The secret to becoming an idea machine

New places, new ideas
Photo courtesy of Flickr user April L. Sanders

Confession time: I often come up with ideas in church. No, I don't go to worship services looking to brainstorm anything. Far from it. But the conditions are so inadvertently perfect that ideas pop into my head unasked. Think about it. I'm sitting still without the distractions of the Internet or my home (where any energetic impulse tends to manifest itself in emptying the dishwasher). I'm listening to beautiful music with challenging lyrics. I'm reading passages of literature that are very different from what's in The Wall Street Journal. The preacher is asking hard questions and presenting issues in ways I haven't thought about before.

So I wind up writing a lot of one word notes to myself to translate later.

You may have experienced this yourself. If not during religious services, perhaps while listening to a symphony or staring out the window during air travel take-off (when the in-flight entertainment hasn't started yet). Listening to a lecture in an art museum, you find the ideas coming so fast you keep sneaking out your iPhone. Not to check email. To write emails to yourself. Answers that eluded you before suddenly seem obvious.

So how do you become an idea machine?

The key is to put yourself in these situations more often. Stillness is a beautiful thing. I know it's hard to find it -- with three kids aged four and under it's a rare thing in my days -- but it's worth pursuing at least a few times per week. A run outside first thing in the morning can work. Sneak out of the office for a lunchtime concert on summer days. Forcing yourself to sit on a park bench for 30 minutes listening to some guy play the saxophone can have your brain sorting out all sorts of things. Seek out the unfamiliar. The beautiful. Then, relax -- and make sure you have something to write with.

When do you get your best ideas?