I have been thinking a lot today about where great ideas come from.

More specifically I’ve been pondering where my ‘best’ ideas in business have come from (I’m not sure any are truly ‘great’ but they’ve served me well).

The beginning of this thought process when someone asked me in an interview recently to describe a ‘light-bulb moment’.

Light-bulb moment: a moment of sudden realisation, enlightenment, or inspiration.

I love those moments. They come out of the blue — almost as though someone had flicked a switch — bringing with them a dazzling burst of unexpected clarity were only a split second before there was fuzziness.

However, as I thought about it today I realised that while the light-bulb moments felt very out of the blue, they almost always were part of a longer process of generating the idea.

Also — the process was remarkably similar in numerous of the instances that came to mind.

If you like my ‘light-bulb moment’ was more the end result of a ‘light-bulb process’.

I’m not sure any of this is rocket science but here are some thoughts on how the light-bulb process usually happens for me.

I’d love to hear whether this resonates (I suspect we’re all different):

1. The Light-Bulb Process Usually Start with Observing a Problem

It strikes me that in most cases the process starts with me become aware of a problem that I — or others — have.

This awareness of a problem is usually the starting point for a ‘solution’.

I told you this isn’t rocket science.

2. Information Gathering — Thinking About the Problem

I rarely get a light-bulb moment immediately after becoming aware of a problem.

What comes after the problem is a period of wrestling with it.

During this phase I read about the problem, talk about the problem and watch and listen to what others are saying about the problem.

Some might call this phase ‘research’ but for me, it is really just immersing myself with the problem.

I take copious amounts of notes in notebooks at this time. I make lots of lists, draw diagrams and jot down many half-finished thoughts.

I also am pretty prolific at asking questions at this point.

This is why a lot of my tweets or updates on social media are questions.

Doing this helps me understand the problem better and gather ideas on how others tackle it.

I’ve come to realise that what’s happening in this phase is the groundwork for the light-bulb moment. In fact often after the light-bulb moment happens I can usually see the seeds for the end solution in these notes.

This information gathering and wrestling with the problem is accompanied by a mix of feelings. I experience euphoria and inspiration but also plenty of frustration and disillusionment.

This phase can sometimes last a morning… but more often will go on for months as I keep coming back to the problem in a conscious way many times.

3. Letting the Sub-Conscious Kick In

At this point, I usually feel quite exhausted by the investigation research and thinking.

I’ve engaged my brain in a fairly conscious way of thinking through the problem.

I’m frustrated and intuitively realise I need to take a break from ‘thinking’.

This can look different depending on the situation.

If I’ve been wrestling with the problem all morning I might take a walk or a shower, go and do some weeding in the garden or go play with my kids.

I usually find myself DOING something… but something that doesn’t take much thinking.

Perhaps the best example of this was a period of time 11 years ago when I worked a part-time job in a factory on a conveyor belt.

While the work was repetitive and mind-numbing I often found that it was during this work (or often just after it) that I would get my light-bulb moments.

The other type of experience that can help is when I do something out of my normal routine.

The light-bulb moment might come after I’ve met a new person, been to a movie, been on a trip to a new place or done something that takes me out of my comfort zone.

For example, I often have light-bulb moments on planes on the way home from a conference where I’ve spoken, met a lot of new people and heard other people present.

I may not have consciously thought about the ‘problem’ I’m wrestling with but something about those ‘new’ experiences seems to release my mind.

I like to think of this phase as a period of ‘marination’ — where those parts of my brain that I don’t directly have a conscious handle to do their thing and kick in.

This phase is all very mysterious to me really except to say that sometimes taking a break from wrestling with the problem can be a good thing and that doing new things can also be a factor.

As an aside I wonder how many people don’t have great ideas because they don’t have space in their lives for this part of the process to happen. Fill every moment of every day with activity that requires deep thinking and there may be no time left for your mind to play, dream or find the solutions to the problems you’re trying so hard to solve. It is through this realisation that this year I’ve redesigned my weekly schedule to intentionally have time for activities like walking, listening to new voices (through podcasts largely), meeting with friends and other activities like gardening. Here’s how my weekly template schedule looks. I talk more about how I came to it in this recent podcast on how to be lucky (which I think has some overlap with this topic).


4. The Light-Bulb Moment

Often while doing one of these non-related activities the light-bulb moment happens.

These moments often come with a burst of energy and euphoria.

The key for me at these points is to capture the idea/insight because if I don’t they can be gone again pretty quickly.

At this point, I’ll need to sit at my computer, whiteboard or notebook and just vomit my thoughts into a document.

I rarely share the idea with anyone during this capturing stage. The idea is still shaping in my mind and is too delicate.

I find if I try to speak it at this point that it can become muddled as I second guess what the other person is thinking or it can get crushed if the other person is even mildly critical or doesn’t get what I’m thinking.

The key is to capture it — not test or refine it… yet.

This stage is usually reasonably quick — or at least it feels that way. Time almost stands still as I get the idea out.

What I’m left with is usually a bit messy but the central breakthrough idea is there and I like to sit with it for at least 24 hours before doing much more.

5. Testing

Once I’ve captured the idea and I’m satisfied with how it is shaping up — I find if I don’t actually do something within 24 hours that I lose momentum and the idea doesn’t fly.

So at this point, I DO something to begin to test the idea.

This is where I might write a blog post or sit down with a trusted friend to share what I’ve come up with.

As an aside I think it’s worth mentioning that some people are better than others to share your ideas with in this early phase. Some people are naturally more critical and will want to immediately start analysing, evaluating and judging the idea. While their input can be extremely useful I generally would take my idea to them later in the process. Instead in the early days of an idea I tend to seek out my friends who are dreamers, creators and who will be more positive to an idea. It isn’t that I don’t want to hear the truth about my idea but that I feel in the early days good ideas can be unintentionally crushed by putting it in front of the wrong person.

This part of the process sometimes feels a little scary — but it is necessary to make the vulnerable little idea more robust.

Out of that the idea often evolves further before becoming a reality.

Up to this point, it’s largely just an idea — then comes time to actually implement it and get it done… but that’s a whole other topic.

Is that Just Me?

I’m very aware as I write this that it sounds a lot more like a logical process than what the reality is.

In reality, it is a lot messier than this and I’m not sure there is always a beginning and end of each step (and sometimes they last minutes and other times months)…

What I’ve written is also is a description of something that is quite possibly unique to a certain personality type.

But I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts.

Do you see a similar progression in your ideas… or is this just me?