Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

Working Solo? 8 Great Ways to Brainstorm by Yourself

One day in early 2008, I walked into my office at a travel website to find water gushing from the ceiling. The pipes in the office above ours had burst, and the effect was a literal waterfall (and subsequent lake) in our own space.

The damage was significant, to put it mildly, and my co-workers and I spent more than two months working from home while the walls were redone, the carpets reinstalled, and the equipment replaced.

Those two months were some of the most stressful of my professional career. Sure, working in sweatpants was nice, and I forged a very close relationship with the women of The View, but I found it incredibly difficult to stay inspired. In the absence of teammates, I felt largely uncreative, unchallenged, and unfocused. I didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of. I ate lunch alone. Happy hour? Forget it. Brainstorming was moved to email, rendering it wholly counterproductive.

But I certainly wasn't alone, then or now. In the United States, about 10% of the workforce reports working from home at least one day a week. Meanwhile, the proportion of people who primarily work from home has almost doubled over the past 30 years, from 2.3% in 1980 to 4.3% in 2010.

As an extrovert who loves working with others, I'm in near-constant awe of my friends and colleagues—the writers, the entrepreneurs, the artists—who have the ability and self-discipline to create and build on their own (or at least largely without the reassurance and support that colleagues bring into the workspace).

But, as I learned, it’s necessary sometimes to take a DIY approach to getting inspired. So I asked them for their secrets: What are some of the practical (yet creative!) ways that they challenge themselves to think of new and unique ideas in the absence of teammates?

Next time you're brainstorming solo, try one of their approaches.

Do Something Totally Different

Get out of the office. Do something outside of your industry. You are not learning and seeing new perspectives or ideas if you stay put. I once read about a CEO who demanded that her employees do something unrelated to their business each week. Go to a museum, go to a panel discussion regarding a totally different industry. That is where you get ideas of what is outside the box of your industry, and often times it leads to innovative ideas you can bring back to your business."

—Andrea Pappas, Founder & CEO of Brunch Critic

Pick Up a Book

I have a big bookshelf of lots of books I have loved over the years. I find that if I just get up and stretch and then spend a few minutes going totally off-topic that I can usually come back to the issue at hand with a fresh perspective."

—Dana Dickey, Editor of PureWow LA

Write, Then Walk

Being the one-person team behind Stitch Collective means that I have to brainstorm solo all the time. I find writing down initial thoughts pen-and-paper style and then taking a quick brain break (anything from a workout to coffee with a friend) and coming back with a clear head to edit and update helps tremendously!"

—Loni Edwards, CEO & Founder of Stitch Collective

Save What Inspires You

I find it helpful to use Google Images, Etsy, and Pinterest to help source ideas in a highly visual way. Whenever I see something inspiring, I drop it into a folder on my desktop so I have a place to go back to whenever I need to spark some creativity."

—Liz Lorenzoni, Integrated Sales Director at The Atlantic

Look to Your Peers

Browse unlikely sources. While I would never take an idea from a competitor, sometimes when I'm hard-up for stories I'll check out a publication with a totally different audience (TechCrunch, Car and Driver, Teen People) and see if any of their coverage gives me ideas more relevant to my readers."

—Jillian Quint, Managing Editor at PureWow

Draw a Map

I always make maps—mind maps or otherwise, just a means of writing down everything that's in my mind and connecting the ideas. I find that getting every possibility down helps to eliminate what I don’t need and hone in on what feels right. Totally works solo and with groups.”

—Kim Hogan, Graphic Designer at PureWow and Artist

Stop Thinking

Hard problems typically get solved the second you stop thinking about them. Force yourself to go do something creative, and ideas will flow better. Oh, and create a deadline that will affect others if you miss it. It's an added incentive, and nothing illuminates the brain like the deathly stare of time."

—Jared A. Feldman, CEO & Founder of Mashwork

Go Outside

Step away from your desk! With zero distractions, it's easy to spend all day sitting in front of your laptop, which can seriously cramp your creativity. I find that getting up to take a quick walk outside helps me brainstorm ideas and find some inspiration."

—Cristina Tudino, Editor of PureWow San Francisco

Tell us! How do you stay inspired on your own?

Photo of man brainstorming courtesy of Shutterstock.