Keep the Machine Lean — A Simple Workflow for Managing Ideas

As an idea entrepreneur, you’re an active incubator of information. I hope that you’ll create a commonplace book as a tool for capturing all the facts, quotations, anecdotes, and sudden inspirations that prove useful in your work.


However, you might feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of tools for collecting, organizing, and playing with ideas. There are dozens of apps for note-taking and personal information management. And, choosing among them is no easy task.

The danger is that we’ll confuse our tools with the underlying patterns of thinking that form the true core of our work.

So, let’s take a minute to clarify what’s really involved in the care and feeding of ideas. Let’s also do this in a way that’s tool-agnostic, allowing you to use any paper-based or digital system that works for you.

My goal is to pare this process down to its bare bones—the minimum number of intellectual operations that yield maximum results. In terms of keeping a commonplace book, this amount to a continuous cycle of:

  • Capturing
  • Reducing
  • Sorting


One of the most useful habits for people who making a living from ideas is collecting. A fleeting thought that occurs to you while you’re showering, walking, or shuttling between meetings could be the seed of a book, presentation, new business, or some other life-changing project. But if you let the moment of inspiration pass and fail to capture it, then the opportunity is lost.

There are tons of ways to capture ideas on the run. Options include note-taking apps for your smart phone, Moleskine notebooks, index cards, and even waiter’s pads.

For detailed suggestions on capturing, see this post. Also check out the Getting Things Done (GTD) method, which begins with capturing and collecting.  Also useful is a A Pattern Language for Productivity by Andre Kibbe, especially “Pattern #4: Collection.”

The key is to develop a capturing habit, using whatever tools you find most practical.


If you’re a capturing nerd like me, you’ll collect dozens of ideas daily. These can come from anywhere — books, periodicals, websites, podcasts, presentations, personal conversations, dreams, epiphanies, visions. Whatever.

The challenge is choosing what to do with all the stuff that you capture.

There’s one reliable place to start — reduction.

The idea entrepreneur’s best friend is a trash can (physical or digital). Ideas that seemed great when captured during happy hour might wither under the clear light of sober reflection. Give yourself permission to simply let those notes go.

Keep in mind that letting go can mean moving notes to a junk pile or “cut file.” (This is one the things that Robert Pirsig did.) The ideas are then out of sight but not forever lost. During a later review you might find that this pile of trashed notes contains some unexpected gems.


You’ve reduced your pile of captured notes to those that seem worthy of follow up. What next?

I suggest that you sort your remaining notes into useful categories. And, I’m betting that four major categories will accommodate many of those notes:

  • Project notes. A project is any outcome that requires more than one action to achieve. Finishing a blog post, article, book manuscript, or video script is a project. Giving a presentation, changing careers, and starting a business are projects. Perhaps, as Scott Berkun suggests, everything in life is a project. (Scott Belsky agrees.) So it makes sense to sort your notes by asking: To what project does this belong? Set up a separate “bucket” (document, folder, notebook) for notes about each project.
  • Reference notes. Some of your notes might be worth keeping even if they’re not tied to a specific project. Examples include address books, lists of professional contacts, financial records, and checklists for recurring events in your life. Set up another bucket titled reference or archives for these notes.
  • Drafts. These are outlines and working versions of anything that you’re creating—presentations, scripts, books, articles, blog posts, reports, proposals, and “zero drafts.”
  • Cut files as described above.

Other categories for your notes will emerge organically. (See some examples here.) That’s fine. As Ryan Holiday says, “Focus on finding good stuff and the themes will reveal themselves.”

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