Out of Creative Ideas? Try Flashcards
Flashcards are the ultimate tool for memorization, but they can also inspire creativity.
Our creativity comes from without, not from within.
No idea is truly original and no idea springs out of a vacuum. Every new idea builds on previous ones. To come up with new ideas you must crack open your skull, stick a funnel into your brain, and pour a large bag of old ideas into it. You need to feed your brain with inputs so that you have something to work with. Only then the creative process — the remixing — can start.
Someone had to know about metalworking and the mechanism behind a winepress to come up with movable type and the printing press. Someone¹ must have understood biological evolution and algorithm design to come up with evolutionary algorithms. Someone had to know about biological neurons and computers to come up with the idea of a perceptron, the basic building block of current AI systems.
You need to be familiar with ideas from different areas of knowledge to come up with your own novel ideas. This not only applies to engineers and scientists, but also to writers, designers, and other creators.
The question is how to best get ideas into your brain.
Don’t just read
Reading is a technology that allows you to download ideas from other people’s brains into your own. So it seems to be just what you need.
With that in mind, you open some books and start reading. But after twenty minutes you sigh. This is taking too long. So far all you’ve read is fluff. You haven’t gotten to any key insights or ideas yet. So you open your browser, quickly round up a row of tabs, and begin to read. Another twenty minutes and you sigh again. Most of what you’re reading is garbage. You’re sifting through too much crap.
Reading seems a sensible approach for absorbing ideas. It works, yet, by itself, it’s not the most efficient process. In fact, reading alone is painfully inefficient:
- Reading takes a lot of time.
- We tend to forget what we read.
- Reading doesn’t give you a random stream of ideas.
You can’t be a firehose of new ideas if the process of loading old ideas into your brain takes forever. You can’t remix old ideas if you keep forgetting them. And you can’t find connections among disparate ideas if bringing them to mind doesn’t involve some randomness. For instance, you can’t see the similarity between chemical reactions and habit formation if you’ve never thought of chemical reactions and habits at the same time.
Creativity is about connecting dots. But if those dots keep vanishing from your memory, you won’t be able to connect them. And if all you’re doing is connecting neighbouring dots, you won’t come up with anything truly original. A random input to your creative process is essential.
So don’t just read to come up with new ideas. Instead, do something that feeds one idea after the other to your brain, from a variety of topics, and which does so efficiently, without having to slog through endless paragraphs, pages, or browser tabs.
And no. The solution isn’t podcasts, YouTube videos, audiobooks, nor other audiovisual inputs. They have the same problems as reading.
Don’t just play games
A more efficient way to load wide-ranging concepts into your mind is to play word games.
Sounds silly, but hear me out.
Shimpei Takahashi, a toy designer from Japan, swears by this technique and he has used it successfully to come up with ideas for new toys. He talks about it in his TEDx talk. The game he uses is called Shiratori and is essentially a Japanese variant of the word chain game. You begin with one word from which you derive a whole chain of words, each word beginning with the last letter of the previous word. For example, you begin with the word “creativity” and come up with the chain “creativity — yellow — war — rain — nail”. This creates a more or less random sequence of words which can then serve as a writing prompt or input to whatever creative task you’re about to start.
To be honest, I haven’t tried it, but if you want to give it a try, go ahead. There’s a nice online version that’s free to play. You can even get a fancy deck of cards specifically designed for finding connections among random concepts. Or just open random pages in a dictionary. That should basically accomplish the same.
I don’t doubt that these games can help at times, and I wouldn’t completely disregard them, but I doubt that their effective for remixing highly abstract ideas and concepts, which is what I, and perhaps you, am interested in. Take hormesis, antifragility, and the Stoic practice of voluntary discomfort as an example. There are clear similarities among these concepts, but it seems hard to connect such dots by playing word games or using any other method that provides a random stream of common words.
Don’t just dump ideas into Evernote — or whatever notetaking system you’re using
Reading seems superior to word games if you’re interested in abstract ideas and concepts. So let’s get back to reading.
To avoid having to comb through a lot of fluff when you’re trying to come up with new ideas, you may use reading only as a first step. You read your books, newspapers, blog posts, and other material without yet worrying about generating anything creative. Instead, you only use your reading time for notetaking. Once you’ve amassed a nice collection of notes containing all the juicy ideas and concepts, you can spend some time going through them whenever you want to come up with something new. Stroll randomly through your notes and you might begin to see some unusual connections.
I think this approach isn’t a bad idea. However, I see one problem with it.
