Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How to Brainstorm Effectively

A crisp, structured approach.

Geralt, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Geralt, Pixabay, Public Domain

Brainstorming is often considered the first step toward developing a solution, whether at work or personally. But too often, it doesn’t lead to anything that was worth the time it took to brainstorm. Perhaps this will help.

Let’s take a psychology-related example: A person is suffering from generalized anxiety. “I’m always so alert, afraid something bad will happen. I have to figure out what to do. I'm in a permanent state of anxiety.”

Standard brainstorming practice is to simply list what pops to mind, unstructured. But a structured approach, done solo or with others, is often more helpful. Doing it while walking may help.

For our example, here are sample categories and entries. Note their crispness. Usually, brevity brings important things to the fore, while comprehensiveness tends to obfuscate — as well as, of course, taking more time.


First looking at causation can inform the development of tactics and assess their likelihood of success.

  • Genetic. I've always been anxious. My earliest memory was of being scared when my mother said we were going to the doctor.
  • Early parenting. My parents weren't perfect, but pretty good. I don't think my anxiety was caused by the way my parents treated me.
  • Early trauma. I was never part of the "in" group, and I totaled my car once, but that was about it. I don't think my anxiety was caused by early trauma.
  • Recent trauma. Yes, my wife divorced me, and the whole process certainly was traumatic and I sure was anxious in that courtroom, but my anxiety long predates that.

Cognitive self-help

  • Think about what I get out of worrying. It keeps me from being bored, sometimes prevents bad things from happening.
  • Remind myself that my worrying is irrational. Yeah, I already do that; it doesn't help much.
  • Remind myself that my worrying is unhealthy. I try that too; it also doesn't help much.

Behavioral self-help

  • Deep breaths when starting to feel stressed. Low-risk, worth doing more often.
  • Distraction to something constructive or pleasurable. I should redouble my efforts to do that.
  • Exercise to de-adrenalize me. I can't exercise often enough. That's not a solution.

Professional help

Try at least one session with a cognitive-behavioral therapist. Yes, I should do that if the self-help tactics above don't work well enough.

Try at least one session with a psychodynamic therapist. Yes, if the cognitive-behavioral therapist doesn't help enough.

See a psychiatrist to discuss a trial on some anti-anxiety medication. Last resort.

Action steps

Don’t drag out the brainstorming; the best ideas usually come to mind quickly. If you feel your list is inadequate, run it by a trusted person. Then move to at least a low-risk action, and after a brief trial, reassess. That approach usually produces positive results and quickly.

I read this aloud on YouTube.