I’ve always been fascinated by the human brain.
As amazingly powerful as our computers have become, in some ways they still don’t hold a candle to your biological hardware. For example, they’re great for repeatable tasks and automation, but your brain is far superior when it comes to ideation and brainstorming.
Which begs the question — where do ideas come from in the first place? What is the value of a single good idea, and how can you tell which ones are good and deserve more attention, and which ones aren’t worth the trouble?
I guess I’m just naturally a curious person.
That curiosity is what led me to develop what I call my “idea development system.” The goal of the idea management system is three-fold:
- Make sure no ideas slip through the cracks
- Help me tell which ideas are good and which ones aren’t
- See how big or small an idea really is (see how deep the rabbit hole goes)
One of the unexpected benefits of this idea system is that it made it much easier for me as a creator. Where I previously might have gotten stuck or hit writer’s block, my idea system helps me to keep my creative pump primed. By making sure I always have a stockpile of good ideas to work on and a process for developing them before I sit down to write, I no longer have to dread staring at an empty screen with a blinking cursor.
My Idea Management System
This idea system gives me the momentum I need to get started whenever I sit down to write, and it’s what allows the words to flow.
Here’s a brief overview of my idea development system.
I’ve written about this system before, but a lot has happened in the last year or so, and I want to revisit the mechanics of this system and explain how it helps me with the creative process.
Step 1: Capture
The first step is to CAPTURE every idea the moment I have it. I have learned the hard way that a good idea, once gone, is usually gone forever. So, I do everything I can to make sure that no idea slips through the cracks. Big or small, good or bad, it doesn’t matter. I capture everything.
It’s important that you not try to make any judgments about your ideas the moment you have them. That adds additional friction that can cause you to not capture it. Many times I have talked myself out of capturing an idea, then wished I had it later. I’ve learned the hard way that it is best to capture things even if you don’t think you’ll want to keep it long-term. You can always get rid of the bad ideas, but you can never regenerate the missing good ones.
There are two places that I capture ideas:
- The primary place I capture things is my fancy notebook, which serves as the foundation for my hybrid bullet journal system. Since I work from home every day now, I pretty much always have this with me.
- If I don’t have my notebook handy, I’ll use Drafts. For example, if I’m out for a run and I get an idea, I’ll use Siri dictation in Drafts on my Apple Watch.
Whenever I capture an idea, I preface it with the prefix of “idea:”
- idea: update idea management system
- idea: hybrid productivity webinar
- idea: time tracking course
- idea: signal vs. noise article
Doesn’t matter if it’s analog or digital, every idea gets this prefix. At the end of the day, I go on to the next step and decide which ones I will keep.
Step 2: Curate
The second step in this idea system is to CURATE everything in my personal knowledge management system (PKM). I talk at length about this in the BuJo article, but the real value in this step is that not every idea makes the cut.
Wait, didn’t I just say that I captured everything because I didn’t want any potentially good ideas to fall through the cracks?
Yes I did. The difference here is the element of time. All ideas appear fantastic the moment you have them, but if you’re able to get a little bit of distance, you can more accurately see it for what it really is.
When I have to judge an idea the moment I have it, I experience a lot more friction. It’s a bigger cognitive load to decide right then and there whether the idea is a good one. So I err on the side of caution and capture everything I think might be valuable. Then, as I process my ideas inbox I take a closer look at these ideas and decide whether I want to add them to my idea management system.
Since the first version of this idea system, apps like Roam Research and Obsidian have taken off. Apps like these allow you to effortlessly add backlinks between your notes and ideas, which provides additional connections to be made (and additional insights to be had).
The value in having an interconnected web of notes and ideas requires the ideas that are added be good ones.
Fortunately, once I get a little distance from the idea itself, it becomes a lot easier to decide if it’s really worth keeping. Sometimes I add the idea as a new note or page in Roam Research, but sometimes I append it to a preexisting note. Often I do nothing and simply delete it.
I like to think of this quality control process as being a curator of my digital notes. The job of a curator at a museum is to arrange the valuable collections in an order that makes sense. My job as a curator of my notes is to make sure the valuable ones get seen at the right time and in the right context. By making sure that only the good ones make the cut, the connections that are there are more valuable.
Step 3: Develop
Now that I have a bunch of connected ideas bouncing around in my idea bank, I’m almost never lacking for inspiration. I still can’t just grab an idea and run with it — it still needs some time in the oven before it’s fully baked.
That’s why the third step is to DEVELOP that idea using a mind map.
If I grab an idea and jump straight to creating, it never ends well. Without a mind map, I frequently find myself struggling for words. But when I create a mind map before I sit down to write, I find the thing I’m working on basically writes itself.
I like to think of this step like developing a roll of film from a camera. Back before everything was digital, your film had to be processed in a dark room before the images were of any use to you.
Building a mind map is kind of a like a darkroom for your ideas. You can’t really see what the final product will look like until you spend some time fleshing it out.
Another way to think about this is as a way of sharpening the saw. Yes, I can sit down and start writing immediately once I know generally what I want to write about. But I’m much more effective if I spend a little bit of time mind mapping the article before I try to write it.
Mind mapping for me is a form of sharpening my mental saw. And it works. I estimate that every hour I spend mind mapping saves me two hours when I sit down to write.
Here’s my typical process for mind mapping:
- I create a new mind map and put my topic in the very center.
- I spend some time brainstorming everything I possibly can related to the topic.
- After an initial round of brainstorming, I go back in and develop each section further.
- I zoom back out and look for connections between sections as I develop the story arc.
Only after I’ve gone through this entire process do I finally sit down to write.
Step 4: Create
Now that I have my mind map, all that’s left is to CREATE. I like to grab my mind map from MindNode and drop it into my writing app (Ulysses) and start writing from the outline. I’ll go back and creates the bones of the article by adding the appropriate Markdown headers so I can easily see my sections, then I’ll start at the top and start writing.
I can’t overstate how much easier it is to write this way. I almost never hit a point where I’m unsure of how to proceed. As a result of the prior work I’ve done mind mapping the article, I’m able to enter into that coveted flow state and the words just seem to come naturally.
If you want to dive deeper into this idea system, I’m hosting a free webinar this Thursday at 1pm CST. Join me as I walk through the specifics of this workflow and show you how to use mind mapping to make the most of your ideas.
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