Why I Keep an Idea Journal
How to use a journal to get inspired and feed your creativity
Leonardo da Vinci. Marie Curie. Thomas Edison. Beatrix Potter.
What did all four of these people have in common?
Not only were they all highly motivated and creative individuals, but they also all kept some form of an idea journal.
An idea journal is not a diary where you have to record all of the details of your day (though you can if you want to!). Rather, it’s a place where you jot down daily goals, achievements, observations, ideas for projects, quotes, or other bits of inspiration.
If you’re working on a project, you can fill your idea journal with updates on your progress, thoughts on how to improve the project, and anything else that motivates you.
A writer’s idea journal might be filled with ideas for stories or articles or blog posts. An artist’s might contain sketches or inspirations for drawings. Ultimately, the idea journal exists as a private place to plant your ideas and watch them grow.
Here are four reasons why I keep an idea journal:
1. An Idea Journal Helps You Remember & Develop Ideas
Leonardo da Vinci may not have kept an idea journal strictly speaking, but he did fill hundreds of pages with sketches, scientific diagrams, ideas for new inventions, and reflections on art. These pages were bound together as books after his death.
Because da Vinci was left-handed, he found it easier to write from right to left. That means his notes can only be read in a mirror. To make his writings even more private, he often employed a kind of shorthand and didn’t worry about perfect penmanship or proper punctuation.
What he did care about was carefully recording his lab notes and his many ideas for new inventions: everything from a flying machine to a submarine prototype.
Whether you’re researching an article or a novel or planning any kind of project, you need a place where you can organize all of that material. Like da Vinci’s notebooks, an idea journal helps you clarify your thoughts and express them more clearly. The action of writing down an idea forces you to think more deeply about it.
2. An Idea Journal Helps You Evaluate Lessons Learned
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to win in multiple sciences. She kept detailed lab notebooks that described her discovery of two elements: radium and polonium. These notebooks gave her a permanent and immediate record of her experiments and discoveries.
Though you may not be a scientist, an idea journal acts as a lab notebook of sorts. While working on any kind of project, you can use your idea journal to record each step of your journey: the difficulties that set you back, the hurdles you overcome, the milestones you reach, and your final achievements.
The idea journal helps you avoid repeating mistakes in the future. You can flip through your idea journal to see all the steps you took towards accomplishing your goals.
3. An Idea Journal Motivates You
Here is a photo of a page from one of Thomas Edison’s notebooks. He writes at the top of the page: things doing and to be done. His to-do list runs for several pages and includes an amazing number of ideas, including an electrical piano, “unflammable” insulating material, ink for the blind, and an apparatus to help the deaf.
Edison was one of the most prolific inventors in American history and held 1,093 different patents. His to-do list shows how we can use an idea journal to warm up our creative muscle. Your lists can reveal to you a detailed picture of the things you are passionate about and can even show you what field of study you should pursue.
Best of all, an idea journal motivates you to fight procrastination, list your goals, and start working to accomplish them. It reminds you not to abandon your dreams but continue to strive to achieve them.
4. An Idea Journal Makes You A Better Observer
Beatrix Potter is most famous for her children’s stories about Peter Rabbit and her beautiful watercolor illustrations. However, she was also keenly interested in the natural sciences, especially botany.
She developed a theory for the germination of fungi and was the first person in Britain and one of the first in the world to understand the symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. Mycologists still use her painstakingly detailed drawings to identify fungi.
From the age of fifteen, Beatrix Potter kept a journal in a secret code she had invented. The code was not cracked until fifteen years after her death.
Potter’s journals are filled with accounts of the long walks she took and her observations of the natural world. It was in this journal that she began to outline her scientific theories. She also recorded her opinions on society, fashion, art, and current events.
Potter practiced her observational skills by writing in her journal. Your idea journal will train you to be observant as well. Writing in an idea journal encourages you to be curious, ask questions about the world, think innovatively, and find creative solutions to the problems you encounter.
Ready to start your idea journal?
These are just a few guidelines to follow. Ultimately, there are no rules set in stone when it comes to your idea journal. It’s up to you to decide what to fill it with. Just remember that its purpose is to inspire you.
An idea journal doesn’t have to be a physical notebook, although writing with a pen and paper will give you the feel of creating something and make your ideas that much more real.
Personally, I have several idea journals: some that are physical notebooks and others on my computer.
For example, I love using Evernote to store the many articles and quotes I collect when I’m researching writing projects. Evernote has a feature that allows you to save anything you see online — including text, links, and images — into your Evernote account with a single click. I also use Evernote to write down ideas for blog posts and short stories and create to-do lists.
Additionally, I journal almost every day using an app called Day One that has a simple and elegant interface. I use it to record the progress I’m making on my various projects and reflect on what I’ve accomplished each day.
To flesh out ideas I have for projects, I like to use a physical notebook. I also used to take a smaller physical notebook with me when I went out so that I could write in it whenever inspiration struck. Now I just use the notes app on my phone. I’ll transcribe those notes into my Day One journal when I return home.
Ultimately, the idea journal is a portable laboratory where we can record our own unique perspective on the world, note the things in our lives that awaken our muse, and experiment with new ideas.
As Ray Bradbury observed in his book Zen in the Art of Writing,
“We never sit anything out. We are cups, quietly and constantly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”
Keeping an idea journal helps us collect all of the beautiful stuff that we experience in our lives so we can share it with the world.
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Nicole Bianchi is a writer, copywriter, and storyteller at nicolebianchi.com. By day, she works with business owners and creatives to help them clarify their websites’ messaging and craft compelling words that resonate with their audience. By night, you’ll probably find her writing a story or reading a good book.