Many people suggest you write down your ideas. After hearing this advice a few times I started doing this, and I will offer some new reasons as to why it’s useful. But first, what’s the best way to do this?
The most important component of writing your ideas down is to make it easy. Extremely easy. By my standards, opening your documents folder, opening a Word document, and typing is not easy enough. You need to be able to imagine something and immediately write it down. Once you start getting into the habit of writing these thoughts down, you will be surprised how quickly an idea fades. By having even a 10 second gap between thinking of something and committing it to writing, countless useful ideas can be lost.
My solution? Web searches! I make it extremely easy to search something, and just write the short version of my idea into the search bar. I can bookmark that search and come back to it when I want to commit the idea to a longer form on note-taking software. This has the added benefit of being minimally intrusive to normal life. For example, I often think of something I want to research while talking to someone. Once I realize I want to remember it for later, I pull out my phone and immediately write it into the search bar on my homepage.
This takes less than 5 seconds to do and has become a reflex, preventing me from missing many ideas. Fortunately, because this is so quick, it also doesn’t interfere with the normal flow of conversation. As an added bonus, you can use this trick to write reminders for yourself as well.
Why not just take the time to write all of your ideas down in long form when you have them? First, sometimes this is infeasible (e.g. mid-conversation). Second, this additional mental cost in writing something down can remove the motivation to write anything down. This leads to rationalizations like “That idea is impractical anyways, no need to write a paragraph for something that probably won’t work”. Not only does this mean you will write down fewer ideas, but it is also detrimental to the philosophy of brainstorming: generate now, criticize later. Third, allowing yourself to incubate on an idea can help you generate new ideas, caveats, and connections.
When you commit your idea to long form, all of the details should be written down, even the criticisms. This develops a useful pattern of saving every generated idea effortlessly, while allowing time to generate subsequent ideas and assessment afterwards. This not only makes you a more generative, creative person, it also utilizes your analytical thinking.
Say you start writing down each stray thought that comes to mind. You will find that most of them, upon later inspection, are incorrect, not interesting, or not useful due to some detail you didn’t know at the time.
So why do this in the first place? Besides the impactful ideas you do generate from this process, there are several reasons writing your ideas is important.
First, the more you practice taking note of your ideas, the more you will have. I noticed a significant increase in the number and quality of ideas I was having within two weeks of starting to write.
Second, by committing ideas to a longer form, you practice writing constantly. Because of this, I recommend writing long form ideas so that a person who knows common terminology in your field can understand your idea on its own with no additional background. This helps practice writing clear, simple explanations of your thought process, which is essential to being a good communicator and writer.
Third, it can be deeply satisfying. Often, recognizing idea comes with a rush of revelation, on the flip side, forgetting one can be strangely stressful. The practice of generating new insights provides me a creative outlet, and the accumulated writing is a source of pride.
Finally, being an “ideas-person” can help your reputation. Coming up with creative thoughts in meetings, or giving a coworker a new idea not only makes you look good, it helps your teammates as well.
Some additional notes:
- Though writing ideas down in a notebook is more natural, I recommend storing a list of all of your ideas on the computer. That way, you can easily search your accumulated list for ideas on a certain topic, and it makes them more portable. If you still prefer using a notebook, spending a few minutes each week typing up the things you have written is definitely worth it.
- There are a lot of great note taking apps out there, try a couple and see what works for you. I prefer apps which can sync between devices so that I can write short bits of text on my phone.
- Using common keywords in your explanations can help you search ideas later. For example, starting a note with “Startup idea: ” helps you find a list of accumulated business ideas when you need them.
Edit 11/10: I collected some data on my idea-producing habits so far. It seems this procedure has accelerated the rate at which I write down new things: