The difficulties of capturing ideas

Is there a single practice that can multiply creativity? For me it was a small shift in the way I captured my ideas. This shift was the single most transformative practice I’ve made a habit of. I’ll explain…

As I established in my last article, every human mind is incredibly creative, and our minds are busy creating the stories of our lives at every single moment. There are thoughts and ideas perpetually forming and then giving way to the next set of thoughts and ideas.

If you accept that, then all that separates creatives from those considered uncreative is the work they produce. Potential ideas are already floating around your mind, but you must capture them, create them, and release them into the world. That’s what separates creators from people who think they’re uncreative.

For much of my life, my creativity was a source of frustration. I never doubted my mind’s ability to produce interesting thoughts, but I often lost them or could not produce them. I would have long inner monologues that would end with the feeling I’d missed some important breakthrough. Ideas would come to me that weren’t fully formed, and I couldn’t quite figure out how to make them work. Other times, ideas would come to me fully formed in an instant of exhilarating inspiration, only for me to forget the idea later.

I specifically remember driving on long trips and coming up with what seemed like brilliant story ideas, music ideas, or business ideas. Once that first idea came, the dam would break, and more ideas would flood my mind with that wave of ecstasy that always accompanies moments of profound inspiration.

But then, by the time I got to my destination, I could only remember bits and pieces, if even that. Sometimes it would be weeks later that I’d recall the experience, but I couldn’t remember the idea at all.

When I solved this problem, not only did I stop losing good ideas, but inspiration came more and more frequently, and the ideas improved.

My first voice recorder, then other capture methods

It started when I invested in my first voice recorder (this was before smartphones). That’s when my life changed. That’s not an overstatement. There was something about having that device handy that made me want to use fill it with ideas. And that made me more vigilant. I was paying closer attention to my thoughts, watching for anything worth recording. Not only did I successfully capture my ideas, but I produced more of them. So many more.

I noticed other places where ideas would come to me, when I didn’t have my recorder handy, such as the shower. This was difficult to solve because of the water, but then I discovered AquaNotes, a waterproof notepad and pencil that sticks to the side of the shower. Once again, having this tool for capturing ideas made me more vigilant, and ideas came to me as fast as I could write them down.

Every time I add a new, convenient idea-capturing method, I become more creative. It’s like a feedback loop. I have an idea; I capture it; my mind is now free to explore the next idea; ideas I’ve recorded lead to new, expanded, or better ideas; the loop continues, growing more powerful with each iteration.

I have a list of 57 creativity-related articles I plan to finish over the next couple of years, and I continue to think of new ones. Most of these ideas came in the shower, on walks, or on drives, and I recorded them on waterproof notepads or on my phone (either in a note app or the Memos app). Ideas are never a problem for me anymore. To the contrary, I had to learn to shift the balance back, stop the flow of ideas from time to time, and get the work done.

The components of a good idea-capture system

It starts with intention

You can’t force inspiration, but you can guide your mind in an intentional direction. As you devote more attention to your thoughts, you need to know what you’re looking for.

When I started, I wanted a sci-fi book that encapsulated my inner journey in a fictional narrative. I wanted to combine my takes on philosophy with both fiction and music. I wanted to make music that took people on strange adventures. I knew what I wanted to accomplish and just had to figure out how.

Sometimes I have ideas for things I have no control over or little interest in. Perhaps I’m driving down the road and think, ”When augmented reality glasses hit the mass market, I should build an app that…” I stop myself. It may be a great idea, but it’s a distraction from my chosen path. It’s important to make this distinction.

Vigilance over one’s own thoughts

The next step to drawing out frequent inspiration is noticing and recording the ideas already living in your head. We tend to draw distinctions between thoughts and ideas. Erase that line. Thoughts become ideas merely by recognizing them as ideas. We just have to watch for the ones worth recording. Otherwise, they pass as transient chatter.

The paragraph above, in fact, is an example of this. Amidst the chatter of my mind, I thought: sometimes it’s just a matter of recognizing your thoughts as ideas and recording them. I noticed the profundity of that thought and realized that, itself, was an idea to record—and this piece I’m writing was born.

I would say that vigilance is the single most important piece of the creative inspiration puzzle. Just turn the attention within and pay attention. Turn the attention back outward into the world and pay attention. Imagine the world from other perspectives and pay attention. And have your idea-capturing tools handy so you can easily and habitually record your thoughts.

Meditation helps become more vigilant. It helps train your mind to be more introspective and alert. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a stream of thoughts race through my mind before I finally stopped for a moment, retraced my thoughts, and realized a great idea was buried amid all that chaos. Had I not stopped for a second, I have lost it.

Include interesting experiences

Your notes should include more than just inspired ideas. Art is about reflecting the ineffable experience of life as well as the aspects of life to which you’ve been uniquely exposed.

So I’m not only vigilant of the spontaneous thoughts that bubble up but also of my feelings and emotions. The unconscious mind is ancient and primal, and even when it gives us what we want, it doesn’t always come in the form we’re expecting.

I keep a “synchronicity journal” where I document all the strange coincidences that occur in my life, because if my mind is noticing these parallels, it must consider them meaningful.

I keep a dream journal, because sometimes that’s how my different minds communicate with one another.

I’ve read of creators keeping “experience journals” where they note anything in life they find interesting. Others keep notebooks or drawers of things they find inspiring, which they can mine later when in need of an idea. If you’re a writer, you might note interesting personality traits or characteristics you’ve noticed in other people—these can become the inspirational soil from which characterizations can grow. If you’re a painter, your notes might be more visual, including photos and drawings of colors or shapes you find inspiring.

