How to come up with innovative ideas

When I started writing my PhD, I was afraid that I would never have anything new to say. Back then, it seemed to me that everything had already been studied and all the good ideas were already taken. Petrified at the thought of starting my first chapter, I expressed my fears to my supervisor. He tried to alleviate them by giving me the following advice: “Open a bottle of wine, sit by the fireplace, drink a couple of glasses and relax. The ideas will flow afterwards”. As an obedient student, I followed his advice to the letter. The outcome, though, was very different from what I expected. My head felt lighter, my thoughts became fuzzy and I fell asleep on the floor. I had to find another solution to the problem.

Over the years I developed my own routine that helped me come up with new ideas for books, articles and general projects. I am certain this routine will not work for everyone but it may give you hope that the lack of clear direction in your research can be overcome.

1) Read a controversial article on the subject you are interested in. In your head, argue with the author until you come up with a new and viable theory.
2) Attend a lecture. It does not have to be exactly on the topic of your choice. The discussion that will follow will certainly trigger new thoughts. Make certain that you react to the ideas of the speaker politely, though.
3) Read books or articles of authors who belong to a different discipline. You cannot believe how many ideas emerge from the combination of different subjects. After all, that is why I combine in my research ancient history with economics.
4) Talk to your students. Discuss the issue at hand with them. You will be surprised how their questions will clarify your thoughts.
5) Write a long email to yourself, stating the nature of your research, the problems you are trying to solve, the evidence you came up with and the possible solutions. When you, finally, read it, you will be happily surprised at level of your progress.
6) Meditate. Most of you will wonder how emptying your mind helps you come up with innovative theories. Even though I do not understand the mechanics behind the process, I observed that it enhances creativity.
7) If none of the above works, you are probably close to burning out. Take a short holiday and distance yourself from your discipline. By the time you are back, ideas will flow and you will be ready to start writing.

Good luck!

Economic historian and numismatic consultant


  1. Great idea for this blog, seems very interesting, I’ll make sure to follow.
    Also, it’s lovely to ‘meet’ another historian blogger on WordPress.

    Best wishes,

  2. I can only agree that this post is a great idea. It is always inspiring to hear about other’s methods to get started on a new idea, chapter or article, as this can sometimes be the hardest part.
    Looking forward to follow your blog!
    – Maria Louise

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