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Find New Ideas with the McDonald’s Theory

McDonaldsLast week, Natalie suggested that working consistently on research, even in small doses, is a good way to bootstrap yourself back into productivity if you’ve been stalled, and to establish a sustainable habit going forward.

Another good way to get started on writing projects is Anne Lamott’s notion of the shitty first draft (from Bird by Bird), which encourages writers to quell the inner critic for the very first draft–one that no one else will ever see–and permit anything at all to come out. By generating words, you’re often able to figure out how to develop your subsequent work–even if your governing principle is, “wow–not at all like *this* draft!”

In his recent post on “McDonald’s Theory”, John Bell extends the concept of a shitty first draft beyond writing and turns it into a way to force ideas and choices to emerge in any context. The trick is simple:

I use a trick with co-workers when we’re trying to decide where to eat for lunch and no one has any ideas. I recommend McDonald’s.

An interesting thing happens. Everyone unanimously agrees that we can’t possibly go to McDonald’s, and better lunch suggestions emerge. Magic!

It’s as if we’ve broken the ice with the worst possible idea, and now that the discussion has started, people suddenly get very creative. I call it the McDonald’s Theory: people are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off bad ones.

I do think that this only works when *someone* in the room is aware that the McDonald’s idea is deliberately bad. Some of us have probably had the experience of being in meetings where McDonald’s turns out to be everyone’s favorite restaurant, metaphorically speaking, and so people start to commit to their bad ideas rather than use them as a springboard to better ones.

And I also think that it can sometimes feel risky in academic settings to propose ideas that are self-evidently bad. Few of us pursued a Ph.D. because we enjoyed having our ideas mocked, and probably no one wants to have the reputation in their department as being “the person who always proposes stupid ideas in meetings.” (Maybe departments or committees should elect a fool for meetings, as well as a chair!)

Those caveats aside, the McDonald’s theory is an excellent way to break out of being jammed, whether in meetings, or writing, or even just figuring out what to-do items to clear out on a Monday morning.

Photo “Old School Mickey D’s” by Flickr user theotherway / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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