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Never Be Uninspired: How to Create and Use an Effective Idea System

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Thinking woman with question mark

“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.” -William Faulkner (maybe)

Something I’ve learned in my years as a writer is this little truth: inspiration strikes when you poke it hard with a stick, every day. An idea system helps you do just that: with an idea system, you continually collect, organize, and expand your ideas so you’re never short-handed when it’s time to be inspired. Because, no matter what your line of work, you need ideas in order to solve problems, create solutions, and make a difference.

The Elusive Nature of Ideas

Preparation for training

Ideas tend to come during your brain’s downtime. You’ll find all sorts of things bubbling up when you’re in rest mode: in the shower, watching a sunset, drifting off to sleep. And you probably also come up with ideas when you’re engaged in activities that require more physical than mental energy: household chores, exercise, sports, and so on.

Because ideas are essentially new connections being made, when your brain is relaxed, it’s able to more creatively scan all the information you’ve got processing in there and make connections between disparate bits of it. Bingo! You’re running your third lap and the ideas come flooding in.

Unsaved, Unused Ideas Are Lost Potential

The problem?

During those downtimes, you’re not in idea-capturing mode. So you may have a flood of ideas, but how many do you remember? More importantly, how many do you capture? And once you capture them, how many do you review, develop, and act upon?

Good ideas are gold, but if they’re unseen, undeveloped, and unused, they’re not helping you or anyone. They’re gold flecks buried under the murk of that mountain stream. Your idea system is the method for filtering the gold out so you – and others – can benefit from its value.

Not All Ideas Are Worthwhile

Shocked and surprised boy on the internet with laptop computer

Not every idea you have is gold, of course. I won’t guess at your gold to dirt ratio, but I can tell you that mine is probably about 10% gold to 90% dirt. However, unless I save and review and work with the ideas I have, I’m going to miss out on a good bit of that 10% gold. That’s what we want to avoid.

A good idea system consists of four main steps, which you set up systematically so that you can easily and consistently repeat them. The first step is to start collecting ideas in one central storage place, instead of letting them flit by you and return to the nether.

Step 1: Collect Ideas

collect ideas

You probably already have great sources for inspiration and information: from books to blogs to webinars, documentaries, and conversations. Your brain is always gathering information, making connections, and generating ideas. Notice which information sources generate the most ideas in you (and which information sources seem to slow or depress your thinking).

Find and Consume the Best Information

Feed your brain deliberately chosen sources of information to consistently come up with more and better ideas.

  • Read in your areas of interest: blogs, publications, magazines, papers, experts, and, of course, books.
  • Read outside your areas of interest: broaden your base of information and create new connections by reading beyond your normal interests.
  • Read books: books help you to develop deeper thinking, gain a bigger perspective, and create more connections.
  • Watch and listen to interesting things: intelligent shows, documentaries, how-to videos, expert talks, webinars, podcasts. Choose high-quality productions.
  • Talk to people: people know stuff. Everybody has interests and expertise, life experiences. Ask questions. Ask questions about your interests and find out what other people know.

Get in the Habit of Saving Every Idea

As you take in those information sources, you’ll have responses, thoughts, and questions. Those are the seeds of ideas. You want to note them down in a way you can save and access at will.

You’ll also, as noted above, have ideas and the seeds of ideas that pop up when you’re engaged in other activities, or at rest. As these thoughts come to you, you want to save them, as well. (You can also save other people’s great ideas; not to steal them, but to be inspired by them. Writers call this a Swipe File.)

There are as many methods for saving ideas as there are bloggers on WordPress:

  • Analog: notebooks, journal, note cards, bulletin board, calendar, sticky notes, tattoos (just kidding), writing on the wall (also kidding?).
  • Digital: Evernote, Google docs, Dropbox, Ulysses, Workflowy, a spreadsheet, a big long text document of ideas, your website or blog, an app, lists, etc.

It doesn’t matter what method you use; what matters is that you pick one central storage location for your ideas and use it consistently. Make sure that it is something you like to use, something you can back up (physically or digitally), and something that is under your control. You don’t want to save all your ideas in a format you can’t convert and export at will, or in a service that could limit your access at anytime.

Step 2: Organize Ideas

Businesswoman writing on dry-erase board

You can get lost in idea organization. In fact, if you have a big project you want to procrastinate on, start organizing your ideas. This can keep you busy for weeks.

But it doesn’t have to.

First things first: in your central storage, you want to have one category or folder that is your primary inbox. When you save an idea or thought, highlight something from a book, jot down a note, you don’t want to take the time to think about how to categorize it. You want to save it, as quickly as possible. Saving ideas needs to be easy and require very little effort on your part; that’s how you make it automatic, a reflex.

Set up a main inbox and save every idea to it. Then, at your leisure, you can set up categories, tags, keywords, hierarchies of any kind, and sort your ideas into them at will.

