Ways I Sabotage Myself
  4. 100 Things I’m Good At
  5. 100 Things I Like About Myself
  6. 100 Questions I Want Answers
  7. 100 Ways To Improve My Life
  8. 100 Things I’ve Accomplished In My Life
  9. 100 Things I’m Feeling Stressed About
  10. 100 Things I’d Do If I Had Time
  11. 100 Things I Need Or Want To Do
  12. 100 Things I Want To Accomplish In The Next X Months
  13. 100 Things To Do Before I Die
  14. 100 Things That Are Going Right
  15. 100 Things That Are Going Wrong
  16. 100 Reasons I Want To Stay Married/Committed
  17. 100 Reasons I Don’t Want To Stay Married/Committed
  18. 100 Things I Want In A Partner/Relationship
  19. 100 Things I Have To Offer To A Partner/Relationship
  20. 100 Fears I Am Having Right Now
  21. 100 Things That Once Scared Me But Don’t Anymore
  22. 100 Reasons To Save Money
  23. 100 Things I Miss
  24. 100 Sacrifices I Have Made
  25. 100 Marketing Ideas For My Business
  26. 100 Ways I Can Make Money
  27. 100 Ways To Make A Difference
  28. 100 Jobs/Careers I’d Like To Have
  29. 100 Fears About Being A Multimillionaire
  30. 100 Things I Believe In
  31. 100 Achievements (Qualities) I Am Proud Of
  32. 100 Things I Value In Life
  33. 100 Ways I Help Others
  34. 100 Things That Turn Me On
  35. 100 Things That Turn Me Off
  36. 100 Judgments I Make
  37. 100 Things I Find Hard To Share
  38. 100 Things I’m Disappointed About
  39. 100 Things I’m Angry About
  40. 100 Things I’m Sad About
  41. 100 Things [Peoples, Places] I Love
  42. 100 Things To Do When I’m Depressed
  43. 100 Things To Do When I’m Alone
  44. 100 Rules I Have Broken
  45. 100 Skills I Have
  46. 100 Feelings I Am Having Right Now
  47. 100 Childhood Memories
  48. 100 Things My Parents Used To Say To Me
  49. 100 Ways In Which I’m Generous
  50. 100 Ways To Be More Productive
  51. 100 Things I Hate
  52. 100 Things I Want
  53. 100 Places I’d Like To Visit
  54. 100 Things I’d Like Someone To Tell Me
  55. 100 Things I’d Like To Hear
  56. 100 Things I’d Like To Tell My Child
  57. 100 Things I Want My Child To Know About Me
  58. 100 Reasons To Have A Baby
  59. 100 Reasons Not To Have A Baby
  60. 100 Adjectives Describing Myself
  61. 100 Decisions Other Have Made For Me
  62. 100 Decisions I Made That Turned Out Well
  63. 100 Things I’d Do If I Had Six Months To Live
  64. 100 Expectations Other Have Of Me
  65. 100 Expectations I Have Of Myself
  66. 100 Judgments I Haven’t Released
  67. 100 Ways To Be More Creative
  68. 100 Things I Could Carry In My Pocket
  69. 100 Things I’d Save If My House Were On Fire
  70. 100 Things I Want To Tell My Mother [Father]
  71. 100 Things I’d Never Tell My Mother [Father]
  72. 100 Financial Fears
  73. 100 Excuses I Make For Myself
  74. 100 Things I Need/Want To Control
  75. 100 Fears I Have About Giving Up Control
  76. 100 Answered Prayers
  77. 100 People I’d Like To Meet
  78. 100 Reasons Why I Get Jealous
  79. 100 People I Admire
  80. 100 Tasks I’ve Been Procrastinating
  81. 100 Memories From My Past
  82. 100 Things That Nourish Me
  83. 100 Things I Haven’t Finished
  84. 100 Things I’m Glad I’ve Done
  85. 100 Things I’ll Never Do Again
  86. 100 Ways To Generate Income
  87. 100 Principles To Live By
  88. 100 People I Want To Forgive
  89. 100 People I Want To Forgive Me
  90. 100 Things To Forgive Myself For
  91. 100 Mistakes I Have Made
  92. 100 Lessons I Have Learned
  93. 100 Ways To Be Healthier
  94. 100 Things That Make Me Cry
  95. 100 Things That Make Me Laugh
  96. 100 Things I’d Delegate
  97. 100 Thing I Want For My Birthday
  98. 100 Possessions I’m Tired Of Owning
  99. 100 Responsibilities That I’d Like To Avoid
  100. 100 Things To Write A List Of 100 About

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Solve Your Problems Simply by Saying Them Out Loud Tue, 30 Oct 2007 10:14:37 +0000 The very act of explaining a problem out loud can, by itself, be enough to solve it. How can this deceptively simple strategy work so well? How can we leverage it, transforming it in a problem-solving technique we can use at anytime?

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Rubber Ducking

How many times have you gone through explaining a problem to a friend, and before he could say a word about it you had already figured out the solution by yourself? The very act of explaining a problem out loud can, by itself, be enough to solve it.

How can this deceptively simple strategy work so well? How can we leverage it, transforming it in a problem-solving technique we can use at anytime?

