Deadline Busters: 15 Tips for Generating Ideas When You’re Drawing a Blank

Deadline Idea Tips

Generating Ideas: A Fine Art

It seems that whenever we have ideas, they come at the worst possible time. And when we need ideas, they don’t come at all. Oftentimes ideas just aren’t going to come. At all. There’s no worse feeling than needing an idea, but not having a single one.

Yet there are some techniques that can be used to make sure that we’re in the best position possible to have that great idea. Here are 15 ways that ensure you’re ready to have that big idea when you need it most.

1. Start cleaning your immediate area

Cleaning helps on multiple levels. For starters, cleaning gives you a chance to break away from your immediate workspace (like a computer), and the movement gets blood pumping through your body. In a psychological sense, cleaning also adds the benefit of removing clutter, which has a huge effect on our focus, subconscious or not.

Cleaning is by far my favorite method for getting out of a creativity slump. The second I start to become stressed, I start cleaning my desk, living room and kitchen, and by the time I’m finished I’ve got a whole slew of ideas.

2. Impose a deadline

One might think that imposing a deadline would be bad for trying to rustle up some ideas, and generally I’d agree. But deadlines can do one thing that is very important: they force you to focus on a goal. With deadlines, we know what needs to happen and we know how long we have to do it in. They give us scope and they give us perspective.

3. Use a different medium

Sometimes changing the tools or the medium you’re using to work on an idea can really make a difference. If you’re a painter, try using charcoal or pencil instead of watercolors. If you’d normally use the computer to generate ideas, try switching to paper and pen. While it may seem like a trivial change, the small change can be huge for your creativity. There’s something very freeing about switching to a different medium.

4. Define the problem clearly

Sometimes we get so lost in trying to think of ideas that we don’t focus on our objective closely enough. We just generate ideas for the sake of generating ideas. And believe me, when you reach this point it’s best to just stop and go “back to the drawing board”. We have to make sure that the problem we’re trying to solve is the only thing we’re trying to solve.

5. Surround yourself with materials

Sometimes it’s helpful to just start gathering materials that you’ll be needing. If nothing else is working, try making sure you have the materials you know you’ll need eventually. Start pulling reference materials, books, research materials, anything that might be needed. Sometimes just looking at these resources can be enough to get an idea rolling.

If gathering materials doesn’t bring any inspiration, at least you’ll be ready to start creating when the idea finally strikes.

6. Relax your breathing, cool your nerves

Ah, who doesn’t know the feeling of impending doom? The throat becomes dry, your mind frantic, beads of sweat start forming on the brow and various other body parts… it’s not fun. Not only that, but stress only makes it harder to hatch a good idea. Try using breathing techniques that relax to help you lower your heart rate and calm your nerves. It takes a clear, cool mind to generate great ideas.

Controlled breathing helps psychologically because it is at least one thing that we can control. We may not be able to control the fact that we’re drawing a blank, but if we can control things like our breathing, it gives us a small boost of confidence.

7. Create a mind map

mind mapping ideas
Mind mapping software MindMeister

Mind maps are an excellent way to just start putting what you know and organizing it. Sometimes organizing our thoughts can be incredibly effective in generating ideas. By creating a mind map, you’ll start to get a handle on what you know, and what you’ll need to know.

8. Ask a friend

If you’ve got a deadline looming and don’t have any inspiration at all, ask a friend for advice. Any friend. It doesn’t even matter if they know the nuances of what you’re working on at all. Explaining the problem to a friend helps you process the problem too,

Almost every idea I have, I run it by a close friend. It’s OK to ask friends for help, and believe it or not, friends like helping in return.

9. Think with your eyes wide shut

Sometimes it’s helpful to just close our eyes and push out all of the other visual distractions. It’s such a simple concept, yet it makes all the difference when you’re trying to visualize how something is going to work or look.

10. Sleep on it

Let’s take number 9 one step further and take a short little nap. The mind needs refreshing too, and if you can spare 20 minutes for a power nap, you’ll be refreshed and ready to tackle the deadline. Sometimes it’s more beneficial to spend 20 minutes taking a nap if your brain is fried. Giving your mind a chance to relax puts you in a better position to brainstorm and produce some ideas later on.

11. Don’t be afraid to use Google

It still amazes me how many “purists” there are out there when it comes to finding solutions. Here’s a little hint: There’s nothing new under the sun. Ideas are usually adaptations of other ideas. Ideas build off of one another. Someone may have already done most of the heavy lifting for you in terms of creating the prototype. It’s perfectly fine to use their work as inspiration. Just don’t steal. Nothing good comes from stealing.

12. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

When I’m freelancing for clients, I always ask what feels like way too many questions. Yet if I didn’t ask questions, I probably wouldn’t have come up with the best solution for what they were needing. Fully understanding the problem or task allows you to get a better idea of what the solution should look like.

And don’t worry about your boss (or client). They will appreciate the fact that you’re making sure you’re trying your best to understand the task at hand. (Just don’t ask questions they’ve already answered 8 times before.)

13. Crank on some tunes

Music can have a major effect on our creativity and problem solving. Studies have shown that music stimulates the parts in our brains that deal with spatial reasoning, which is a very good thing for solving problems. I find music without words like jazz or classical to be most effective, as it doesn’t distract from what I’m working on.

