It’s Friday afternoon in a senior school.  I’m twelve years old and sitting next to Laura Mountford in the rear classroom of the technology block.  It isn’t a comfortable learning environment.  The stools are hard and the workbenches are solid so you can’t get your legs underneath, meaning any written work is done sitting at an awkward sideways angle.  Mr Claydon, the metalwork teacher who looks like Richard from Guess Who?, is in charge of the lesson but Mr Porter from I.T. is hanging round for most of it too.  We are about to embark upon a new project: making a box to store tapes or CDs. We get to choose!  (Note: this is mid-nineties.  Tapes or CDs is a big decision).  

We are all eager to start using the exciting and slightly dangerous machinery and equipment. Reigning us in, Mr Claydon tells us that first we have to plan our project.  The initial step is to brainstorm all of our options: not only how we are going to make the tape/CD box but what materials we could use and other considerations such as size.  He then proceeds to explain how we are to complete our brainstorm and we spend the rest of the afternoon following his instructions.  The topic goes in the centre with some kind of box round it. Surrounding it go sub-sections, each underlined and with an arrow connecting it to the middle.  Each sub-section is in turn surrounded by relevant points connected to it, and possibly to each other, by smaller arrows. I don’t remember what the finished result looked like, but I do recall showing my brainstorm to Mr Claydon and Mr Porter and feeling both proud and satisfied with my efforts.

My memories of that lesson have long been filed away in part of my brain labelled ‘Random stuff I learnt at school’.  I don’t know why I remember it so vividly except for the fact that I enjoyed the actual process.  I can’t say I was consciously aware of this at the time and it is only fairly recently that I noticed I still do a lot of brainstorming.  At the beginning of each month, I brainstorm what I’m doing and what I want to achieve personally and professionally over the coming four weeks. Whenever I have a big project, whether at work or at home, I like to begin by getting it all out on paper in a way that continues to closely resemble Mr Claydon’s instructions, except I don’t tend to bother with the arrows unless I want to particularly connect to disparate points.  Unbelievably ditching the lines still makes me feel like a rebel!

What I love about brainstorming is that it can work on different levels at the same time. Sometimes it is simply about getting stuff out of your head and onto paper without feeling that you have to do so in a linear fashion; the layout breaks the sense of hierarchy that a list can convey. There is also a strong element of flow, and with that creativity: from what seems like a muddled mish-mash can emerge fresh thoughts and ideas.  New connections become visible too, and you can use helpful arrows to put them together (I know I sound like a nerd, but I am.  Especially when it comes to this subject).  

I felt the magic of brainstorming in full force when I worked on my ideas for the 24 Days Before advent journey that I created last year. Before doing anything else, I explored how I wanted the programme to make participants feel.  As I transcribed words onto the page, what felt like a huge jumble in my mind transformed itself into a coherent and connected web of experiences, as the picture above hopefully conveys.

Right now, I’m benefiting from one of the other awesome aspects of brainstorming, which is the way it can help with really practical, action-orientated steps (the total opposite to what it did with 24 Days Before).  I’m off on a big trip next month involving a wedding, a holiday visiting different places and some time working in another city.  This requires a lot of planning and I didn’t even know where to begin with a list – but with a brainstorm, there was no beginning or end, just lots of sub-sections and related items.  Amongst the items circling the sub-sections, I could suddenly see all the small steps that I needed to take.  I can add and cross off in a much more fluid, organic way than a top-to-bottom list of things.  Best of all, it has stopped the preparation feeling so overwhelming: I have all the considerations mapped out, just as I did when I made my CD box back in 1994.

Have you ever tried brainstorming?  Like me, it may be something that you remember from school technology lessons but if that is your only experience then I’d say give it a go for an aspect of your life today. If you’ve never tried it, follow Mr Claydon’s advice above or just get some paper and see what feels right for you.

Whether you’re facing a decision with lots of options involved, a project where you want to think through lots of ideas or a task that feels too big to know where to begin, simply the act of doing a brainstorm can help you to unblock your mind and get going.  And let me know how you get on!  How did you find it?  Did the process bring up anything unexpected?  Has it enabled you to take steps forward? You can comment below or get in touch via Twitter or the Facebook page.  If you’d like to share a picture of your efforts then there’s Instagram too.

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