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As the title says, do you know any effective ways of escaping the trap of thinking about a problem only in the terms of the first idea/solution that came up?

I have encountered this issue both in my research and programming work. I usually try to get beyond any first idea by further researching the topic I am working on, but I found that any next ideas are in someway still related to the first one, which biases my train of thought.

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

This is why brainstorming or 'blue sky thinking' can be very useful when trying to break out of a rut.

Instead of analysing a possible solution, these techniques encourage you to write down many ideas - without being judgemental, so no calling out a specific idea as silly or unworkable - just write them all down and then go back and review each one.

This allows your brain to avoid thinking in depth as to practicality or how easy they would be to implement, but instead stay at a high creative level.

So in summary, come up with many ideas, no matter how crazy, and only once you cannot think of any more go back and research them.

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I find timelimits to be very important when brainstorming - because otherwise I end up wandering off with just the first solution - if I set a timer and know I have to sit there for another 10/15 minutes then that tends to be pretty good for pulling out more alternatives... – Joe May 17 '13 at 16:00

Depending on what you're brainstorming about, you might do it differently, but here's some stuff that should work regardless

Brainstorming Guidelines:

  • Use a pen, markers, whiteboards, sticky notes etc. Digital mediums create constraints, and you only want productive constraints when brainstorming.
  • There are no bad ideas, don't judge anybody, write them all down.
  • If you can draw it, draw it. Drawings are always better than words, no matter how crude.
  • Stay focused. Have somewhere to put any items or thoughts not related to your brainstorming, and don't touch them.
  • Don't spend too much time on any one idea. Just get them out onto paper, you'll think them through later, the purpose of this is just to create as many ideas as possible
  • Use the whole room. Cover the walls with ideas.
  • Have any relevant research posted up on the walls to possibly give you some kind of inspiration or for reference.
  • Don't go for too long in one sitting, give yourself only so much time and take breaks, brainstorming is mentally draining.

Structured Brainstorming

This is a good way to get your brain moving, basically have a prompt for your brainstorming, don't necessarily just run wild. Have multiple prompts, spend 30 minutes on a prompt, then take a break and move on to another.

  • A good idea to dwell on: How would the system work if it was magic? How would it accomplish the task?
  • What areas cause pain?
  • What opportunities are there for you to innovate?
  • What are the steps of the process? What can you do for each of these?
  • Metaphors: What is it like, what isn't it like, what would it be if it was a toy?

Hopefully this helps and actually answers the question. Good luck.

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I faced the same problem many times. Especially when I had to find mathematical solutions to hard problems, or when I had to find some algorithms.

In the first place, it might be hard to get over the first idea. However, I usually make long walks outdoor, preferably to places I've never been before. Because I noticed a curious fact. Everytime, I am at the same place, I tend to have the same thoughts. Thoughts seem to be associated to places. And I think this is the mental trick behind many people with super memories. They arrange the objects to remember along an imaginary path, they walk mentally. I use walks into unknown areas to allow my brain having different thoughts.

Before doing so, I like to forget the problem and listening to music, watching movies, playing some games to gather some inspirations. Also surfing the WWW without fixed goal can be very inspirative.

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