Use Search for Effortless Organization

An even easier organization method is to use a storage system that has a powerful search functionality. Digital’s your friend, here. Evernote is great at search; so is Ulysses and Workflowy. With powerful text-based search, you don’t need to categorize much, or even at all. When you’re ready, simply search for the words or phrases and the search returns will give you a categorized list. No complex organizational methodology required.

Using search rather than a folder or category hierarchy also presents you from burying great ideas into disconnected silos of information. And since ideas are all about connections, you want to avoid arbitrarily separating one bit of info or one germ of an idea from the rest.

My method is to keep all the ideas I save in one big uncategorized list. Then, as I move on to reviewing and developing them, I sort them out a bit more. For example, if I decide to develop a blog post from an idea, I’ll move it into my Drafts folder and tag it with a couple of pertinent keywords. But until I’m doing something with the ideas, I prefer to keep them in one big, messy, friendly, happy – but very searchable – group.

Step 3: Review ideas

Young illustrator smiling away from the camera

If you follow step 1 faithfully, you may start from zero but soon you will have a heaping storage room full of ideas.

Now, what do to with them? Regular review.

Review Ideas Weekly to Find the Good Ones

Without regular review, the good ideas stay buried in the pile of just-kind-of-okay ideas and plain-stupid ideas. Schedule in a regular time (weekly is good) to spend at least 30 minutes to review your ideas. If you do, you’ll have two results: you’ll come up with new, related ideas (add them to your list!) and your brain will grab a few ideas to focus on. While you’re busy doing other things, your brain will be at work mentally expanding the ideas you’ve assigned it.

You can use your regular review time to cull and discard the ideas that no longer have interest, or are obviously stupid. A few weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a great idea for a book. It was amazing! I stumbled to my desk and jotted it down. I drifted back to sleep feeling so excited about the amazing idea and how fun it would be to work on.

The next morning, I read my midnight-scribbled note of brilliance: Book idea!!!! “Bad people doing bad things but really good at them.”

Uh…yeah.

Use Review to Move from Quantity to Quality

Some ideas go into the storage system, get reviewed, and go straight into the discard pile. That’s no problem. When collecting ideas, the goal is quantity, not quality. When developing the ideas, the goal is quality. The review process is the necessary step that shifts you from one goal to the other.

  • As you review, analyze your ideas with a few simple questions:
  • Do I care about this idea? (The most important question. If the answer is no, pass on it.)
  • Does this idea solve a problem, meet a need, provide a benefit?
  • Does this idea help me tell a story I want to tell?
  • Does this idea help me reach a current goal?
  • Does this idea fit into a current project?
  • What’s the best way to approach this idea: best use, presentation, audience, scope?

These questions will help you decide which ideas to pluck out of the pile and move into active development.

Step 4: Develop ideas

Portrait of a Female Fashion Designer Leaning Against a Wall of Drawings With Her Arms Crossed

Developing your ideas is playtime. Anything goes.

There are no limits. Think expansion. You’re looking for all the potential connections, relationships, effects, experiences, and uses hidden in the ideas you’ve decided to develop. These are infinite. Every idea has infinite possibilities. Your job is to pull out some and see where you could go with them.

Start with a Little Research

Google it. Take the exact phrasing in your head, put it in quotations, and search. Are there 1,803 blog posts with your exact title? 1.5 million products meeting the same need? 2,000 startups disrupting the same arena? Discover duplication and saturation before you develop the idea.

Finding similar results doesn’t mean you can’t pursue the idea. It means you’ll to add originality and value so your idea doesn’t get lost in the pile.

Do initial research to find potential sources, studies, in-depth articles, books, and other resources, as well. Bookmark the good ones for later use.

Compare Your Idea with What Already Exists

What are other people saying about the idea or topic you have in mind? Use some of the sources from your research and review them. What’s missing in the conversation? What’s overstated? What’s being addressed by everyone, and what are the questions or issues that are being ignored?

Look for Meaningful Connections

Look for connections between this idea and any of the following:

  • other ideas you have
  • resources you use
  • work you’ve already done
  • problems you want to solve
  • your areas of expertise/interest
  • your experiences and background.

You can also use methods like mind mapping, sketching, outlining, storytelling, and making lists to play around with the idea and see where it takes you.

Make Your Decision and Schedule It

At some point in your development, you’ll decide what you want to do with the idea. At that point, you need to set your scope and a timeline. The bigger the scope, the longer the timeline.

When you’ve made these decisions, break down the work of developing the idea into tasks. Then get those tasks in your schedule according to the timeline you’ve set. The best idea in the world is worth nothing unless it is turned from idea into reality. And that’s the really fun part: to see something that started as a little seed, a tiny bit of data, a mental hum, become a real thing that you can share with others.

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