If you talk to any prolific writer or successful entrepreneur, you will find they make it a point to capture their ideas. In your lifetime, you will likely have thousands of ideas. As I wrote in An Audience of One “none of us have a shortage of ideas, we just lack the discipline to capture them.
Some of your ideas will be terrible. Some of them will be amazing. As Seth Godin has said, the key to having lots of good ideas to have lots of bad ones. But if you lack the discipline to capture them, you’ll never be able to capitalize on the great ones.
Ideas Don’t occur on a Fixed Schedule
We don’t always have ideas at convenient times or in convenient places. We have them when we’re driving, in the shower, or just waking up. As much as we’d love to sit down at our desk or in a meeting at some predetermined time and brainstorm, our best ideas are on their own schedule. The only way around this is to capture our ideas.
Ideas Need Time to Bake
Sometimes people resist writing down their ideas because they are not fully formed. What they don’t realize is that ideas need time to bake. As a writer, I keep a running list of ideas for things to write about. As you’ll see from the screenshot below, sometimes I have nothing more than a sentence or title. It might be days or sometimes even weeks before that idea starts to take shape during my writing session.
But this doesn’t only apply to writing. Maybe you have a half-baked idea for an app or new service of some sort. Instead of waiting, create a landing page. Make what author Peter Sims calls Little Bets. This allows you to gather feedback and start making immediate progress, even if your idea isn’t fully formed.
Increased Volume of Ideas Leads to Increased Quality
When people ask me to describe my writing process, I’ve jokingly said “90 percent of it is shit. I’m not a good writer. I just write a lot. Some of it ends up being good.” It turns out that I’m not alone. In his book Originals, Adam Grant’s research showed that people who produced a high volume of ideas or creative output ended up producing higher quality work.
You could attempt to write the great American novel in one sitting. Or you could write a shitty first draft every day for the next year. Paradoxically, the latter is more likely to lead to the former.
With a high volume of ideas you’re able to leverage the profound power of consistency, and the compound interest of habits. When it comes to ideas, focus on quantity and quality will be an eventual byproduct.
Capture Your Ideas
There are several idea capture frameworks that people have written about before:
- Steven Johnson wrote about keeping a spark file
- Robyn Scott wrote about the 30-second habit with a lifelong impact
- Tiago Forte helps people use Evernote to Build a Second Brain
- Ryan Holiday uses this notecard system
There’s no “right way” to capture ideas. What matters is that it works for you and it’s something you’ll follow through on consistently.
Design Your Workflow
Before you decide what tools you’re going to use, you have to design a workflow. Systems are combinations of habits and tasks. Workflows are combinations of systems. Every workflow is made of inputs.
For example, the daily routine that’s helped me write 2 books and 100’s of articles has 3 key inputs:
- The books I read each morning
- My free writing sessions
- Conversations I have with people on the Unmistakable Creative
So I’ve designed my workflow as follows:
- Daily writing: Everything that I write starts here. I don’t filter. I don’t edit. The only goal is to hit my word count of 1000 words a day.
- Ideas: This is where all of my ideas go. If something emerges during one of my daily writing sessions, I’ll copy and paste it to here.
- Blog Posts: Once ideas are fully formed, I move them here and start to edit
- Books: If I’m working on a project outside of my day to day work, I create another section for it.
- Notes from Reading: For each book I read, I document my notes and highlights. That way I can refer back to those books in interviews with the authors, and in articles, I’m working on.
With any system, the inputs will determine the output. If you set up a system but don’t follow it, then it’s effectively useless.
Decide on Your Tools
Once you’ve designed your workflow, it’s easier to determine what tools will suit your needs.
Given that the mission of Evernote is to help you remember everything, it’s an obvious choice for capturing your ideas. Tiago Forte’s second brain framework is the most useful way I’ve found to organize Evernote. The basics of the framework are simple:
- Areas of Interest
Whether you use this exact framework isn’t as important as recognizing that every input has a place where it belongs.
Notion has positioned itself as the all in one workplace. Within 10 hours using it, I was an instant convert. Notion is great because it allows you to put your tasks, writing, etc all in one central repository. Notion makes all of your documents dynamic and interactive. You can see how I’ve set up notion for my workflow in the screenshot below.
I’ve said before that you should always carry a notebook. The constraint of pen and paper, paradoxically liberate your imagination. My friend AJ Leon has said the following about his notebooks:
I use a tiny Moleskine as my idea notebook. I jot down every business idea,prospect idea, project idea, potential blog post, poem, art or social project,whatever. Every single thing I’ve done in the last four years can be traced to one of my notebooks. – AJ Leon
Use an Idea Prompt
A few days ago I was interviewing Chip Conley about his new book, Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder. Early in his career, at the end of each week, he would write down the various lessons he’d learned during the week. This simple practice could serve as an excellent prompt for building the habit of capturing ideas. Even if you wrote one lesson a week, you’d have 52 valuable ideas.
Remember Every idea is a Piece of a Bigger Puzzle
Every idea is a piece of a much bigger puzzle. Sometimes your puzzle pieces will come from external sources
- Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement is something James Clear said to me in his interview on The Unmistakable Creative
- The State of Your Attention determines the State of Your Life was something Chris Bailey said to me in his interview on The Unmistakable Creative
In the book, Unfuck Yourself, one of the Chapters is titled “Accept Everything and Expect Nothing.” I added a few words on the beginning of it and had a title for a new article that I’ll publish later this week.
Unless you develop the discipline to capture your ideas, you’ll never consistently capitalize on them. It might take a ton of garbage for an ounce of gold. But as was famously said, there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.