Five Principles for the Care and Feeding of Ideas

ryan-johns-188568I blog to explore a single question: How can I systematically capture ideas, refine them, and execute on the best ones?

My answers lead me in many directions — from the time-honored practice of creating a commonplace book to the new field of personal information management. While this sometimes takes me down pretty nerdy paths, I remind myself that the potential benefits are straightforward: I want to get organized, learn continuously, and create a body of original work that leaves a legacy.

Today we have more options for meeting these goals than ever before. Analog tools — paper and pen — have worked for centuries, and they’re still viable tools. (Ryan Holiday, the prolific writer, uses good old-fashioned index cards.)

We also have a growing number of digital tools. And I agree with Tiago Forte that “the humble category of note-taking apps represents the next frontier of productivity.”

What ultimately matters, however, is not a specific set of tools but a systematic process that’s based on the following principles.

1: CAPTURING IS A WAY OF LIFE

You are swimming in ideas — facts, quotes, anecdotes, insights, and instructions. They come at you constantly from your reading, your conversations, the people you overhear in coffee shops, and your random moments of inspiration. Maybe some of those ideas could make money, make the world a better place, or do both.

Unfortunately, ideas are fragile and fleeting. They’re easily lost. They need constant care and feeding. Sudden inspirations are lost forever unless you have a fail-safe system for capturing them.

The key is KISS — keep it simple, sweetheart. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, uses a pocket-size pad and pen to make handwritten notes on the run, which he throws into an in-box. (Collecting ideas is the first phase of his esteemed GTD method, in fact.) I use the lean and speedy Notes app on my iPhone for the same purpose: It functions as a digital in-box.

Whatever tool you choose, make sure it’s easy and friction-free. I explore the “capturing habit” in these posts:

2: KEEP THE MACHINE LEAN, CLEAN, AND CURRENT

If you capture faithfully, your in-boxes will eventually overflow with ideas. So what the heck do you do with all that stuff?

I process all my notes once per week by asking three questions:

  • Delete? Some ideas seem über-cool at the moment of inspiration but odd or useless a few days later. If it’s clear that I’ll never do anything with a note, I just toss it.
  • Archive? Some notes don’t call for follow-up action but are still valuable as reference material. I file such notes by topic in either a paper folder or in a OneNote notebook.
  • Do it now? David Allen is famous for the “two-minute” rule: If a note describes a useful task that you can do in two minutes or less, then don’t put it off. Just do it now.

Asking these three questions will reduce your stack of notes considerably. But there are inevitably some notes that require more than two-minute follow-up actions. Transfer these notes either on to your calendar or an appropriate list. For more details, see:

3: STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE

I’m inspired (and relieved) by Richard Saul Wurman’s observation that information is infinite, but the ways of organizing it are not. When you truly get this idea, you discover that there is no such thing as “information overload.”

If you want to channel your ideas into publications and presentations, then practice the art of creating clear and memorable frameworks for your ideas. Frameworks are primal organizing structures that can lead to detailed tables of contents.

The goals here are two. One, find the simplest possible structure that accommodates your ideas. Two, think creatively by taking existing ideas and folding them into new structures. You do this by incubating ideas in your commonplace book and looking for new patterns in them that emerge over time.

I explore this process in:

4: BE WILLING TO DESTROY YOUR IDEAS

In the foreword to his book The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, Tad Golas wrote that:

I never varied from my determination to evolve hard information, a way of being that could be relied on even in chaos. It was chaos that taught me. I was so ruthless in testing, suspecting every sentiment, that I came to feel I was a destroyer of ideas, and indeed my books are based on what I could not demolish. Anyone who wants to tear those books down will have to work harder and longer than I did.

This is an ideal that we can all aspire to. Our audiences — who are drowning in half-truths, click bait, and hastily-published fluff — will appreciate the effort. The core discipline here is crap-detecting, and there are many ways to practice it.

5: ALWAYS BE READING, ALWAYS BE WRITING

In this post on influencing people with your ideas, John Butman lists six questions to ask if you want to become an idea entrepreneur. One of them is “Do I have enough supporting material?” This is critical, Butman notes, because:

An idea has to be expressed in different ways for people to understand it as fully as possible, and in their individual way. You need to build out your idea with analysis, stories, facts and data, references, and examples. George Stalk, the strategy expert, has a rule of thumb for accumulation: gather enough material so you can talk about your idea for a full day — and keep your audience interested. The richer the understanding of an idea, the more meaning it will have for people.

This is precisely how the regular care and feeding of ideas can help you. You develop a habit of capturing those examples, facts, references, stories, and studies as you find them. Then you use this rich and constantly expanding collection of material to boost the power of your messages and enhance your credibility. Your commonplace book, or collection of notes, is always ready to be mined for a steady stream of articles, books, courses, presentations, and other vehicles for sharing your ideas.

For more on this topic, see:

Photo by Ryan Johns on Unsplash