Organizing 11,000 Ideas — Here’s How Robert Pirsig Did It

RobertMPirsig_LilaOne of my favorite books is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Less well known is Pirsig’s second book, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, which was published 17 years after Zen.

During those years, Pirsig took notes for Lila on small slips of paper. He used them like index cards, writing one idea on each slip and filing all the slips in a big box. (Many people — including Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday — still prefer this method.)

Pirsig ended up with over 11,000 slips. Most of these fell logically into various categories. But many did not.

To save his sanity, Pirsig created five special categories for rogue ideas. Consider using these categories whenever you organize any large body of notes:

  • Unassimilated is a holding zone for recent notes that still need to be reviewed and filed.
  • Program is for instructions about what to do with the rest of your notes. If Pirsig had visions for a whole new set of categories, for example, he filed those ideas here.
  • Crit slips describe all the notes you want to destroy and the reasons for destroying them. Often these ideas came to Pirsig in moments of despair. Rather than immediately trashing his notes, however, he simply noted his first thoughts and filed them here to review later.
  • Tough is for important notes that don’t fit in any existing category.
  • Junk is for notes that initially seemed important but now look useless. “Most of the slips died there but some reincarnated,” Pirsig wrote, “and some of these reincarnated slips were the most important ones he had.”

The beauty of these categories is that they allow you to keep notes organized while your ideas are still incubating. In particular, you’ll make room for the “junk” ideas that later emerge as shining gems.