FAQ On How To Become An Idea Machine

how to be an idea machine

I was out of ideas when I googled “how to kill myself”.

I was sure that three things were going to happen: I’d go broke (and then my 3 year old would starve to death), nobody would kiss me ever again, and I would die because of course self worth = net worth (duh!).

I started coming up with 10 ideas a day and I’ve written about this several times before: it saved my life, my career, my friendships, made me better friendships, partners, opportunities, a wife, better relationships with my kids, and oooga-booga (lots of kisses).

In 2011, I wrote a post “how to be the luckiest person alive” where I described a daily practice I started to follow to get off the floor of suicide. Physical Emotional Mental and Spiritual health were the four pillars of this practice.

Under “Mental” was the approach that if you don’t exercise your “idea muscle” every day it would atrophy and you would lose the ability to be creative.

So I encouraged people to write 10 ideas every day. I write 10 ideas every day no matter what. Yesterday, for instance, I wrote 10 ideas how Airbnb can be improved. Today I haven’t written my list yet.

Over the past 4 years I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this approach. Many of the questions have been the same over and over again.

I’ve also gotten a lot of testimonials (unasked for) from people who told me they tried this approach and all the amazing things that happened to them afterwards.

For me, I can safely say, my life completely changes almost 100% every six months in every way because I simply write down 10 ideas a day.

Here I’m going to try and answer the questions that I often get asked. If you don’t like my answers then feel free to ignore them.

If you have more questions, ask them in the comments and I will answer.

Different approaches work for different people. This approach works for me and I now see has worked for many others.

A) Is “The Idea Muscle”, or the Mental side of your daily practice, the most important part of the four?

No. They are all equally important. If you get sick, then you can’t be as creative.

If you are staying up to midnight arguing with the loved ones in your life then you can’t be creative (I learned this particularly well during my divorce).

If you are anxious all day instead of grateful (the spiritual side of the practice) then you can’t be creative.

Worry never solves the future and always takes away energy from the present.

Of course, you can try. But it’s hard. If a chair has four legs then it’s sturdy. If you remove one leg, then you can still sit in it but it will fall over at the slightest wind. And we all have the winds of change blowing in our lives.

If you remove two of the legs then you will fall over. And if you try to sit in a one-legged chair then you probably need serious help in general.

B) Do you have a theme each day for your ideas?

Yes. As a simple example it might be “10 businesses I can start?” Or “10 books I can write” or “10 chapters I can write for a book on quality parenting” (which would obviously be a fiction book).

Claudia is coming out with a book at the end of January with 180 possible themes.

A theme is like a target, and knowing that you can come up with 10 decent ideas gets you closer and closer to hitting the bullseye on the target.

C) What if I can’t come up with 10 ideas?

Here’s the key: the first three ideas are always easy. The next two are a little harder, and for me, I find that ideas 5-10 make my brain literally sweat. It almost hurts.

Ideas, art, business, life is all about connecting the dots of one area of your life with the dots in other areas of your life.

Doing this directly translates into biologically building up the neural pathways between collections of neurons in your brain.

This is what changes you from becoming a person with the occasional idea, to a creative person, to an idea machine. You become the one-eyed king in the land of the blind.

D) My idea muscle has atrophied. How long will it take to become an idea machine?

If you come up with 10 ideas a day for 180 days I’m pretty convinced based on what I’ve seen from 100s or 1000s of others then you will be a full force idea machine.

E) What is an idea machine?

It means that you can have confidence that no matter what situation you are in, you can start spewing ideas to help yourself and others in that situation. Ideas are about giving. And the more you give to the world, the more value you get back.

Almost everything you look at will become sources of inspiration. Almost every problem you hear about you’ll be able to come up with solutions.

Will they be good solutions? No, not necessarily. Which brings me too.

F) Do all 10 ideas have to be good ideas?

That would be impossible. If you are writing 10 ideas a day, that’s 3,650 ideas a year.

Nobody can come up with 3,650 good ideas a year. Someone who is a creative genius coming up with non-stop ideas might come up with a handful (less than 10) really good ideas and maybe slightly more (less than 100), decent ideas and the rest are probably bad ideas.

Part of the idea of this exercise is give yourself permission to come up with bad ideas. To love yourself by recognizing that nobody is perfect.

There’s a story the advertising legend George Lois wrote where he says that he told everyone to come up with a great idea for a client. He came back in an hour and nobody had any ideas at all.

So he said, “ok, come up with 20 ideas.” He came back in an hour and everyone had 20 ideas. Some good, some bad, some decent. That’s because they released the idea of perfectionism.

