Have you ever brainstormed, by yourself or with a team and started thinking, “Ugh, I’m going nowhere”? You sit there with pen and paper at the ready and you think, and think, and think. You’re trying so hard to be creative. At some point, you think to yourself that you just can’t come up with a creative solution. You start thinking maybe there is no solution. If you’re in a group, you wonder why you’re not coming up with ideas like others. Or, you listen to others and their ideas are crummy too! So often, people walk out of brainstorming sessions thinking it was a complete waste of time.

Maybe you think brainstorming is a business tool and not something you need for your personal life. Think again.  Brainstorming is a powerful tool to unleash your creativity. From trying to find the next best thing for motivating your family members or solving a business problem to finding the next world-changing innovation, you brainstorm more often than you realize.

Now, I don’t want you using valuable brain bandwidth doing something that does you no good. A brainstorming session that feels like a waste of time does you no good. An unfocused brainstorming session often does you no good. Below are 4 easy tips to help you get the most out of brainstorming.

Tip #1. Ask Questions

Use questions to think about your central core problem or focus. The questions should start with: what, why, when, where, and who. So let’s get to that carrot cake!

Carrot cake just happens to be my favorite cake. Just by accident, I had what I consider the best carrot cake ever a few years ago. One of my best friends was holding a birthday party for her one-year old and made this amazing carrot cake. I know the party was for the one-year old, but let’s face it, those parties are more for the grown-ups, not the one-year old who doesn’t even use a fork. She obtained the recipe from her girlfriend who owns a popular bakery and it was a wedding cake recipe. It had no nuts. It had no raisins. It was amazing but I don’t know what made this cake so amazing.

So imagine it’s your team’s mission (or yours), if you choose to accept it, to come up with a better (or best ever) carrot cake. How could your brainstorming session be a productive and positive experience?

  • You could start by asking some of the following questions (these are just samples):

    • What would be the criteria or test that the carrot cake is better?

    • Why would anyone want a better carrot cake?

    • Where would someone want to have a better carrot cake?

    • Who would want a better carrot cake?

Once you get through those questions and have more ideas, look at what you’ve written and go through the same questions with new areas of focus from the answers you wrote down from the first series questions. For example, under the “What” category, you might end up with more questions such as:

  • Does the cake have raisins?

  • What other dried fruit would you put in a carrot cake?

  • Does the cake have nuts?

  • What would be the best nut to include?

  • Are there different ways to measure ingredients?

Rinse and repeat. After several layers (pun intended) of questioning, you will have a ton of questions and answers. Some of the answer can be the focus of experimentation – the action step.

Tip #2. Use a Mind-Mapping Tool

A Mind-Mapping Tool can help organize lots of information. When going through Tip #2 above, asking questions, sometimes you can get lost in the question-answer series. You can create your own mind-map. Think of it is as spider-webbing from the first idea. If you are unsure how this works, take a look at This is a free mind-mapping tool with upgrades when you need more advance tools. I used coogle to brainstorm my first book. [I do not receive any money for recommending coogle. I just happened to have used it and like it. There are also many other mind-mapping programs on the internet. You can check out this Mashable Article listing 24 Mind Mapping Programs. Pick one you like and try it out. You can also create your own with paper and pen.]

Tip #3. There is No Such Thing as a Bad Idea.

An idea may seem ridiculous at first, but sometimes the kernel of brilliance may spring from that ridiculous idea. I recently came across a recipe for carrot cake and one of the components for success was a tip to stir the flour, spoon the stirred flour into a measuring cup, then level off. The tip specifically said, “do not scoop the flour with the measuring cup.” Aerated flour? Why not.

Brainstorming is about QUANTITY, not quality. NO EDITING! Write it all down. If you’re on a team, don’t judge anyone for any idea no matter what you might think of it. Brainstorming requires “thinking out loud” and sometimes those thoughts are not fully formed, but can foster more brain connections.

Personal Brainstorming. When you are brainstorming by yourself or perhaps with your spouse, use a journal to jot down the ideas. Your first session may not reap results, but you don’t have to start from scratch the next time you attack the same problem. Don’t edit – write it all down in a safe place you can find again: your journal.

Business Team Brainstorming. I have seen so many brainstorming sessions where people write down the ideas on the big block paper with sharpies. When the meeting is over, the papers get rolled up and no one ever sees them again. Yikes! What a waste of brain bandwidth! Decide beforehand how you are going to store the information for easy, reliable retrieval so the information doesn’t go the black hole of business ideas. You could appoint a scribe for each meeting. That person is responsible for collecting the ideas (say in a mind map) and sharing it with the team. You can rotate the scribe duties among team members to avoid over-burdening one person. Until that idea has been fully explored with either a decision to scrap it entirely or to keeping moving forward, each relevant brainstorm session should pick up where the last one left off.

As you go through the mind-mapping, you will eliminate or keep options as you consider feasibility of each question and answer.

Tip #4. Maximize your Brain Power by Letting it Wander During and After a Brainstorming Session.

During your brainstorming session, let your mind wander. But, the time to really let your mind wander is after the brainstorming session. Focus during brainstorming sessions gave your brain information that helps it solve the problem. When you are unfocused, that’s often when your brain will find the solution, seeing connections among pieces of information that you can’t see on paper.

The above four tips will help you focus and organize your brainstorming session. These are four ways that have helped me brainstorm more effectively, but these are not exclusive.

And don’t forget, even if you don’t come up with a solution, it’s about QUANTITY. Gathering ideas is itself valuable. So storm on!

By the way, if you do come up with a better carrot cake, please send me the recipe.  😉