Organizing for Creativity — the Heart of Personal Knowledge Management

Many stereotypes surround the creative process and creative people. One of the biggest is the romantic notion that it’s okay for such people to be disorganized — in fact, that chaos and creativity are somehow directly related.

The whole premise of personal knowledge management (PKM) is exactly the opposite — that we can collect ideas and organize them in specific ways to increase the quantity and quality of our creative work. This is the whole reason that I even bother with PKM in the first place.

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Three problems for content creators

I turned to PKM because I saw my clients — idea entrepreneurs — struggling on a daily basis with barriers to creating great work:

Forgetting ideas. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, often says that your brain your brain is primarily made to have ideas, not to hold Just imagine how many brilliant articles, books, products, and services failed to materialize simply because people said “I’ll jot that idea down later” — and then forgot to do it.

Losing ideas. Assume that we do develop a habit of capturing ideas the minute that they occur to us. This solves our first problem but creates two more:

  • If our brilliant ideas simply pile up in those capturing tools without further review, then can still be forgotten.
  • If we accumulate too many captured ideas, they can become a disorganized mess that defies even the best search engines.

Failing to develop ideas. Chances are good that you will have ideas for many creative projects over the course of your life. But which ones will you choose to develop? And how will you take those projects from the germ of an idea to a fully fleshed out piece of work that’s worth sharing with the world?

The tragedy is that so many people die with their greatest creations still unrealized. They’re left behind as scrawled notes hidden in a desk drawer or obscure documents languishing on a hard drive.

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PKM can help you overcome each of these obstacles. More specifically, the game is to organize for creativity in the following ways.

Organize to capture ideas

Today we have plenty of options for capturing ideas on the run — everything from Moleskin notebooks to voice memo and notes apps for mobile devices. Just keep in mind that some of these options work better for capturing ideas than developing them. You might even choose to use different tools for these two purposes.

For example, I use the native Notes app on my iPhone for capturing. It opens quickly, and I store only a few notes in the app, which makes it even speedier.

To store and develop ideas, however, I move them from Notes to Microsoft OneNote. (Evernote, Workflowy, Dynalist, and Bear are other options.) OneNote offers some cool options for organizing and searching a large collection of notes, and mine now numbers in the thousands.

Organize to access ideas

I have a mantra for my notes collection: one place, one version. To find a note I made earlier, I know that there’s ultimately only one place to look — OneNote. This prevents the headaches associated with using several apps to create notes that are stored in different places.

OneNote also saves revisions automatically and backs them up to the “cloud” via OneDrive. This means that I can access the most current version of my notes anywhere and from any device — as long as I have an Internet connection.

Another advantage of keeping your notes in a single collection is ease of finding. You can facilitate this with “top down” and “bottom up” organization:

  • “Top down” means taking a bunch of notes on any single topic and moving them into a separate notebook. With OneNote I can sort notes even more precisely by grouping them within notebooks into separate sections.
  • “Bottom up” means searching my notes using key words, just as I use a search engine like Google or DuckDuckGo to find stuff on the Web.

Collecting my notes in one place also allows me to indulge in the pure pleasure of scanning. Clicking through my notes in a random order with no purpose in mind often reveals treasures that I forgot I’d captured. Often I can expand those notes and make sudden and surprising links between them.

Daniel Wessel, author of Organizing Creativity, refers to such events as “happy accidents.” This act of connecting ideas — which Arthur Koestler described as bisociation — is a cornerstone of creative thinking.

“Existing ideas in the collection work like condensation nuclei” Daniel writes, “only instead of rain they lead to a windfall of ideas.”

In addition, scanning an organized collection of notes makes it easier to spot projects that are ripe for realization. Notes for each project are centralized in a single notebook or section. By skimming  those notes I can quickly answer some key questions: Do I have enough information to complete this project? If not, what’s missing and where will I go to find it?

Daniel makes some distinctions that are quite useful here. He describes three kinds of projects:

  • Your core creative project is the one you’re actively developing and committed to complete this year — for example, a new book, service, or product.
  • Your central projects are those that you intend to develop over the next few years.
  • Your someday-maybe projects are sketchy, bold, and even “crazy” ideas that you might do in the future — possibilities that don’t seem likely right now but are also too intriguing to reject.

You can create separate folders, notebooks, or sections for each kind of project.

Organize to develop ideas

The paradox of collecting and organizing notes is that you can be creative even when you don’t feel inspired. Tinkering with your notes is a powerful technique for easing into creativity. By “tinkering” I refer to maintenance tasks such as:

  • Browsing notes at random
  • Reading some notes in depth
  • Moving notes from an inbox to another section or notebook
  • Re-naming notes with key words for better search results
  • Revising notes
  • Highlighting or boldfacing key passages in notes
  • Writing short summaries of long notes
  • Adding links between notes
  • Creating a “dashboard” or “table of contents” — notes with a list of links to other notes on the same topic
  • Archiving notes from completed projects

These relatively simple tasks can trigger bursts of insight and cascades of new ideas — even when I’m initially feeling low on energy and attention.

In short, maintaining can be an effortless path to creating.

An organized collection of notes also allows me to expand ideas. Adding even a single fact, quotation, or anecdote to a note increases its powerful and potential usefulness.

In addition, my notes collection makes it easier for me to restructure ideas. This includes moving notes between notebooks and sections as well as rearranging them within their new locations.

This is key, because there’s one thing you can count on with creative projects: Their structure — such as tables of contents for books — will change many times over the course of their development. With a notes app I can rearrange whole notebooks and sections at once, which makes even major restructuring relatively simple to do.

A final way of developing ideas is to create zero drafts — documents that include notes that are dumped together under working titles and subheadings. Zero drafts come even before the first draft of an article or book.

The bottom-line benefit — emergent creativity

I like the way that Tiago Forte describes his writing process in this Emerge podcast.

He used to rely on the “self-inflicted pain method” — locking himself in a room and forcing himself to stay there until he finished a blog post.

Now he collects ideas for blog posts in an Evernote notebook and adds to those notes whenever the urge strikes him. Over time he accumulates so many notes on a particular idea that the post simply “demands” to be written.

Here’s the beauty of this method: When Tiago sits down to create a blog post, the research is already finished. All he has to do is write. That’s not easy, but it’s much better than trying to research and write at the same time.

For me, this is the transcendent beauty of organizing for creativity. The process leads to results that are emergent and self-organizing.

This is a blend of effort and ease — an occasion of grace and enduring pleasure of the creative life.

Photo by Philip Swinburn on Unsplash