I love brainstorming. Put me in a room with a white board, a dry erase marker, and a few smart, playful colleagues, and we’ll talk and laugh and mind-map our way to astounding ingenuity.
But sometimes brainstorming gets bad press. Thinking by committee is not comfortable for everyone. Even open-minded, collaborative people can fall prey to limited thinking and time wasting, rather than mental breakthroughs.
Fortunately, idea-conjuring can be a solo activity.
One of my favorite methods for independent brainstorming is making a list. But to generate innovative thoughts, your list has to be the right length.
The perfect length for a list of ideas? Thirty-nine. Yep, 39. Just shy of 40 but well past two dozen.
Why make lists of 39?
- Because 7 is not enough, and neither is 10.
- Because numbers that end in 5 are too tidy.
- Because 50 and 100 are overwhelming.
- Because once you’ve reached 25 or 30, why not just keep going?
A list of 39 is a reasonable stretch. It gets you past the first, easy ideas that fall from the top of your mind. It pushes you into unfamiliar territory.
What’s the science behind 39?
There isn’t any. At least not that I know of. I totally made up the Theory of 39. It’s based on 0% scientific research, 50% intuition, and 50% real-life experience busting past lame concepts to find great ideas.
And it works. Here’s how listing 39 things typically goes for me:
- Choose a topic (excuses for my messy office, jobs I would hate, historical figures who’d be good spokespeople for ice cream)
- Rapidly drop 5 or 10 items into a list.
- Hesitate, briefly.
- Resume listing, more slowly, generating 10 to 15 more ideas. Maybe a couple more.
- Pause … uncomfortably. This is a long, uneasy moment when I feel ashamed of my limited creativity. I want to quit. “Oh well, 26 is good enough.”
- Pull shoulders back. Breathe deeply. “I am no quitter.”
- Type or write remaining numbers, all the way to 39.
Mind you: I’m saying I just number the page. No ideas. Just a series of lines with a couple digits followed by a period and a long blank space.
That’s all the motivation I need. Somewhere in the back of my mind, turbo boosters ignite a new surge of thinking. Crazy, unexpected wisdom. A few minutes later, I realize I’ve blown past 39 and am well into the 40s. Maybe even the 50s.
The Theory of 39 works for blog topics and conference themes and career moves and vacation plans and I-don’t-know-what-else.
You tell me.
If you don’t have an immediate brainstorming need and can’t think of what to list, here’s a prompt I like: Tell me 39 things you always do. Start with actions like “brush teeth before bed” and “run spellcheck before hitting the send button.” Then, after the easy stuff, see where listing takes you.
Whatever you do, don’t give up at 26.
Try the Theory of 39, and let me know how it works for you. Tell me the unexpected ideas that appear in your list of 39 things. Tell me about your most surprising revelation. What number was it?