Has this ever happened to you? You’re trying to brainstorm some ideas to help your business. You want to get more clients, or you want to repurpose an article you’ve written so that it’s valuable to a different market, or maybe doing your cash flow document every week is tedious.

So you’re sitting there, or you’re pacing, or whatever, and your mind has gone blank. You feel like the ideas you came up with won’t get you the results you need, but you can’t think of anything more.

This is a common problem when brainstorming alone. The thing is, brainstorming is a great tool. We use brainstorming to help us be creative in many different situations. We brainstorm to come up with new ways to get clients, to think of different strategies for marketing ourselves and our business, to dream up new products and services we can offer, to get ideas of new markets for the products and services we already offer, to generate better business processes for ourselves.

Brainstorming alone…

If you work for yourself, you may find yourself brainstorming alone, like in the situation I talked about above. (Of course, even if you work with others, you still might be brainstorming alone.) That has its drawbacks, but before we talk about those, let’s talk about some of the positives. Brainstorming alone…

… has its advantages

A big advantage of brainstorming alone is that you’ll automatically be avoiding some of the problems of group brainstorming. For one, you don’t have to worry about forgetting that brilliant idea because you’re listening to someone else talk about their brilliant idea. And for another, you don’t have to worry about someone being dismissive or scornful of your ideas. So brainstorming alone has its advantages…

… and its drawbacks

A drawback of brainstorming alone is that you don’t get the benefit of someone else’s perspective on the problem you’re trying to solve. You may miss having the creative inspiration of someone else to brainstorm with. If you’ve brainstormed in groups – and most of us have – you know how someone else’s perspective and inspiration can get your brainstorming going again.

If you’re brainstorming alone, you may run into what cognitive psychologists, and others who study the human mind, call cognitive inertia.

A drawback of brainstorming alone: cognitive inertia

So what is cognitive inertia? No, it isn’t how you feel before you’ve had your morning coffee, or when you have a cold and your skull feels like it’s stuffed with cotton balls. Cognitive inertia is when you feel like you’re just ‚Äúthinking inside the box,” when you’re coming up with the same idea over and over again, when you can’t think of anything new, when you feel… well, inert.

Understanding cognitive inertia

In order to understand how to work beyond cognitive inertia, it helps to understand what causes it. Cognitive inertia is caused by the limitations of two key phenomena of human memory: spreading activation and working memory.

Factor 1: spreading activation

Spreading activation refers to the phenomenon of how thinking about one thing will remind you of something else, and that thing of yet another something else, and so forth. When one concept in your memory is active, your mind tends to activate other, related concepts.

Factor 2: working memory

Working memory is that set of concepts that your mind can easily access at any given time. Your mind is huge, with so much in it, that it’s impossible to think about everything at once. The things you are thinking about, those are in working memory.

How cognitive inertia causes problems

Since spreading activation makes you think of related concepts, you may have trouble thinking outside the box because you’re not thinking of unrelated concepts that might help you come up with different ideas. And since working memory can only hold so many concepts at once, it may run out of space. In order to add a new concept, it has to get rid of a concept it’s already storing. Or else it just won’t add anything new.

Cognitive inertia isn’t so much of a problem when you’re brainstorming with other people. Studies show that brainstorming groups come up with better ideas when people in the group have different areas of expertise, and different perspectives on the problem. With other people, you get the benefit of the way spreading activation moves through their mind, of the concepts they think of. You also get the benefit of someone else’s working memory.

A solution: mentally creating other people to brainstorm with

So, how can you get the benefit of someone else’s expertise if you’re brainstorming alone? How can you get the benefit of working with someone you don’t usually work with?

You can “create” these people for yourself. Here are some ideas on how to do this.

1. Use characters from the movies (yes, really)

Think of one of your favorite movies, or a movie you’ve watched recently. Imagine how the main character in that movie would help you brainstorm.

2. Use people interested in some random subject

The next time you’re googling something, click the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. Investigate whatever page or site you’re sent to, and the kind of people who might be interested in it. (Alternatively, next time you’re at the library, a newsstand, or a bookstore, find a book or magazine about a subject you’re usually not interested in.)

3. Use people interested in some random hobby

Think of a hobby that one of your friends has. Imagine how someone who’s interested in that subject would help you.

Use these “other people” to overcome cognitive inertia

Imagine these “other people” as vividly as you can. Imagine that they’re right in the room with you. Use their ideas to help you brainstorm.

What brilliant ideas would these people have on – for example – getting new clients, or creating different strategies to market your business?

What fantastic new products or services would they suggest you offer? What ideas would they have on new markets for products or services you already offer?

What wonderful ideas would they have about how you could improve your business processes?

Next time, some examples

In my next article, I’ll discuss some examples of how you can overcome the cognitive inertia of brainstorming alone, to help you be creative for your business.

Questions?

Do you have questions about this? Put them in a comment, and I’ll answer them.

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