Stop Cheating Yourself out of Great Ideas
Breaking down my system for idea collection and analysis
I don’t have to tell you the importance of ideas. I’m sure you’re already well-aware of the significant part that ideas play in the projects you work on, the actions you take, and your general perception of the world around you.
“Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.” — Joseph Stalin
Bet you didn’t think I was going to kick this post off with a Stalin quote. Anyways, there is something to be said for the sheer power of provocative ideas.
Ideas drive influence, which ultimately fuels action.
Given this description, it’s interesting that ideas are so hard to capture. Ideas are often extremely fleeting; one second they are there, then they cease to exist in the bat of an eye. No matter how seemingly significant the concept, there is little to no guarantee that it will stick around throughout the day or even minutes from that moment.
This is partially the reason that ideas build over time; they have to continuously materialize before taking a producible form. They don’t happen in an instance, even if it may seem that way. The eureka moment that founders and innovators love to reference is, in large part, a fallacy.
It’s clear that ideas are more complex than they may have initially seemed. How do we cope with these intricacies in our day-to-day lives? How do we capture fleeting ideas, develop them quickly, and use them to drive action?
When I began looking for ways to be more systematic about my idea workflow, I probably read a hundred different advice pieces on common habits and tips like these.
I first started out by getting three ideas down in a Word document every evening. Then I began to generate three more ideas every morning as well. Eventually, I expanded this to thinking of three general ideas, two writing ideas, and one project idea. This was a little over six months ago. Once again, I’ve iterated on this approach.
Fast forward to today. I now have a new system that I’ve had noticeably more success with. I’ll be breaking down the aforementioned system in-depth throughout the rest of this post.
First, we’ll take a look at a high-level overview and then I’ll dive into the details later on including everything from the brand of notepad to my thoughts during each step. In the interest of simplifying things, I created the visualization below for reference.
The system involves writing down ideas throughout the day, compiling them into a universal place each evening, and then revisiting them weekly and monthly. This may seem intensive, but I would say it doesn’t take me more than 15 minutes a day on average. Let’s touch on each piece of the puzzle individually for a little more clarity on what each step means.
One of the big changes I made in this iteration was deciding to carry a small notepad around with me, small enough that can fit in my pocket — so there’s no excuse not to have it with me just about all time. I’ve tried two or three types by now and my favorite so far has to be the set of three 3.5 by 5.5 inch Moleskine Cashier Journals. You’ll run through these pretty fast as there’s only about 60 pages in each, but they’re dependable, versatile, and cheap.
This notepad is designed to be more of a brain dump than anything. I try to turn off any and all filters when jotting down ideas in here. All the semi-ridiculous or seemingly stupid stuff that I find interesting throughout the day goes in here. Any concept, reminder, or advice that I found even remotely thought-provoking? Writing it down. I’ll typically have a page or two full by the end of the day depending on how mindful I was.
Daily Idea List
It’s evening now and I have a couple pages of random notes in my Moleskine from my day. Right before I go to bed, I’ll transfer them into an ongoing Evernote note with the date as a header and the ideas taking the form of bullet points below. This allows me to get all my ideas in one place and make sure that I have a digital copy of them for future reference.
I won’t necessarily explore them too much at this point in time, but I’ve found the act of writing it down and then typing it out later seems to have a solidifying effect in my mind.
Weekly Review and Classification
Every Sunday, I’ll review each daily entry from the previous week in my ongoing digital idea list. I’ll go through and categorize each idea into certain bins: Concept, Project, Writing, Question, and Quotes. As I’m doing this, I’ll copy/paste that idea into another specific note for just that category. For example I have a more general ‘Idea List’ that everything goes into (referenced before), and then I have a ‘Quote List’ where only ideas that were classified as quotes go.
This usually takes a few minutes, but it’s not too lengthy as long as the ideas are fairly punctual. I’ll also bold any ideas that I find particularly interesting during this step. This allows me to come back and skim through the most notable ideas without having to weed through a million trivial ones.
Monthly Review and Exploration
Lastly, I’ll do a monthly review on the first of every month. I recently just added this step to the equation — but I anticipate that it’s going to make a huge difference. The biggest weakness in my current process is that I don’t have any time blocked off to go over the bolded ideas.
So with this in mind, I’ve set up monthly reviews to go over every bolded idea and decide either to pursue it further. If worth pursuing, I’ll give it an individual notebook so that I can explore the idea more in-depth. More on this to come down the road, after some hands-on experience.
This Isn’t For You
So that’s just about it. This is my system for generating and analyzing ideas. This is what works for me at the moment. Note that this may not be what works for you. Hell, this may not even work for me anymore two months from now. It’s all about iteration.
Keep the things that work and tune the things that don’t, until you have a system that’s optimal for you.
That’s what I’ve done and that’s what I’ll continue to do. Good luck finding what works best for you and I hope I could help in some way, shape, or form.
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