A willingness to produce bad ideas

I said above to choose a direction and be intentional so you don’t waste your time with ideas that divert you from your chosen path. But we also need to develop some of our bad ideas. I don’t know how to reconcile this except to say that you have to find a balance and use your intuition.

I’m often able to turn bad ideas into good ideas. Sometimes I can’t fix them, but the bad ideas trigger better ideas. Other times I run into dead ends, but you have to get the bad ideas out to get to the good ones. Just keep producing them.

The best creators produce immense amounts of work before they get to their masterpieces. Nobody produces masterpiece after masterpiece without a lot of noise in-between.

This is why I believe a large chunk of creativity must happen in solitude. If you’re self-conscious, your mind becomes constricted. You lose the freedom to record embarrassing ideas.

Coming up with ridiculous and potentially embarrassing ideas is a great exercise, in fact. I ask myself questions like: what is the most absurd solution to this problem I can think of? This frees me from my normal creative constraints, and sometimes, I return from those excursions with convention-defying ideas I never could have thought of otherwise.

Consider every context

You must learn to be aware of those moments when you should be prepared to take a note. Otherwise, you’ll lose yourself in your thoughts, and the ideas will pass without notice.

I consider any time when my mind is prone to drifting. That’s when the ideas are most likely to come, but it’s also when I’m most likely to get lost in those thoughts and not think of the capture them. It’s more than a matter of just having a tool handy; it must become a habit. Train your mind to associate those different contexts with that context’s idea-capture tool. Capture tools must be in arm’s reach and held in the consciousness while thinking.

Make some space in those contexts for free thinking. If you’re in the habit of getting on social media during walks, don’t. Walking is for ideas, not distractions. These tools do you no good if your mind isn’t free to wander aimlessly.

The importance of convenience

Studies have confirmed that even a small obstacle can prevent a regular task from becoming a habit. In fact, if you want to break a habit, one of the most effective ways is to make the action more difficult. Keep your cigarettes in a drawer in the attic. Put your junk food in a locked box. Even small amounts of cognitive effort can become an enormous deterrent.

So it’s important that your idea-capture methods are handy at those times when inspiration strikes. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve thought, “That’s a great idea, but my notebook’s in the other room. I’ll grab it as soon as I’m finished with this thing I’m doing.” More often than not, I lose the idea.

Mix up your capture methods

It’s easy to just get in the habit of recording every idea on your smartphone in a single app. And there are advantages to doing it this way: at some point, you must organize these notes and put them to use. That’s much easier if they’re all in a single place.

And if ideas came in discreet bits, I would recommend sticking to a single tool. But ideas don’t happen that way. The first idea often breaks the dam, and ideas flood in. Different idea-capturing methods provide different frameworks, guiding the torrent along different channels, changing various qualities of the ideas. My handwritten notes come in two forms: stream-of-consciousness or bullet points. I write more slowly, so my ideas are more thought out. If I’m typing on my phone, I’m slightly annoyed by the small keys, so my notes are concise and broken into small chunks.

Sometimes I need to let myself ramble as if I was describing and working out the idea with another person. For that, I take voice notes. I just let my mind roam. This is when my ideas can become the most divergent and interesting and lets me really get into the details.

These methods each have their benefits, so I mix them up and make time for all of them. And I try to have at least a couple of options available in every context possible.

Tips on organization

Our minds organize information differently, and therefore, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to managing and organizing notes in a way that’s productive.

But I can tell you how I do it.

First, I use a note app called Bear. I created an “Inbox” tag to compile all of my notes before sorting.

Alternatively, Evernote or any other simple note app will work fine. You just need a digital space to compile everything.

Once a week, I have a recurring reminder on my calendar to check all my idea-capture tools. I open my Memos app and transcribe any voice recordings into my Bear Inbox. I look in the shower for scribbled AquaNotes and transcribe those, also, into my Inbox. I check my paper notebooks. When I make text notes on my phone or computer, I put those directly into my Inbox, so they’re already in place.

Once I’ve compiled all my notes, I clear out my Inbox, moving the notes into locations more appropriate for them to live. Some notes are actually just to-dos—those go into a productivity app (i.e. Reminders, Wunderlist, Things, etc). My novel notes go into the place where I keep my novel notes. If I have a business idea, it goes into a place where I keep business ideas. Mostly, this just means moving them from the Inbox into other folders/tags without leaving Bear/Notes/Evernote. Just so long as they’re organized so I can find them easily when I need them and review them.

It’s important to clear the Inbox and to not let assorted notes stay in there. It can grow out of control and overwhelm you quickly, and ideas get lost in the noise and forgotten.

What now?

Here’s an actionable list of steps to get started.

  1. List all the places and contexts where ideas might come.
    • Think about your typical day. At what times is your mind in a diffused state?
    • Think about ideas you’ve had in the past? Where were you?
  2. List all the idea-capture tools you could have handy in all of those contexts.
  3. Put those tools in place.
  4. When you enter one of those contexts, remind yourself of its presence. This primes the mind to produce something to put into that tool.
  5. Journal your results.

That last step is another topic, but it’s one I’ll be returning to frequently. Never just trust my results or anyone else’s—you need to try it out for yourself. Track your progress. Note any difficulties you have. Note any successes you have. This helps you to develop a compass that points in a more creative and productive direction.

Photo by Samer Khodeir on Unsplash

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