For the past year, my daughter has been obsessed with a spongy porous square chap by the name of Sponge Bob. His poor hapless rival, Plankton, spends most episodes searching for the Secret Formula to make the wondrous Krabby Patty (a type of burger for creatures of the sea). It is his unrelenting search for this secret formula that resonates with me every morning as I search about for the secret to creativity. What shall I write about? Where shall I get my next idea from?

I’ve read hundreds of blogs and overloaded on infographics telling me to exercise my creative muscles, read widely, engage more etc. But at the start of a working week, I haven’t got time to read the top 100 most inspirational books or hang out with poets in the local cafe.

Just tell me what the secret ingredient is please

Having pondered this question for a while I have started to notice a recurring period when I am at my most creative. For me, it is usually when I am lying in bed, half awake, half asleep. A semi-doze where my mind wanders in and out of consciousness, putting half-remembered thoughts together. Somehow, somewhere, a new idea forms, a picture emerges out of the ether and a concept is crystallised. Aha!

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” The Tempest, Shakespeare

Once you shut your eyes, you have shut off the bombardment of information to your brain. The adverts, the noise from the radio, the view of the washing on the floor or the dust on the cabinet. Now you can fully process your day. Your brain is now in a world of its own and is able – to think. This stage is known as ‘hypnagogic’. However, the risk is you fall into a deep sleep and when you wake up, you are too groggy to remember any creative genius you had at the start of sleep.

Salvador Dali  used to nap in a chair while holding a key. When the key dropped, sometimes just a second after he had dropped off, he would wake up. Refreshed and full of creativity.

“ The hypnagogic is the ultimate paradigm-busting tool. As your brain slips into an associative, impressionistic state, it is no longer bound by conventional wisdom. Saucy ideas – impossible within a certain rational framework – clamour for attention. Images become metaphors for concepts, and suddenly everyone is a poet.” Jeff Warren, 2009

What if you haven’t got time to take a nap at 9.30 in the morning?

According to neuroscientist, Alice Flaherty, our brains are the most creative when flooded with dopamine. Brilliant! Can I put this in a smoothie?

No, but you can help the body manufacture it. Usually by doing something relaxing like having a shower, driving or some simple sitting and doing nothing. But, you also need some distraction. By focusing on something else, our subconscious mind can roam about, make new connections and overcome problems. So wash the dishes – urgh, or do some gardening. Doing something very mundane may help you come up with something truly amazing.

Back in the days when I used to write for television, I would dread the Monday meetings where we were asked to present our latest specialist factual programme ideas. I would have spent the weekend reading National Geographic, Scientific American, The Economist, Shortlist and The Week desperately looking for inspiration.


I would then sit in my favourite seat on the packed Edinburgh to Glasgow train and stare into the houses that whizzed by. And suddenly, while half imagining myself making-over the person next to me, there it was.

An idea.

Thank [insert swearword] for that.

Now, I know that it was the commute, not the articles that were the key to my creativity. Part slumber, part relaxed distraction were the secret ingredients. Well it all makes sense now. Thank goodness for the clarity of MRI brain scanning neuroscience.

“I’ve created what my friends call my ‘fake commute,’ and I get up an hour early before I’m supposed to go to Spanx and I drive around aimlessly in Atlanta with my commute so that I can have my thoughts come to me.” Sara Blakeley, CEO of Spanx

There you go, Plankton, just have a quick nap or a shower and chill out. The secret formula will come to you. That’s probably ruined series 99 of SpongeBob, but it has definitely made planning my working day easier.

Now comes the crunch. Is what I have come up with original?

A Google search quickly solves that problem.


Someone has done it before.

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely, but they are the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use through all the ages.” (Mark Twain)

Oh, thank-you Mark Twain. But that’s not going to help me come up with the next great blog post. Or is it.

Use your kaleidoscope

While your idea might not be new, you can make it new, by reversing it, taking the opposing view, looking at it in microscopic detail or from a macro viewpoint. Use your kaleidoscope to keep turning and making new combinations.

And if this isn’t working, then go back to sleep and relax…perchance to dream.

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