The Magic Behind Explaining Problems Out Loud

Communicating your problems out loud has several advantages over silently thinking about them:

1. Clarifying Your Thoughts

In order to put your problem in a communicable form you must clarify it, stating it in objective terms. To articulate your message, you are forced to mentally organize all information you have about the problem. Moreover, by making your problem explicit, you free it from useless psychological noise, such as your anxiety or frustration for not being able to solve it.

Putting your problem in words will tremendously help you grasp it: language is not only a tool of communication as many believe, but also a tool of thought (for more on that, check ‘Top 3 Reasons to Improve Your Vocabulary‘).

2. Uncovering Hidden Assumptions

Explaining your problem to someone else is particularly effective when you assume no knowledge on the other person’s part. A good rule of thumb that works especially well for technical problems is pretending you’re explaining them to your grandma.

By assuming the other person’s total lack of knowledge on the subject, you focus on explaining what you know, instead of focusing on figuring out solutions. By making your knowledge and assumptions explicit, you often access different or overlooked data, and thus access entirely new avenues of thought.

3. Engaging Different Parts of the Brain

Saying the problem out loud engages many more areas of the brain than merely thinking about it. That’s why pretending that you’re explaining the problem to someone — but doing so only in thinking — is of little use. According to cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett:

“[…] consciousness developed as a way to internalize talking to oneself. Speaking words triggers parts of the brain involved in moving the diaphragm, tongue, lips, vocal chords, etc. Hearing words triggers parts of the brain connected to the ears. Speaking aloud can be a bad survival strategy, especially when you’re thinking about the chief’s wife, so we developed consciousness as an internal monologue. It works, but it doesn’t exercise as many areas of the brain as speaking and hearing your own words. […]” (source: WikiWikiWeb).

Rubber Ducking

If explaining a problem is usually enough to solve it by itself, why would you need someone listening to you?

You don’t. Next time you’re stuck with a problem, why don’t you try explaining your problem to an inanimate object, such as, say, a rubber duck?

I know, your parents have warned you about people who talk to objects — but the fact is that it works. Telling your problem to a rubber duck is as effective as telling your problem to a human (if not more). Flesh, feather or plastic, it doesn’t matter of what material your listener is made of: the principles that make this technique effective always work.

If it serves to reduce your resistance and feeling of weirdness towards the idea of explaining problems to objects, be aware that the concept is rather popular in the software development industry. There’s even a term coined for it: ‘rubber ducking’ (popularized by the book The Pragmatic Programmer, a must-read for software developers).

“Are you saying I should replace real people and start talking to rubber ducks?”

Well, not replacing — but what about developing the habit of always consulting your rubber duck first? I don’t mean to slight us humans, but rubber ducks do in fact have some advantages:

  • Rubber ducks never interrupt your flow of thinking.
  • You don’t need to be worried if you are bothering the rubber duck with your problems.
  • Rubber ducks don’t gossip about your private problems with other rubber ducks.
  • Your trusted rubber duck is never busy and is always waiting for your inquiries.

Give rubber ducking a try. Once you get past the initial odd sensation of talking to a thing, you’ll certainly enjoy the feeling of convenience and independence it brings; not to mention you’ll also save a lot of your time as well as other people’s.

And, in case the rubber duck doesn’t solve your problem, just go ahead and explain it again to a friend. By then, you’ll have the problem much more well-defined and articulated, dramatically increasing the chances that that friend will be able to help you.

Silent Rubber Ducking

You should always practice rubber ducking out loud — but there are situations when you can’t make noises or simply can’t afford the social awkwardness of it (“excuse me while I talk to my duck…”). Fear not: do your rubber ducking in writing instead — sure, you won’t have the benefits of verbalization, but the technique still works fine.

One way to do it that works particularly well is to write an e-mail message explaining your problem. Pretend you’re going to send it to the smartest (and busiest) person in the world. Describe the problem in detail, the solutions you tried so far and why they didn’t work. List your assumptions and make sure you include all relevant information. Be both thorough and objective.

When you are done writing the message, you’ll probably have had many ideas to try out. If not, find a specialized forum and just send it as it is: with your perfectly-crafted message, I’m sure the Internet gods will help you.

Get Your Own Rubber Duck

Ready to start rubber ducking? As you imagined, there’s not much to it, except getting yourself a rubber duck. Well, it doesn’t need to be an actual rubber duck – any inanimate object will do. But it pays off choosing one that you really like: this will be a long-term relationship, after all. 🙂

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Real rubber ducks: the technique is called ‘rubber ducking’ for a reason. And besides, it’s hard to beat that classic yellow look.
  2. The 6 Dilbert characters: pick your favorite or use all of them together (this works particularly well combined with Edward de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats technique – more about that in a future post).
  3. Full-blown cardboard stand-ups: I’ve seen these used by at least one software developer. I don’t think it gets more hardcore than that — unless you prefer an inflatable coworker, but I wouldn’t recommend that. 😉

As for me, my dedicated problem-solver, sitting next to my monitor and dutifully serving me, is my dragon Bob. He has the entertaining quirk of turning his head to always look straight in my eyes — undoubtedly an appealing effect, especially for optical illusion enthusiasts like myself.

(Embedded video – If you can’t see it, check it out here.)

If you’re interested, you can build your own ‘Bob’ using a paper model [pdf, 244 KB] (both video and paper model are courtesy of Grand Illusions).

Happy rubber ducking!

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