Ness Labs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff

Ness Labs: The Science of Brainstorming 🧠

Published 4 months ago • 8 min read

Edition #204 – October 26th, 2023
The mindful productivity newsletter by Anne-Laure Le Cunff

Hello friends!
Thank you so much for all the kind words – the talk I gave went great, even though I immediately proceeded to get quite sick with the flu and I'm only now slowly recovering one week after. I always try to take such forced moments of rest as an opportunity to slow down, which often brings me back to thinking about some of my favorite topics. One of those is creativity. This week, you'll learn all about how you can stay in creative shape through intentional brainstorming. I also published a deep dive video into the multifaceted nature of stress and how you can leverage it to your advantage. I hope you find it helpful.
Hugs (from a safe distance),

The Science of Brainstorming

Many people believe that creativity is a natural gift that only a select few are born with and that it cannot be taught or learnt. This could not be further from the truth.

Yes, creativity is innate in the sense that we are all born with it. But, as we grow up, most of us slowly unlearn it. The good news is that what is unlearned can be learned again. It’s just a matter of figuring out how.

There is a lot of content out there with various tips and tricks that may or may not work. What does the science say? How can we be more creative and effectively brainstorm new ideas?

Quantity yields quality

We have an implicit conception that good work takes time. This is why prolific authors are often judged as bad; and their work, inconsequential. In an amazing essay for the New York Times titled “Can a novelist be too productive?”, Stephen King — who has published more than 55 novels — argues that while quantity is never a guarantee of quality, being prolific can definitely result in quality work.

Agatha Christie wrote 91 books and gave us Hercule Poirot. Picasso painted over 20,000 artworks. James Dyson developed 5,127 prototypes when trying to design a better vacuum cleaner. Thomas Edison still holds the record for the most patents with over a thousand in his name. Were all of these groundbreaking? Probably not, but that’s exactly the point.

It may sound counterintuitive, but research suggests that quantity yields quality when it comes to creativity. In the book Art & Fear, David Bayles shares the anecdote of a ceramics teacher who conducted an experiment with his students. He divided the class into two groups.

Group A was to be graded based on the quality of the work they produced, whereas group B would be graded on quantity. To get a perfect grade, group A had to produce only one pot — the most perfect ceramic pot possible — while group B would have to create as many as possible.

The results are fascinating: when it was time for grading, the best work came out of group B, the “quantity” group. While group A was busy debating and theorizing, group B was dutifully creating pots after pots, and learning from their mistakes in the process.

Think you’re out of ideas? According to research, we tend to grossly underestimate how many ideas we can generate. Even more interesting, according to the same research, the more ideas we keep on generating, the more creative they become.

Design your creative routine

Of course it’s tempting to spend a lot of time reading and researching your area of interest — and such research also has its place! — but you will not improve your creative thinking without consistent output.

Creativity is like a muscle. You need to use it to stay in “creative shape”. This means — however uncomfortable that may sometimes be — forcing yourself to create on a schedule.

Whether your goal is to write a book, become a better illustrator, or build an app, don’t leave creativity to random bursts of inspiration. Block some time every day or every week to generate new ideas and new work. I personally use the PARI framework to ensure my daily creative output aligns with my long-term ambitions, but as long as you flex your creative muscle consistently, you will be on your way to do your best creative work.

As poet W.H. Auden so beautiful put it: “Decide what you want or ought to do with the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”

Having a creative routine allows you to keep your cognitive bandwidth for creative thinking. According to William James, considered by many as the father of modern psychology, such routine allows us to “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.” Basically, the resources you don’t waste trying to decide when or where to do creative work can be used to, you know, to actually do the work.

So, how can you go about creating on a schedule?

  • Get up early or stay up late. There is no right or wrong way to go about your routine. Some creative people are early risers, others are night owls. In her diary, Anaïs Nin wrote: “I do my best work in the morning.” In contrast, Jack Kerouac said: “I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night.” Pick whichever works for you.
  • Choose your creative space with intention. If you can, find a secluded spot that is solely dedicated to creating. Especially when working remotely, we tend to just sit wherever, for example at the kitchen table. Pick a spot and make it your creative space. Make it comfortable, and make sure to have all the creative tools you need.
  • Warm up for creative work. Take some time to loosen up and get your creative juices flowing. Write a few sentences without thinking too much, play with your design software for a bit without trying to create something concrete. This process will give your mind time to shift into a more creative state.

If you want to read more about the creative routines of famous artists and inventors, I recommend reading Daily Rituals by Mason Currey — full of fascinating stories. Disclaimer: some routines include taking mind-altering substances and other more original approaches — which can have their place in the creative process, but as usual don’t just blindly apply what you read.

Pick your creative mode

According to psychology research, there are several types of creativity you can leverage to brainstorm ideas more effectively.

