Why Brainstorming is a Waste of Time and What You Should Do Instead

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Brand Strategist and Partner at Lucule
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"And then Eli thought it would be a good idea to start rhyming words," my friend Rochelle told me last night on the phone, "Because no one was coming up with any good ideas using free association."

She wasn't bringing me up to date on re-runs of The Office. She was actually describing a brainstorming session at her company. The leader of the group was making his team -- of grown ups -- play rhyming games as a way of coming up with fresh insights for new product development.

"He told us we were all stuck and this exercise was going to stretch and relax our minds," she added.

I can't vouch for the science of making rhymes, but I can tell you Eli is probably wasting his time, and you might be too if you're spending a lot of time in brainstorming sessions with your team.

The conventional wisdom that says you can institutionalize the new idea process via formal brainstorming sessions is simply wrong. Part of what we know about the brain makes it clear why the best new ideas don't emerge from these kinds of groups.

First, the brain doesn't make optimal connections in a rigid atmosphere. In a brainstorming session, there is too much pressure from the group and its leader. Peer pressure and the need to please with "right answers" shackles participants and lessens their ability and desire to take risks with suggestions that might cause embarrassment. Psychologists have documented the predictability of free association.  

We all have the power to develop thoughts into reality. There are techniques that keep your brains working with agility, enabling new connections and fresh insights into whatever we're working on.

Here are a few activities that are more effective at generating ideas than brainstorming:

1. Do something mindless.
Take a walk, organize your sock drawer, draw a hot bath and soak for a while -- and be sure to listen to music you like. You can free your mind by engaging in an activity that is unchallenging enough to allow your mind to "wander." It's during these not-so-aimless journeys that we often formulate exciting ideas or find answers to questions that have been bugging us.

Moderate background noise enhances creativity too, so play some favorite music. According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Consumer Research, "Moderate background noise induces distraction, which encourages individuals to think at a higher, abstract level, and consequently exhibit higher creativity."

2. Do something hard.
Exercising your brain with challenging and interesting tasks makes it better at innovating. Crossword puzzles and memory games may not do the trick if they aren't difficult enough. New and challenging tasks stimulate the brain most and help to grow cognition.

Researchers at the University of Hamburg subjected 20 adults to a month of intense training in juggling, and found an increase in the gray matter, the part of the brain that processes complex ideas, as early as seven days after the training began.

Learning a new language, challenging yourself to make a dress from a Vogue couture pattern when you've never sewn before, teaching yourself to play a musical instrument, studying for a difficult exam like the GMATs, or understanding and memorizing the Latin name of plants could be the gateway to your next brilliant epiphany.

3. Make time to meditate.
Innovation and new ideas are inside you, and meditation is one way to allow them to become apparent and connected. Meditation increases your power of concentration and allows your mind to let ideas flow freely. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that people who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

4. Sleep on it.
Recent research suggests that sleep is essential for our capacity to learn, remember and create. Our ability to learn, think more innovatively and solve problems is actually enhanced after getting a good night's sleep or even a very satisfying nap. German neuroscientist Ullrich Wagner did a study published in 2004, "Sleep Inspires Insight," published in Nature, that found that deep sleep inspires insight and triggers new conceptual insights.

It makes sense. Who can really think about important issues or decisions when exhausted? Put away that work and go to bed!

5. Believe in your abilities.
In What the Best College Students Do author Dr. Ken Bain writes that the idea that intelligence is static -- either you're born smart or you aren't -- is simply not true. Creative, successful people have something in common he discovered: they all believed that intelligence is expandable. People who believe they can "grow" their brainpower demonstrated more curiosity and open-mindedness and took more professional and intellectual risks, and as a result became very successful adults.

Several studies have shown that when people learn they can become smarter and that their brains can become "stronger," it actually happens, even if they do nothing else than read an article about the subject. Those of us who believe we can improve our cognitive abilities have less of a tendency to give up when we are faced with difficult problems, like coming up with ideas.

I told my friend that next time Eli schedules a brainstorming meeting, she should call in sick on that day instead, and sleep in, then take a walk, listen to music, practice her Italian lessons, mediate and most of all, believe in her capacity and innate intelligence to solve big problems. You should too.

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