Sometimes, when I’m engaged in a menial activity (e.g., doing the dishes), a Good Idea will appear in my mind. It could be a novel approach to a vexing problem, the premise for a new blog post, or an answer to an important question. Whatever the case, I didn’t will the thought into existence; it emerged unbidden from mysterious depths.
These evanescent ideas are gold; they often lead to breakthroughs in whatever project I’m working on. They’re also ephemeral. By the time I’m done with the dishes or whatever, I will likely have moved on. Something will draw my attention away — again, unbidden — and before I know it, I’ve forgotten the idea. In some cases, I will even forget I had an idea.
If this has ever happened to you, here’s a simple three-step process that will allow you never to forget a good idea again. It consists of three steps:
Let’s review them in order.
Our minds don’t turn off just because we’ve switched to doing something menial instead of “thinking” — in fact, not-thinking might be the key to freeing our minds from their ruts. There are many ways to give our minds space by switching modes: doing dishes, long walks, hot baths, building a birdhouse — you pick.
But you can’t just drop what you’re doing to act on every idea that comes to mind. Do this repeatedly, and people will start (accurately) pegging you as flighty. You’ll also end up with a bunch of dirty dishes and half-built birdhouses. You don’t want that.
The key is to capture the ideas when they emerge. You could use a pocket notebook and pen or a note-taking app on your phone. It’s easy: you pull out the phone, create a new note, dictate a few words, and then put the phone back into your pocket. Whatever the case, you need a way to pause what you’re doing for a few minutes, record the essence of the idea, and then move on. Simple.
Well, not that simple. The idea is now safely stowed in your note-taking app — where it will languish alongside all your other brilliant ideas unless you do something about it. What you must do about it will depend on what the idea is about. This is where the sort step comes in.
We operate in different contexts. Work-related projects are one context. Doing your finances is another. Writing is yet another. These contexts share some things in common, but they’re also different. You’re in a different mindset when doing for-pay work than when researching your next vacation destination, even if both involve researching stuff on the internet.
In the sort step of the process, you want to review the new ideas you’ve captured and get them to the proper context. That may mean re-typing or copying the concept into a text file, a dedicated notebook, or a to-do list manager.
It may require elaborating a bit or changing the format of the idea. If you recorded it as an audio message, you might have to type it out. If you wrote down three short words, you might have to expand. If it needs doing in the future, you may have to re-write the idea as a to-do.
Again, this isn’t particularly complicated — it just needs doing. But it’s important to clarify: in the sort step, you’re not yet acting on the ideas — you’re getting them into the context where they matter, in a form that helps you do something useful with them. But again, this won’t help unless you take action — and that’s the focus of the next step.
If you capture your ideas when they emerge and sort them into the proper contexts, you’ll eventually have rich repositories of ideas. But ideas aren’t helpful if they don’t lead to meaningful change or action. It’s not enough to write down a to-do: you must actually do it. And that’s where the process step comes in.
This entails going through the lists of ideas, commitments, references, etc., and acting on them. For example, to follow up on that book that your friend Karl recommended, you must go to the bookshop or library and check it out or buy it. Then you must decide to read it or not — yet another follow-up action.
I can’t be more prescriptive here other than to say: do the thing. It doesn’t have to be now — acting on some ideas may only be relevant in the future. But you need to do something other than just write things down in the right place. (And again, punting the thing to a later date is a valid, conscious choice.)
Do it over and over and over again
This process works — but it only if you build good habits. For the capture step, this means always having something with you (a phone, a notebook) where you can take notes and paying attention to your thinking so you can capture ideas when they arise. I.e., you must remember to put that notebook into your pocket in the morning when you dress, and you must remember to pull it out to capture the idea when it emerges. Neither of these two steps is natural or obvious; it’s a habit you must build
The habits around the sort and process steps involve establishing periodic check-ins with yourself to review stuff. This could be an hour you dedicate every day to sifting through your notes and moving them into the proper context, or going through to-do lists to see what you can act on next. (I sort daily and process weekly.)
You’ll recognize these ideas if you’ve read Getting Things Done1; in that book, David Allen suggests a more structured and formal approach to the same ends. It’s all meta-work, but meta-work matters. Establishing good habits, processes, and contexts allows us to operate effectively despite the noise and distractions of everyday life. It’s a practical way of honoring the powerful, yet delicate and ephemeral nature of our minds.
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