Giving your ideas the time & space to ripen


Artwork by Piet Parra.

Most ideas are crap and should be discarded. A handful of ideas are great and should be studiously developed. How do you know which is which? Without a good system for organizing your ideas, it’s impossible to tell the difference.

I used to jot down all my ideas in a Moleskine notebook. This was problematic for a few reasons: 1) I didn’t always have it with me so good ideas would get lost, 2) I frequently couldn’t find my previous notes on an idea when I had more thoughts to add, and 3) I would overlook connections between ideas because a linear documentation system made them hard to uncover. In short, it was difficult to see the big picture, to see how my ideas were evolving over time.

Now I use Evernote, and I’m addicted to it because I can see my ideas ripening. The system is simple: You make a Notebook for a big idea, and then make a series of Notes inside of it, articulating various aspects of that idea. For instance, I’m currently working on a book about “Getting Over Email Angst.” I have a notebook called Email Book. Inside of it I have notes for: a Book Outline, Possible Titles, Illustrators to Collaborate With, Notes on Publishing Approaches (Self vs Traditional), PR Contacts, Possible Promotions, and so forth.

Thus everything related to my book idea is kept in one place, so that I can consult different notes as I’m thinking about various aspects of the book. If I’ve just had an email exchange with a journalist who might cover the book down the road, I can pop into PR Contacts and make a note so I’ll remember when I’m launching the book.

Everything gets tracked and nothing gets lost. Needless to say, one of the advantages of doing this in Evernote is that I can access these Notebooks on any computer and on my mobile phone. So whenever and wherever I have an idea, I can jot it down in the appropriate place.

But what about more nascent ideas? I have another Notebook, for example, called “Book Ideas.” Inside here, each individual Note represents a possible book that I could write. Some of the notes on possible books have only a one-line idea. Other notes on possible books have an almost completely fleshed-out sketch of the book’s outline. Still others are somewhere in between: A messy half-formed list of thoughts and musings. This makes it easy to see which ideas are evolving and holding my attention over time and which are becoming less compelling. My one-line book ideas may never go anywhere, but the partially outlined book will soon become my next book proposal.

A good system makes it easy to see which ideas are evolving and holding your attention over time and which are becoming less compelling.

This is the real beauty of using Evernote or a similar system: You can see your ideas ripening. By capturing down every idea in one place and then giving yourself time and space to build on that idea (as you constantly add in new notes, thoughts, and links), it becomes significantly easier to see which ideas might become real projects you’ll want to pursue, and which are just one-off ideas that don’t have longevity. Using a simple, digital system like Evernote also helps you see the relationships between ideas more clearly than you can when just paging through a physical notebook, where it’s easy for ideas to get scattered and disjointed.

I am typically the last person to advocate for a digital over an analog solution. But for people who get ideas all the time, being able to capture them on your phone (which you almost always have with you) is crucial. And that’s what pushed me to finally go digital.

That said, the notion of letting your ideas ripen can also be pursued in analog fashion. Choreographer Twyla Tharp, for instance, uses big, banker boxes to organize and fertilize her ideas; she writes the name of the project on the outside of the box and then drops in relevant ephemera—news clippings, rehearsal tapes, snippets of music—as she develops her dance pieces.

Once you give your ideas a local habitation and a name, it’s surprising to see how much they can grow.

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Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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