If you are a perfectionist, you will never come up with good ideas. You have to love yourself enough to come up with bad ideas and still be happy and confident.

If you wait for inspiration, you will never come up with good ideas.

Inspiration is not like lightning. It doesn’t strike. It’s always there, like a deep well. Only by digging every day, do we get to tap into that well.

G) I have so many ideas, I don’t know which ones to work on? How do you pick?

I never do. I always throw out my idea list for the day. The whole purpose of the exercise is to (metaphorically) expand the brain. Nothing else.

Now, if an idea truly sets your heart on fire, then you won’t forget it. The next day you’ll come up with ten ideas to expand on that first idea. Or ten next steps to get that idea going.

When you are an idea machine, trust that this will happen. Again: the ideas that are good will literally set your heart and mind on fire and you won’t be able to wait to come up with the next batch of ideas for them.

Don’t think too much about which ideas are good and which ideas are bad. 99.99% of ideas are bad.

Once, when I came up with the idea for a good business (one among ten business ideas I wrote the day before), then the next day I came up with ten pages that would be on the website for that business.

And the next day I came up with ten ideas for partners that business might have. And the next day I came up with 10 ways I can execute on this business.

And that morning I started executing on that business. Two weeks later I had a big partner for that business. Eight months later I sold the business. Every week in between I had more and more features for that business.

I was excited about it. I loved it. I thought every day about it. If you have to look back at prior lists to remember the ideas, then they didn’t excite you enough. Don’t do it.

H) What is Idea sex?

All of life is about connecting the dots.

This is not a poetic metaphor. Since the Big Bang that created the universe, every piece of matter is the result of atoms combining and creating something new.

Life on Earth is about organic molecules combining and creating something new.

Societies are formed when people connect to form babies, when groups of people connect to form tribes, when tribes connect to form cities, or countries, and so on.

Any achievement in science is the connection of all the achievements before it. As evidence, look at any patent and see all the prior patents it refers to.

Any achievement in art is the accumulated knowledge and experience of all the artists and musicians and even scientists and philosophers, as well as personal experiences of the artist, that came before it.

I once did an experiment with a group of people. Write down 10 titles of books you would like to write. Now turn to your partner. Make a list of ten books combining the titles.

I asked for some examples. I loved all the results. For instance, a “How to Make Toast in Space” or “A History of Music as Told by the Instruments of the greatest performers”. And so on.

If you turn on any late night comedy show, the opening monologue is almost all idea sex. News topics of the day combined with “set up / punch line”.

The fastest way to generate themes and ideas is to take two different areas and combine them.

The fastest way to master any area of life, is to become good at two or more areas, intersect them in a unique way, and now you are the best in the world at the intersection.

If you look at every great achievement in history, idea sex was the impregnation of that achievement.

I) People say ideas are a dime a dozen and that execution is everything. Is this true?

No. Ideas are a dime for 3. A dozen ideas are hard. Try it.

And execution, of course, is the key to making something happen in the real world. But the purpose of this exercise is to just stay healthy in a creative way.

Ultimately, execution ideas are a subset of ideas.

Here’s one experiment to try: make two columns. The first column might be “10 new business ideas”. The second column might be “10 first execution steps”.

So if my business idea is “make an Isreali-Cuban fusion restaurant” (bad idea). And my first execution step might be: “Cook an Israeli-Cuban meal and invite 10 friends over and charge them $30 and see if they like it.”

Always start with easy execution steps. MVEs. Minimum viable execution steps.

J) Are the ideas usually about starting new businesses?

No, usually not. It’s really hard to come up with 3,650 business ideas a year.

Money is just a side effect of being an idea machine.

I try to make it about anything. “50 alternatives to college” was created this way.

Or “10 Ways I’d improve self-publshing” which I sent to Amazon and they invited me to come out there and see what they were working on.

Or “10 ideas for a novel” or “10 pairs of people I should introduce to each other”. And on and on. “10 things I can cook for Claudia tonight” (that one was REALLY hard for me. I’m not a good cook).

K) I keep coming up with good ideas but then I go out drinking with my friends on Friday night and tell them my ideas and they all laugh at me. What should I do?

Stay home on Friday night.

L) I’ve been doing this for three months and I haven’t seen any difference in my life?

Do it for three more months and you will. Every day.

In order to build a house, the foundation has to be strong.

The foundation gets strong when you focus on all areas of the daily practice. Physical health, emotional health (be around people you love), and spiritual health.