You probably want some help from your subconscious to do the hard work of finding similarities, connections, and patterns among wide-ranging ideas. In other words, you probably want to exploit what psychologists call incubation². Then you’ll be able to go for a walk, do the dishes, or take a shower and have your own eureka moments, just like Archimedes. Or even better, you’ll just go to sleep and then jolt awake by a flash of creative insight, as when Dmitri Mendeleev saw the periodic table in a dream³. Incubation, however, only works if the ideas and concepts are in your brain — and not filed away in some notes. Which brings me to the approach I advocate.
Do this instead
What I do is this. I don’t file away valuable concepts and ideas into a notetaking system. Instead, I file them away into a flashcard-based spaced repetition system. Such a system is designed to slowly, but steadily, store whatever you want into your brain’s long-term memory.
How do such systems work?
Flashcards are cards that have a question on one side and an answer on the other. They are used as a tool for memorization. For instance, if you’re trying to memorize what hormesis is, you might write on the front side of the card
What is hormesis?
and on the backside
Hormesis is when something that hurts your body at high doses has a beneficial effect at low doses.
While trying to memorize what hormesis is, you would then look at the front of the card and in your mind speak out the back of the card. Then you turn the card around and check if you were correct. If you were, you put the card away until a later study session. If not, you review the card again until you get it right.
Flashcards are highly effective because they exploit the testing effect, which is the robust finding that for memorization it is much better to try to summon information from your mind than to simply read over the information. It’s been confirmed by plenty of studies⁴.
Coupled with an appropriate study schedule, flashcards are one of the most efficient evidence-based tools for memorization available.
And that’s where the spaced repetition part comes in.
The best study schedule is called spaced repetition and it consists in spacing out your study sessions for a particular card over time. If today you remembered what hormesis is, you look at the card again in three days. If in three days you still remember the definition, you review the card again in seven days. As you keep remembering the definition, the review intervals increase from days to weeks, to months, to years.
The key is that you don’t review a card when it’s fresh in your memory, nor when you’ve completely forgotten about it. You only review it when you’re just about to forget it. That way you don’t waste time reviewing what you know nor do you have to start from scratch because you completely forgot what you were studying.
Luckily, you don’t have to worry about the study schedule yourself. A spaced repetition system is a piece of software and it does the fancy math to predict when you’re just about to forget a given card⁵. The flashcards are digital and you can review them on your phone using an appropriate app⁶. The app takes care of all the scheduling.
Each day, whenever you stumble upon a clever idea or interesting concept, you open your app and add an appropriate flashcard for the concept. And other than that, you simply review the cards that you added in the past and that are due for study for the given day. As you review your cards, the app will ask you how well you remembered the answer, and based on your answers, the app schedules cards for review at future dates.
Coming back to creativity, reviewing cards with a spaced repetition system feels a bit like snacking from a bowl of fortune cookies filled with creative inspiration.
As you review your cards, at one time the system may ask you about the definition of a concept from biology you heard of in a YouTube video three weeks ago, then it may ask you about some philosophical idea you read about six months ago, and then it may ask you another question about something you learned about marketing just two days ago. As you review your cards, you may start to see connections among these random ideas. You never know what card may come next and how it may relate to a card you’ve seen before. It’s a perfect tool for connecting dots.
And if you don’t see any connections among the ideas that the system queries you about, don’t worry. You’re committing this knowledge into your long-term memory. This means that your subconscious, thanks to incubation, may reveal the connections at a later time.
How many books have you read? How many blog posts? How many clever ideas have you encountered among those words you’ve read? How many of these ideas do you still remember?
Flashcards solve the problem of forgetting. They turn forgetting into a conscious decision. Either you decide to forget something and keep it out of your spaced repetition system or you decide to remember it and add it. Once the bit of knowledge is in your spaced repetition system, the system will ensure that the knowledge ends up in your long-term memory.
With the knowledge in your memory, it becomes another dot in your mind. And since creativity is all about connecting dots, you’ve increased your potential for generating new ideas.
So try flashcards. What’s the worst that could happen? That you get smarter and more knowledgeable while you were only aiming at becoming more creative? I think that’s a risk you can take.
 How incubation works is not settled science. Some researchers have even failed to find incubation effects. But at least this 2009 meta-analysis of 117 studies support that it’s a real phenomenon: Sio, U. N., & Ormerod, T. C. (2009). Does incubation enhance problem-solving? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 94. Free PDF available here.
 The benefit of sleep on creativity is not only something anecdotal but also something that has been studied. This paper lists a few studies that support this idea: Ritter, S. M., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2014). Creativity — the unconscious foundations of the incubation period. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 215. HTML version available here.
 The prediction is essentially based on an exponential decay. Read about the forgetting curve for more details.
 The app I favour is called Anki, which is also available for iOS and Android. Other alternatives include SuperMemo, Tinycards, Memrise, Mnemosyne, and Quizlet. You can find a more complete list here.
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