  1. Combinational creativity. We are often seeking original ideas, when in reality most creative concepts are a combination of old ideas. First, collect as many old ideas as possible. This can be done by reading science fiction or just taking notes every time you hear a commonplace idea in a conversation. Then, let these old ideas incubate for a while. Yes, there’s no second step. Let your brain do the work. “Drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theatre or movies, read poetry or a detective story,” recommends James Webb Young. The combined idea will most probably come to you when your brain is relaxed, such as in the shower.
  2. Exploratory creativity. In academia, exploratory creativity is defined as “the process of searching an area of conceptual space governed by certain rules.” This means that you try to generate new ideas within a given space, taking into account its specific rules. For example, let’s take transportation. Why is it expensive to fly? Why is it so hard to find a taxi? Exploratory creativity is all about exploring existing concepts and ideas you may already have and questioning their validity to come up with new solutions.
  3. Transformational creativity. This method takes things even further. Instead of exploring a space and questioning its rules, transformational creativity is about ignoring fundamental rules to come up with potentially impossible but highly creative ideas. Let’s keep on using transportation as an example. Instead of questioning the cost of air transportation, you may ask yourself: Why do cars have to park? Why do we need to travel at all? Transformational creativity has the potential to generate the most radical ideas.

In reality, we may very often be using a combination of these three types of creativity when brainstorming, and this is a good thing. By starting with transformational creativity, then moving onto exploratory and combinational creativity, you are not leaving any potential idea of the table, and can go from crazy to actionable creative ideas.

Whatever you do, keep sharing your ideas with the world. Don’t fear that people will steal them. Since most ideas are combinational, chances are yours are not new, and only execution will matter. If you do come up with a truly transformational idea, it’s very unlikely that someone will be able to pick it up and just run with it. So go forth and multiply your ideas!

🎬 Video of the Week

The Surprising Benefits of Stress

Did you know that stress can actually be good for you? To see how it works, you need to understand the difference between distress and eustress.

video preview

🛠️ Tool of the Week

xTiles is an all-in-one workspace for notes, tasks and projects which allows you to organize and manage your knowledge as you see fit. In this interview with its co-founder Maks Kuchur, we talked about the paradox of spending excessive time designing a productive workspace, how to get back in control of your productivity, why tasks should not be an isolated part of your workflow, the relationship between productivity and creativity, the power of using templates, and much more. Enjoy the read!

👀 Brain Picks

Llama Life is the world’s funnest task list, ever. Designed to help you work through your list, not just create it. We'll break down your tasks, help you to get started, and sprinkle in timers, confetti and emojis! Start your free 7 day trial today.
Ultraspeaking is the best training to learn to speak effortlessly in any situation. I joined myself and it’s cured me of my public speaking anxiety. Enrollment opens for their 30-day cohort, called Fundamentals, is open until tomorrow Friday October 27th. I highly recommend it.
Napkin for iOS is coming finally. It is the first app for intentional collection and mindful reflection on ideas. Napkin magically connects them by topic, and curates flows of your ideas and insights, ensuring they remain fresh and continue to inspire you daily.

Thanks to our partners for supporting the newsletter! If your product is designed to help people work smarter, please email to share it with more than 85K smart folks.

🤝 Brain Trust

If you enjoy the newsletter, you'll love our community of curious minds who grow together through interactive workshops and safe discussion spaces. Here is what we have planned in the next few weeks:

Workshop: A Skill-Based Approach to Meditation – Join Ants Cabraal and Kyan Tan on October 30th (10am SF / 1pm NYC / 6pm London) to delve into all things related to meditation, including how to train your mind to be more focused and how to build a consistent meditation routine.
Creative Hour: Emotional and Relational Intelligence – In this interactive session also on October 30th (9am Rio / 12pm London / 7pm Singapore), Gosia Fricze will help you explore how to handle interpersonal relationships with others and foster deeper, more authentic connections in your personal and professional life.
Quiet Writing Workshop – Two hours of focused writing with Faye Nero on November 1st (10am London / 5pm Singapore / 9pm Sydney) where you can make progress on any writing you like, whether it's drafting your social media posts or creating content for your blog.
Co-working Session – Join Javier Luis Gomez for our weekly co-working on November 2nd and 9th so you can progress on your projects while connecting with fellow community members.

All of these and future events are included in the price of the annual membership ($49), as well as access to the recordings of all our previous sessions and past cohort-based courses.

🌊 Brain Waves

If you enjoyed this edition, please share the love with fellow curious minds on Threads, Twitter, Instagram, or Whatsapp, or simply forward them this email.

Thank you for reading, and take care!

P.S. Have you ever experienced purpose anxiety?

Ness Labs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff

A weekly newsletter with science-based insights on creativity, mindful productivity, better thinking and lifelong learning.

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