Anger, envy, self-pity, regret, anxiety are all fires that burn the foundation. Gratitude and surrender washes away those fires.

Then you can build your house. Then you can live in it.

M) I have no time to do this. What should I do?

Simplify your life. The simpler every part of your life is, the more power you have to make significant changes in the world.

The first thing is: do you really have no time? I’ve now spoken to or read about two different people who have written best-selling novels on their train commutes to work.

Another key is to avoid meaningless gossip at work. Or to stop watching bad TV at night. Or to wake up a half hour earlier than usual. Or to spend 15 less minutes surfing on Facebook.

Heck, make a list of the 10 ways you waste time every day.

I have found in my own life that these fragments of time often add up to hours a day.

The other thing is to do what I call the simple daily practice.

Do tiny things. Maybe don’t snack today (Physical), maybe write a thank you email to someone you love (emotional), come up with 10 ideas (mental), spend 10 minutes feeling grateful (spiritual).

There’s always time. Nobody starts off at the top. Which leads to…

N) I have an Idea. How do I get money for it?

You don’t. You have to implement it. You have to have other people who like it. You have to get money from customers who like it. You have to build up so that it can support yourself.

For my first business, I started it, got customers, got employees, had an office, and then, 18 months into it, I quit my fulltime job, and went to my startup fulltime.

That’s how business works in the real world.

We live in an entitled world now where people think ideas are enough now to get funding and make billions.

Go old school. Deliver proven value to others, charge money for it, get testimonials about how good your product is, and then you’ve widened the horizon of your decisions. That’s the path to success.

O) How do I know if an idea is good?

Well, chances are it’s pretty bad. The key again is to expand the abilities of your brain so you are a non-stop idea machine. This way you are more likely to come up with a good idea.

A great story is the story of the company, Odeo.

They created software for podcasting. They got professional venture capitalists investing. The CEO previously sold a company to Google so he knew what he was doing. He had the top software programmers working for him.

But nobody wanted his software. On the side, Odeo’s programmers had a side project going, but it only had 10,000 users. Smaller audience than most good blogs. And yet…

The CEO told all of his investors, “we give up. We’re going to work on this side project. If you want to stay in, good. If you want out, I will buy all of your shares so you wont’ lost any money.”

The result: 100% of the top, most professional investors in the business took their money back. The CEO renamed the company and focused on the tiny software project.

A few years later Twitter became public and is worth tens of billions of dollars.

Nobody can predict the outcome of an idea. And usually people are wrong. That’s why quantity is important.

The key is to every day stay physically emotionally mentally and spiritually healthy.

Then you can trust that you have built the inner foundation for outward success.

The outer world that you face every morning is always a reflection of the inner world that only you can create.

P) What if I have more than 10 ideas a day? Should I save some of them for the next day?

No, write them all down. THIS POST is my idea list of the day. I just wrote down 16 items Yesterday was 10. The day before was about 12.

What’s going to happen if you do this for six months?

You’re going to be a mutant superhero.

You’re going to have fun creative ideas for every situation. You’re going to be able to see which ideas set your brain on nuclear.

You’re going to meet the right people who can help you execute on ideas. You’re going to turn into a fountain of giving.

You’re going to be the sort of person that understands that less effort leads to greater accomplishments.

You’re going to be immortal because you will begin to lead a life that is worth remembering forever.


  • Kim

    On the coffee thing, check out James’ podcast with Dave Asprey.

  • chttrz

    As an idea, it seems you registered a blog. On my blog http://www.chttrz.com I usually write lots of lists. It would be nice if you could add me as a link. Your website could be a hub to all the good or bad idea sites. Please let me know if youd like to link blogs somehow.

  • MicheletheTrainer

    I may start a fun site too for ideas…we can crosslink

  • I’m really excited for your new book! I’ve been trying to write a blog because you make it look so easy and it seems like you get tons of opportunities from yours! Keep it up James.
    http://www.chrisbartos.com

  • jules

    Thank you for this James! What if you want to “create an App for that” ? HOw do you get started ?

  • glenn

    Finally going to jump in on the discussion. I’ve been coming up with story ideas frequently for a couple of months, posting daily lists on my site, but never have I actually done 10 a day. I started going to 10 a day, and it is a difficult but very fun task. I have more than 400 story ideas so far on a backlog (posting 5 a day to my site) and my plan is to continue coming up with 10 ideas a day every day no matter what. Most of the story ideas are bad, but some have me really wanting to go explore further. Thank you for continuing to stress that we exercise the idea muscle daily.

    Would love to find out about any other sites that are doing 5 or 10 ideas a day.

