How to Brainstorm When You're Working Solo

When you go from employee to freelancer, you need to rethink how you brainstorm. Here are five tips for solo ideation.

One of the things I relish about freelancing is that I don't have to rely on other people to get my work done. I don't have coworkers with questions that need immediate answers. I'm not bombarded with constant emails from management. I don't need permission or input from a colleague. (Yes, well, there are clients.) When I'm plowing toward a deadline, I can buckle down, focus and writewritewrite without distraction.

But one of the challenges about freelancing is that when I do need other people to get my work done, they're not just over the cubicle wall. And that really comes into play when I need to generate new ideas. If you work solo, you know that brainstorming in isolation can be like talking to yourself in the mirror ­– it's an unsatisfying, one-way conversation.

When I recently wrote an article about how to brainstorm for HOW magazine, I spoke with creative pros who've developed expertise in idea generation, and who've documented what works and what doesn't. The story focused on group brainstorming, but these experts had lessons for us freelancers, too. Here are five tips for how to brainstorm when you work solo:

1. Set the right expectations. Brainstorming is not about finding the be-all, end-all, 100 percent brilliant solution to the problem at hand. "Creatives think that the general goal is to leave with a solution, one that's thought through and vetted and right," creativity guru Stefan Mumaw told me. "That's not the case. Brainstorming isn't to solve the problem. It's simply to offer possibility." Once you come up with lots of possibilities, you can focus on two or three optimal directions.

2. Get away from the computer. While you may do most of your work on the computer, ink-on-paper is a better medium for idea generation. That's because you're more likely to go with the flow; once you sit down at the keyboard, you'll start editing and refining, which is the antithesis of brainstorming. Remember, brainstorming is about possibility. So grab a notebook and pen, step away from your computer and move to a different workspace.

3. Shut off your inner critic. As you're sketching or writing ideas on paper, turn off the voice in your head that comments on each idea's validity. Criticism squelches the flow of ideas. "The original definition of brainstorming, where you take everyone, throw them in a room and they're all shouting over each other, has problems," according to David Sherwin, author of the books Creative Workshop and Success By Design, and interaction design director with frog design's San Francisco studio. "When you come up with ideas as a group, people immediately enter into discussion instead of dialog ­– defending, steering, blending open-ended idea generation with thinly veiled critiques." Critical voices are louder in a group brainstorming session; you can better manage that when you're ideating solo.

4. Create a brainstorming group. Gather friends in your area, people who work in a range of disciplines, who can serve as an ad hoc brainstorming group. "Filling the room with a diverse group of people who have different perspectives and experiences ­– not just with people who think like us – is the key," Mumaw explains.

5. Practice creativity constantly. If you expect ideas to flow on command, you'll be out of luck. Maintaining a creative mindset takes constant care and attention. I still love the advice author and designer Jim Krause shared in an interview with TCG: "My way of making sure my creative instincts don't get crushed by real-world stresses has two main components. The first is finding ways to completely get away from creativity from time to time through exercise, reading or just relaxing. I also devote time to enjoyable art projects of my own that improve my skills while teaching me things I want to learn. I believe a balanced combo of these two practices can keep our art senses awake, alert and ready to be challenged."

Do you have tips on how to brainstorm when working by yourself? Share them in a comment below.

Related post: Creative Block Buster: How to Overcome The "Second Wall"