Sketch pad of the mind

By Natalie Turner, Author, Yes You Can Innovate

A new year is full of hope and aspiration — it is like turning the pages of a recently purchased book, whereby we put aside the past and look forward to the future.

It is full of new resolutions — lose weight, learn a new skill or get a new job — most of which are long forgotten as life catches up with us.

Why do we often fail in our resolve? Usually because we do not make a sustained, concerted effort at “practice” — a diligent, repetitive ritual of something until it becomes a habit.

An inspiration for a New Year’s resolution landed in my inbox at the end of last month. In the email sent from a Buddhist priest, Satya Robyn, was the encouragement to set aside five minutes a day in January to write a Small Stone, or short sentences that sound like the first line of a poem, of something that has been observed, noticed or felt during the day.

Five minutes of time does not seem much, but I have been amazed just how difficult it has been to set this time aside. I started the year with great enthusiasm and wrote a Small Stone for the first nine days. Last week, I did it less and, now, I have not done it for four days.

I am determined to continue though because, despite my poor performance, strangely enough I have started to observe changes in my behaviour and a noticeable improvement in the quality and abundance of new ideas.


I have been pondering about why this is the case. I think it is because writing Small Stones joins up the way we think.

First, you have to sit and observe reality as it is — the tree, the leaf, the conversation between two people or the way you feel as you sprint on the running machine. Second, you have to describe that object, feeling or scene in more creative language.

This is the hard part. Trying to find just the right word that describes the colour and texture of the tree, the way the folds of a woman’s scarf rest upon her shoulders or how your legs really feel as they pound on the running machine or the grass is quite a challenge. Satya calls this polishing your Small Stone to make it shine.

So why is this important to innovation?

I like to think of innovation as a practice as well as a process or an event. If we think of innovation as a practice, then we need to start experimenting with new ways of thinking — not only for innovation events or projects at work, but in our everyday life, every day.

The potent ingredients of mindfulness with concentrated effort, the marriage of creativity and discipline and the observation of the ordinary linked with imagination are small ways we can do this.

Something magical starts to happen. Ideas pop out of nowhere or, suddenly, you have inspiration for a problem you are trying to solve.

It is as if, in this type of practice, something unlocks in the brain.


Ms Julia Cameron, a film-maker and writer, wrote a book titled The Artist’s Way and, while we may not be artists in the pure sense of the word, it is an excellent read to help get the creative juices flowing.

There are two practices I have found particularly compelling: One is Morning Pages — three pages of longhand writing, yes with a pen, every morning to clear the mind of its constant chatter; and the Artist’s Date — taking yourself somewhere or doing something you think might help spark creativity.

For example, I have made trips to different galleries in Singapore, attended cooking classes, blown the dust off my old guitar and gone for long walks at the Botanic Gardens.

Besides being really enjoyable activities, they have helped spark creative thinking and shown me a fresh perspective on life.

Part of the work we do involves training Innovation Catalysts or Champions — people tasked with helping to inspire innovation across the organisation.

Fuelled by the impact which I find these practices are having, we are now making them part of the training for an Innovation Champion.

After a period of time, the Innovation Champions, too, are starting to notice differences in how they think and behave.

Morning Pages, or another expression for it, journaling, helps us to stop, take note of what is occurring and build awareness of self, others and the world around us.

A lovely metaphor for this is thinking of part of the brain, where we make associations and think laterally, as the sketch pad of the mind.

This is where we take mental notes, doodle and draw. These practices help to spur us to generate novel ideas that could fuel innovation.

So maybe, on Dec 31, you made New Year’s resolutions; maybe you did not. Even if you did, I doubt it included developing practices to help spark your imagination.

Luckily, we do not have to wait 11 months before we start as Chinese New Year is around the corner. For me, I am getting back to the practice of writing Small Stones.

“Majestic you stand, branches reaching to the sky. Like veins, the folds of your trunk rise with history. If you could speak, I wonder what tales you would tell.”


This article was written by Natalie Turner and originally published in Today Online on January 22th, 2014