This month, the benefits of not following the herd, what neuroscience has discovered about how we come up with ideas, making better use of those odd chunks of time and how to reinforce your willpower.
1: Being contrarian for fun and profit
School and our society in general teach us to go along with the herd, but there is fun and profit to be had from being a contrarian - that is, doing what most people aren't. The fact is that by the time most people are doing something, the chance to profit from it in the same way is over.
For instance, a lot of writers are flooding into the ebook market, looking to the example of two writers who sold over a million copies of their ebooks. Of course there are still profits to be made from ebooks, but probably not using the same methods. Those methods worked so well in part because the market wasn't very crowded yet. Also, both of the authors in question are masterful marketers.
One example of a contrarian position right now: looking at how to appeal to the (huge) market of people who love traditional books by heightening the factors that set them apart from ebooks (for example, the feel of a traditional book).
ACTION: In your arena, what are people saying "you have to get in on" because it's such a strong trend? What would be a contrarian position? Can you discern any fun and or profit potential from that position?
2: Stuck? Why you should talk it over (even just in your imagination)
A study of how scientists at four microbiology labs developed new theories revealed that it was often during meetings at which they shared their challenges with colleagues. The researcher, Kevin Dunlop, also found that the more diverse the participants were, the more quickly the problems were solved.
I've found that it's useful to pretend that you are explaining your project or your plan to someone else. I sometimes do this in the form of imaginary interviews - somebody asking me about my new project, how I'm approaching it, what will be appealing about it to the target audience, etc. Often new ideas pop into my mind spontaneously as I imagine my answers.
ACTION: The next time you get stuck on something either conduct an imaginary interview with someone who wants to know all about the situation or collar a friend or colleague or several and chat about it with them.
3: How to stimulate your creativity
In his book, 'Iconoclast', Gregory Berns discusses what neuroscience has discovered about how we come up with ideas. Actually, the findings are not a huge surprise. One of the main ones is that "novel experiences are effective at unleashing the imagination because they force the perceptual system out of categorization, the tendency of the brain to take shortcuts."
In other words, when you encounter something new to you, your brain has to pay attention and be more active. This is also the state in which you have breakthrough ideas.
ACTION: What new experiences have you had recently? You don't have to go far afield. I'm sure there are things within a few miles of where you live that you haven't experienced, including restaurants serving food you've never eaten, theatres showing plays you've never seen, and social activities that would let you meet types of people you normally don't meet. So why not schedule one new activity every week?
4: How you can put odd moments of time to work
I've written previously about how writers can use odd bits of time such as while waiting for a bus or train, or in line at a supermarket. For instance, to get to know their characters better they can imagine the character is there with them and consider what he would think about the other people there or how she would react if a beggar came up to her.
One additional twist to this method that might make it even more useful (and not just for writers) is to get a batch of small index cards or use the backs of out of date business cards. On each one write a thinking task you can do in fifteen minutes or less. When you find yourself with an odd chunk of time take out a card and do the task, jotting down whatever ideas you come up with. If you have a smart phone it's even easier because you can keep the list of tasks on it and use a notes app to record your ideas.
ACTION: If you find yourself frustrated by having unproductive short periods try this method. Of course if you find it relaxing just to chill and people-watch during those times, that's fine too!
5: How to have more willpower (or at least use it more wisely)
In the book "Willpower: rediscovering our greatest strength," Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney discuss research that shows willpower is a finite resource and we use it up pretty quickly. Struggling whether or not to give in uses it up, too - it's not replenished if you end up not yielding to temptation.
It's smart to pick your battles. If you know you're facing some major temptation, such as sticking to your resolution not to drink alcohol at an evening social event, don't make that the day you also decide about a major purchase, for instance.
The best strategy is to organize your life so you are confronted by as few temptations as possible. If you're intent on losing weight don't have any high-calorie junk food on your premises. If it's not there, you don't have to resist it. If your walk to work takes you past a doughnut shop and you often give in and have a few, change your route.
ACTION: Make changes in your environment that will help you avoid temptations. On days when you know you'll be facing a major temptation try to manage things so you're not also facing another one or two.
6: And a quote to consider:
"To create anything - whether a short story or a magazine profile or a sitcom - is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic." [Ted Bissell, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation]