What to Do When Your Idea Well Runs Dry

Last Updated Apr 3, 2009 2:24 PM EDT

If you're short on brilliant ideas right now, join the club. The stress surrounding American workers right now is intense, and everyone knows it's hard to come up with greatness when you're worrying about job security, your mortgage, or myriad other concerns.

But the boss won't stop asking you for insights just because you're overwhelmed. What to do when your idea well runs dry?

There's a way to get out of your mental rut and start thinking more creatively, says Katie Konrath, who writes about "ideas so fresh... they should be slapped" at getFreshMinds. She presents an oil-drilling analogy to help you change your mindset:

"You see, companies used to drill for oil by going straight down...(but) the well would eventually bottom out and the oil would dry up. Then, companies turned to rotary drilling (to) get further down and reach more oil. (But) eventually the well would go below the oil and hit rock bottom.
The real breakthrough came, however, when drilling companies realized how much they were missing.You see, oil deposits can stretch for miles - but when a drill went straight down, the well was only tapping oil from the immediate vicinity.
So, the oil companies changed their tactics. Instead of drilling down for oil, they started drilling diagonally and even horizontally."
Directional drilling worked for oil, and it can work to mine ideas, too. Says Konrath, "When your well goes dry, it's likely because you've been heading relentlessly in the same direction and drawing ruthlessly on your resources."

Instead, use Konrath's three tips to start "drilling" in a different direction.

  1. Take a break and do something else for a while. You'll find you come up with some great ideas while you're reading, showering, taking a walk, playing with your kids, or doing something else completely unrelated to the challenge at hand.
  2. Use a creativity technique that can jolt you out of your normal thinking pattern. Konrath recommends the Random Word technique, Lateral Thinking, or a good Whack on the Side of the Head.
  3. Make your challenge generic and riff off other ideas. For example, Velcro was inspired by burrs stuck to a dog's fur, and roll-on deodorant uses the same technology as a ball-point pen. Figure out what you need to accomplish, says Konrath, and look for others who are doing the same thing.
So if your idea well has been tapped out, stop hammering away in the same direction and make a left turn.
  • CC Holland

    CC Holland is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a number of national magazines. Online, she was a columnist for AnchorDesk.com and writes regularly for Law.com and BNET. On the other side of the journalism desk, she's been a managing editor for ZDNet, CNet, and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where she earned an APTRA Best News Web Site award.