Okay, brainstorming time. This should be a relatively simple and straight-forward task, right?

So you get everything organised: whether that’s a pen/coloured pencils and paper or your online mind-mapping tool, you set a timer and you close your bedroom door, ready to focus.

Then you look out your window and see a lizard on your neighbours wall, or you notice that your blue pencil and red pencil make a really pretty purple when combined and then you are pleasantly doodling away 🙂

[insert rewind noise sample here]

Hang on. You’re distracted already! Oh boy, how do you do this thing again? Quick google search on ‘how to brainstorm’. Open a few tabs, and eventually you get to this one.

You’re in the right place, my friend. I know exactly where you’re at because I was just there 5 minutes ago when brainstorming what to write for this post. What a beautifully ironic symmetry.

brain -> stall

Okay, let me just say that I think brainstorming is a genius tool that can become mighty powerful when done effectively. So let’s figure out how to do that…

brain -> pedal to the floor!

What You Need

  • The central idea around which you are brainstorming. This could be an essay question, a creative concept, a problem you need to solve, etc.
  • A tool that works for you. Either paper and pens, an open and empty word doc or an online mind-mapping tool.
  • A quiet, boring space around you. Clear everything off your desk if you have to, close your curtains – Leave no distractions!

Choose The Method To Your Madness

Let me preface this section by saying I am pro mind-mapping. It’s my chosen tool to brainstorm and I’m gonna tell you why.


  • The radial shape of mind-maps is similar to the way we store things in our brain
  • The branches of a mind-map, correlating to the hierarchy of ideas (headings, sub-headings, sub-sub-headings, etc), makes a clear path in our mind that is easier to memorise and more logical than traditional linear note taking.
  • Another benefit or the hierarchy is that this saves you time in the end as everything is fairly ordered already, through the use of different branches.
  • If you choose mind-mapping and want to try an online tool, I highly recommend MindMeister.

Read more about why I choose mind-maps here.

Other options include:

Dot points


  • Linear brainstorming is when you have a heading at the top of a document page and then you just rattle off dot points in a note-taking style with no particular order in mind.
  • You would then have to order things and put them in different categories if that is the nature of your brainstorm.



Break down or Build up

  • Break down your main idea into smaller, more detailed pieces of information
  • Or Build up your central idea into broader ideas and view-points
  • Combining these two methods could work really well for an essay. Get you major thesis and topic sentences from ‘building up’ and your paragraph content from ‘breaking down’.


There are of course many other methods and you might have your own but you can see The Links List at the end of this post for more ideas.

Enough Procrastinating, Let’s Start!

Actually getting started is often the hardest part about brainstorming. When I know there’s nothing left to do but start, I begin feeling mentally blocked and unfocused. Fortunately, I quickly realise that those symptoms are all in my head and as soon as one idea rolls in, I’m inspired to search the crevices of my mind to find more!
So the question is, how do you get that first idea. This depends on what you are brainstorming for…

Essay Brainstorming

  • The purpose of your brainstorm here might be to break down the question into sections or find your thesis statement or your arguments.
  • Start by really breaking down the question, what is the central idea or ideas being asked?
  • Then consider all the possible arguments for and against the idea. Write them down in case one of them is the right one for you!
  • Try the break down and build up method I mentioned above.
  • If after all this the ideas haven’t started rolling in yet, then ask yourself imaginative questions.
    For an english essay: If I were [insert prominent, outspoken writer], would I agree or disagree with the question?
    For an art essay: How would [insert prominent, outspoken artist] critique or analyse this work?
    For a society and culture essay: How would [insert prominent, outspoken politician] address this issue?
    And so on…

Project brainstorming

  • If you’re searching for an idea for a major project or assignment, you might have been assigned a theme of some sort; or you could be driving blind, relying purely on your own creative ideas.
  • If you have something to go off, do a word or idea association with that theme. Something viable should come out of that.
  • If you’re relying on yourself for inspiration, write down all the things that interest you. From your hobbies and interests to social or political issues that intrigue you. Then try to make links between these things and the topic. You’ll find something interesting to manipulate for the assignment, I’m sure.

Problem solving brainstorming

  • Play the pessimist and optimist. Set them up with the problem and make them have a conversation about it. Start with a question that could be a possible solution or a smaller part of the problem and then have the pessimist reply with a negative/unhelpful comment such as ‘that won’t work because…’. Then let the optimist reply to the pessimist’s comment, for example ‘Okay, what if we did this though…’. Continue until a solution is reached.
  • Break down the problem into smaller issues, then you might find a solution for something in this list that could be manipulated or transferred to work for the other problems as well. This could prompt you to think differently about the problem, consequently letting in fresh ideas and solutions.
  • Write the problem as a question in many different ways. EG, ‘How can we make the study space more effective?’, ‘How can we make a more effective study space?’, ‘Where can we move the desk to make a more effective study space?’, ‘Should we eliminate the desk lamp to make a more effective study space?’, etc. These can bring to light possible solutions as the last 2 examples did.

Creative ideas brainstorming

  • Write down possible themes or main ideas that you think could work – even if you aren’t interested in them, write them down, trust me.
  • Then brainstorm creative manifestations on those themes. EG, the theme is Marine Environment and your creative manifestation of that is a collage of an under ocean scene made entirely of plastic waste. Something in this connection could spark another idea that you find more interesting.
  • Creative ideas are something that is easily inspired by exterior ideas so sit outside for this task or have your tumblr blog open to glance at for inspiration. Think about what sparks your creativity and indulge in this until you have your brainstorm working.

Leave a comment if you are doing some other kind of brainstorming and I will add it to this list with suggestions on how to get started!

How Long Do You Let It Go On?

I strongly suggest setting a timer of a short period, say 10-20 mins. I say this because often, the brainstorming stage isn’t the most crucial, but instead the implementation stage is where we should spend our time. When you begin to plan out your essay, when you begin to plan the solution in fine detail or when you start your creative project, that’s the implementation of the idea you found during your brainstorming.

Another benefit of not indulging too long in brainstorming is that the smaller the amount of time, the faster you need to work and think, which may increase adrenaline and stress levels enough to kick you into a super creative zone. But you can’t maintain that kind of adrenaline for too long so, short and sweet wins this race.

The Wrap Up 'How to brainstorm when brain is stormy

The Links List

I know you’re time is precious, or at least the way you spend your time is precious, so I’ve curated a little list of links that speak more to this idea of time being in control and us navigating our way through it. Maybe use these as a way to wind down, pick one and spend the time really enjoying the content.

Six Creative Ways to Brainstorm Ideas (approx 4 mins)
If you’re looking for some different ideas, this is a cute little video that has a few.
A lovely online mind-mapping tool that you can get for free or different plans depending on how often you use it. Look out for the ‘Education plans’ where you pay less as a student, educator or school.

The Students Guide to Mind Mapping (approx 5mins)
A blog post by the online mind-mapping tool that I use, Mind Meister.

Why Mind Mapping is My Secret Weapon
Another post of mine that goes into more detail about why and how mind-mapping is my weapon of choice.

7 Techniques for More Effective Brainstorming (approx 5mins)
Read this article to learn even more techniques for effective brainstorming. The outlined techniques are pretty unique and clever.