Not long ago one of my friends asked me what my “unfair advantage” is. Everybody has one. Some people have several.
An unfair advantage is something you do well that gives you an advantage in running your life.
My immediate response was that I regularly schedule time to just think. I call it “think time” and it’s golden, because it gives me a chance to mull things over without pressure. I’m not required to think about anything in particular. I can quit whenever I want. I can keep going as long as I feel like it.
The purpose of think time is to come up with new ideas. Most of my good ideas come during my daily think time. And also most of my bad ideas. More on that in a minute.
My think time usually comes early in the morning, when there aren’t any interruptions. No phone calls or email to scramble my brain. Just pure quiet time to think about whatever.
I’ll be the first to say that sometimes my think time is “wasted,” in the sense that nothing productive comes out of it. That’s OK. You can’t force ideas to happen, any more than you can make plants grow. You can give plants a place to grow and you can water them, but they’re going to do what they’re going to do, and time is your friend. So I don’t worry about “wasting” time. Which means I have days when nothing much comes of my think time.
And then I have days like last Wednesday, when my mind seemed to be exploding with ideas. When I finished my think time, I grabbed a pen and wrote a full page of notes on new things to try out. And I was excited for the rest of the day, because new ideas are fun.
I suspect Wednesday was a hot day for new ideas because I wrapped up a deadline on Monday, and so now the pressure was off. Tuesday was presumably a recovery day, because I didn’t have any notable ideas on Tuesday. But Wednesday, yeah, ideas. Lots of them.
How do new ideas happen?
I can only speak for myself on that issue. My new ideas happen when there’s a problem to be solved and I start asking questions.
I should say that new ideas can be overrated. If you’re trying to solve a problem in some particular area and you’re not an expert in that area, then your best plan is to go learn what’s already known. Otherwise, your “great new idea” might be to build yourself a hexagonal wheel.
So my policy is that when I get a new idea, if I actually don’t know much about that particular area, then I always do a little research to make sure it hasn’t already been thought of. Usually it has, and somebody has figured out a better idea than mine. Which is fine. I can run with somebody else’s idea. That saves a lot of time.
On the other hand, there are areas where I have a lot of expertise. When I have an unsolved problem in those areas, it’s unsolved because nobody in the world knows the answer. In that case, there’s no point in doing a little research. Then it’s a matter of trying genuinely new ideas. And in the vast majority of cases, those new ideas don’t pan out. The reason unsolved problems are unsolved is because they’re hard, which means that most new ideas are going to fail.
Some people think bad ideas are bad. But they’re not. It’s been often observed by people smarter than me that the way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas. Most of them will be bad, but that’s OK. Having a lot of bad ideas is a stepping-stone to having one good idea.
Think time is not necessarily about writing. I do use my daily think time to solve problems in my novels. But I also use it for every other aspect of my life. Most of my think time goes into solving problems in my day job. Usually little problems, but occasionally something bigger.