    –Glenn
    http://storyideahq.com

  • James,

    I love this so much. So much that I’m going to do it, and I’m also going to make it a requirement for my older kids, whom I homeschool.

    (I’ve loved your ideas for a while, and have linked to some of your college posts on my blog.)

    I had to chime in on one thing, even though it’s uninvited, and will likely not change anything. But since we’re celebrating ideas here…

    You said: “This is not a poetic metaphor. Since the Big Bang that created the universe, every piece of matter is the result of atoms combining and creating something new.

    Life on Earth is about organic molecules combining and creating something new.”

    I would propose the idea that the perfect complexities and abounding creativities of the universe, and the infinite ability of humans to create, came from the Creator. It is wildly easier to believe that we long to create because we are made in His image and share His creative attributes, and that the infinite creativity, perfect order and design of the universe were created by a perfect Designer, than to believe it all came from a chaotic explosion.

    “The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship.” Psalm 19:1

  • Paul Ramsek

    Hello again! I have listened to the podcast several times and noticed that you were about to delve into the type of ideas are specific in business areas but seemed to cut yourself off due to lack of time and not wanting to get on a bunny trail. I would love to hear more of what your mind was trailing on.

  • Elizabeth Houser

    I have just finished reading both Choose Yourself Books. I am such a fan now. I was looking at some of the postings below and noticed some people are discussing an app for the 10 daily ideas. I understood that you recommend using pen and paper, even waiters’ order pads as keeping them is not the point, which I understand. Also I am very interested in either joining or starting a Choose Yourself Group. I am in therapy and my therapist has suggested I get involved in Al-Anon, I have been slightly resistant because I fear such a place would be just a bunch of victims whining and hand holding, which is fine if it works but I don’t think would be good for me. When I read about this idea I got really excited and am planning on sharing it with my therapist. If anybody has started one or is thinking about it please let me know. esmithhouser@gmail.com I requested to join the group here on LinkedIn.

  • Abbie

    I’ve seen/read/received several things on boosting/reviving creativity in the recent past, but none grabbed me. This does. I just made a list of lists I can make in coming days – 30 ideas in 10 minutes – and am having to mentally stop myself from making some of the lists. Can’t wait!

  • Jamie Jensen

    Wow how interesting! I’ll give this a try! I love your quote about inspiration being a deep well as opposed to a lightning strike; thank you. :)

  • Greg Kettner

    Great stuff James. I read a post by John Gannon and he linked you in for the ideas. I tried it for the first time today and struggled after idea # 3. Readying this post helped, as I want to start my own business, write a book, and become a public speaker. This exercise and and blog as already helped and I’m sure three months in, I’ll know better how to reach my goals. Thanks for sharing your success and failure. Keep it up.

  • Infamous Geek

    Is it necessary to have an everyday theme?
    What if one uses the same theme for more than a couple of days?
    Also do we look back at these ideas at some later point in time?

  • ideasBunny

    “If you are a perfectionist, you will never come up with good ideas. You
    have to love yourself enough to come up with bad ideas and still be
    happy and confident.”

    I have to disagree. If there’s one thing that perfectionists are good at it’s finding fault and every fault suggests a solution, even if it’s just a statement of oppositivity. Perfectionists generate ideas by the ton. “That shouldn’t be like *that*, it should be like *this*”, “Why didn’t they do *this* so that *that* wouldn’t be like that?”.

    Besides, I expect that most perfectionists are at least somewhat situational. That means leeway in some areas, perhaps when brainstorming.

    Or a perfectionist could seek the perfection of attaining 10 ideas of whatever qualiity – because the rules are 10 of of them and any quality. Maybe a given perfectionist will fail to produce any good ideas but that’s not the perfectionism, per se. As with non-perfectionists, it’s the distribution of luck and talent within the pool.

    Anyway, my idea for the day is “Don’t be so hard on perfectionists”, firstly they’re hard enough on themselves (in their various ways) and one day, once we get ginger-bashing recognised as a violation of human rights, we’ll be seeing perfectionist-bashing as the next “ism”.

    Not being that serious, of course. Just having some fun while singing my head off to Dark Side of the Moon. :-))

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  • prasanth

    Do I have to know how I would implement the idea ? Many times, I have ideas – but I have no knowledge of how to implement them.

    For example :
    24 hr electricity supply in South India
    Improving the quality of roads in India
    Standardizing traffic patterns in India

    I find that implementing ideas would require further studies in fields that I am not familiar with. How have you solved this problem? I imaging talking to people who have that specific knowledge might help.