14. Exercise

Exercising is a great way to brainstorm. Much like cleaning, exercising gets blood pumping through your body (and especially your brian), which allows you to work through problems in a different environment. This could be walking, stretching, yoga, running, biking, or anything else that gets your body movin’.

I prefer going on a run when I’m really needing an idea. By the time I’m done I usually find myself much closer to a solution than I would have if I had stared at a computer screen instead.

15. Perspiration, not inspiration

Not really the most appetizing of any these tricks, actually forcing yourself to work on a solution is sometimes the best route. Thomas Edison once said that “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.” Sometimes we just have to hunker down and force ourself to work on a solution, and come up with an idea with a little perspiration.

This happens all the time with writers. Many times the writing is a process of just grinding out words and writing to write. Eventually the perspiration will lead to inspiration.

Photo by brandon king

Leave a Comment

{ 35 comments… add one }
  • travesti December 24, 2010, 8:09 am

    Fine information, many thanks to the author,Thanks, great links!

  • Teresa August 29, 2010, 11:56 am


    As a professional freelance writer sometimes it can be a challenge to come up with fresh ideas. Thanks for your post, it’ll surely come in handy!


  • The Baldchemist July 10, 2009, 4:03 pm

    Dear Dev. Never, ever admit to anyone that you have difficulty coming up with ideas. Great designers always have something up their sleeve that sets them apart from the comfortable mediocre.Take good care my friend.

  • The Baldchemist July 10, 2009, 12:03 pm

    Dear Dev. Never, ever admit to anyone that you have difficulty coming up with ideas. Great designers always have something up their sleeve that sets them apart from the comfortable mediocre.Take good care my friend.

  • Ron Meledandri September 13, 2008, 12:52 pm

    Good Topic and you make some good points. An old trick is to use the acronym SCAMPER. When you are at a dead-end, you ask, “How can I …….
    Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Magnify or Modify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, Rearrange or Reverse. ” I read that Thomas Edison' used this technique.

  • BPO September 8, 2008, 9:57 am

    great advice. i find myself having trouble conjuring inspiration too. thanks for a great list.

  • Elana August 21, 2008, 1:19 am

    great post thanks – I scan magazines as well its so unrelated to what I do but some great ideas start to formulate after scanning a few

  • Michael August 15, 2008, 10:16 pm

    Use “oblique strategies” (
    Also available as a free OSX Widget

  • wii fit August 14, 2008, 7:34 am

    Although all of these tips are wonderful but sometimes none of them works. So what I do at that times? I always go for very long showers, I think that cold water showers are another way to think some cool ideas.

  • Marc and Angel Hack Life August 11, 2008, 9:56 am

    It's all about taking a light 1 mile jog… get the blood flowing to the brain.

  • Glyconutrients August 7, 2008, 5:33 pm

    You define the whole factory of ideas and I am amazed to know all this. Perhaps I am already trying a few of them but it is a whole new series for me. I shall be trying it very next time when my jotter will lack of new ideas.

  • Metroknow August 6, 2008, 12:43 pm

    Excellent post – I hadn't really considered sleep as a good option – great suggestion. #1 has been hard for me to do in the past because I'd get that feeling of, “shouldn't you be working on the project?” but in reality it is like the first step in actually doing the project if I'm stuck. It works for me.

    Thanks Glen!

  • Laurie August 6, 2008, 8:25 am

    How did you know this was exactly what I needed to read this morning? Thanks for the tips – they'll come in handy.

    It seems like the harder I try to be creative, the less success I have. I need to remember that creativity is something that flows and can't be forced, at least not for me. Next time I'm blanking, I'm going to try your suggestion #3 – it sounds like a good idea. Thanks!

  • Kelvin Kao August 6, 2008, 3:17 am

    Nice post!
    Sleeping works. What I've done many times was deciding to stay up all night to come up with a script but can't think of good or well-developed ideas. And eventually i got really tired and fell asleep. But when I woke up the next morning and start brainstorming again, good ideas would just come and click. Sleep/naps are very good to do!

  • Tabs August 5, 2008, 11:26 pm

    Had writers block the other day and ended up sleeping 2 hours in 48. I am posting up this list because I know it will come in handy and I know I will not remember it when my brain draws a blank.

    Thanks for the list,


    Signed up for mind map..

  • Stan Dubin August 5, 2008, 10:55 pm

    I was stumbled here and this is a REALLY good post. I'd add to the list: take a walk and put your attention on everything around you. Make it purely an extroverted activity.

    Also, when I got here, I heard some music and was drawn to the ad on the right side but couldn't be sure if the two were connected. That was a bit odd.

    • Glen Stansberry August 5, 2008, 11:11 pm

      Thanks Stan. Great tips on the sensory walk.

      Also, I just found what ad you're talking about and stopped it from appearing on this site. Thanks for the heads up!

  • Shanel Yang August 5, 2008, 8:59 pm

    Love this post and agree with all the points! I'd add brainstorming. Not exactly a mind map but just a totally freeflowing, unedited release of all ideas onto paper or computer screen for 15 minutes. Let it all out! Silly ideas, impossible ideas, crazy ideas. Everything! This way the gems finally drop out. : )

    • Glen Stansberry August 5, 2008, 10:18 pm

      That's a great point. There is power in free-form nonsense ;)