10 Principles for the Care and Feeding of Ideas

I blog to explore a single question: How can I systematically capture ideas, refine them, and implement the best ones?

My answers lead me in many directions — from the traditional practice of creating a commonplace book to the new field of personal knowledge management. While this sometimes takes me down nerdy paths, I remind myself that the purpose is straightforward: I want to learn continuously and create a body of work that benefits my audience.

I’ve been on the field and playing this game for 30 years or so, writing articles and editing books for my clients. Following are the most important things I’ve learned about this species of knowledge work.

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1 Always be researching, always be writing

Some idea entrepreneurs view researching and writing as one-off tasks. They see the task of creating content as something that you do one article, one book, or one presentation at a time — an interruption from their “real” work.

This is a mistake — a huge obstacle to accumulating enough material that’s worth sharing with your audience.

Instead, see the care and feeding of ideas as a way of life. Like eating, this is something that you do every day, multiple times a day — not just once in a while. The whole process of capturing, curating, and sharing content is continuous, not discrete.

2 Notes are information assets

A collection of notes that you carefully curate and expand over time turns into something awesome: a full-blown knowledge base. This is an ongoing record of personal discoveries, lessons learned, technical knowledge, and actionable insights — a priceless asset.

In this post, Tiago Forte describes information assets as “intermediate packets” and explains their role in knowledge work:

We need to change our conception of what we are producing, from final deliverables to what I will call “intermediate packets.” Instead of seeing the final product (the deliverable we sell to the client) as the only repository of value, we package up all the intermediate steps — the research, notes, brainstorms, examples, outlines, prototypes, drafts, and even crazy ideas we choose not to pursue — as reusable components for later consumption.

3 Tools don’t matter

Today we have more tools for note taking than ever before. 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, including dedicated apps for note-taking.

You can even combine analog and digital tools. This is what Ben Casnocha does:

  • First, he takes notes by hand in paper Moleskine notebooks.
  • Then he reviews those note and circles key sentences in a differently colored pen.
  • Finally, he enters his highlighted notes into Evernote, shares them on his Twitter feed, or works them into blog posts.

“Probably 5% of what I write down with pen and paper ever makes it into an electronic system,” Ben notes, “but the act of writing and then re-typing and publishing those 5% of thoughts really solidifies them into my memory.”

What tools to use? It’s up to you. Experiment with a few options, make a choice, and get to work.

What ultimately matters is not the tools but the process. Knowledge work is not an app — it’s a workflow. It’s a system, not a thing.

4 Keep a clean idea machine

You might balk at the task of keeping track of hundreds or even of thousands of individual notes. It can be done, however, with a lean workflow:

  • Set up an inbox. This is a physical tray, folder (digital or analog), or both where you can toss notes for later review.
  • Separate “hot” notes from “cool” notes. “Hot” notes are those that you’ll refer to often in the near future because they relate to your current projects. “Cool” notes are for reference and archiving — information that you want to keep on hand even though you don’t need it at the moment.
  • Do a weekly review. Empty your inbox. Move notes into the appropriate folders or notebooks (hot or cool). Archive completed projects. Discard notes that you will never use.
  • Name notes for easy finding. See this post for ideas. If you use a note taking app, also check out the help screens for how to do effective searches.

5 Cultivate functional laziness

Effectiveness in any field of endeavor hinges on setting priorities and choosing what not to do. When working with ideas, consider the suggestions I offer in Knowledge Management Made Simple — Six Things You Can Stop Doing With Your Notes App and Seven Ways to Create a Friction-Free Knowledge Base.

One thing I will say here: Avoid tags like the plague. Tiago Forte explains why.

6 The work is to play

Creativity is mainly a child-like willingness to play with ideas. Browse through notes at random and look for unexpected links between them. Take one of  your big assumptions — something that you just know is true — and make a case for the opposite of it.

The aim is to turn ideas upside down and sideways, throw them against the wall, and see what sticks. One of the reasons that we grapple with ideas is simply to make a mess in once in a while and have fun.

7 Structure matters more than sentences

Business, self-help, and other how-to books are not primarily literary efforts. They are packages of instructions that people can use to produce new outcomes in their lives. What matters is not the turn of a phrase but the quality of the information — and whether it’s organized for immediate application.

Practice the art of creating clear and memorable frameworks for your ideas. Frameworks are primal organizing structures that can lead to a stream of publications and presentations.

8 Create “zero drafts”

“Zero drafts” come even before first drafts. To create a zero draft, just gather existing notes under titles and subheadings for possible articles, blog posts, books, and presentations.

Always have several zero drafts in process. Keep adding notes to them over time. Eventually one will have enough substance to justify complete development. It will “beg” you to be finished.

Letting work emerge in this organic way is much less painful than locking yourself in a room and trying to crank out information products on demand. Your aim is to ease the transition from research to writing. Don’t “write”; just transform your notes.

9 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. We owe it to them to practice the art of crap-detecting.

10 Books are idea banks

We expect certain things from books. We expect substance. We expect details. We expect length.

John Butman notes that writing a book “forces you to think more comprehensively, holistically, and rigorously about the idea than does any other form of expression.”

There’s a huge payoff for all this effort. A book’s rich framework of content provides the seeds for countless articles, blog posts, presentations, and other expressions of your big ideas.

There’s pure gold in all those pages.

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash