Thought worms are the genesis of every successful award-winning short story, bestselling novel, and viral article. Every billion-dollar box office movie — from Titanic to Avengers to Star Wars — began as a thought worm.
You have 6,200 thought worms every day. Over two million every year. Each thought worm is a distinct idea and a fresh opportunity. Your brain is constantly processing thought worms, at a rate of almost five per minute.
You can’t capture all of thm. You won’t capture all of them. The key to being a successful creator is capturing the thought worms that matter — and learning to actively chase down powerful thought worms. Here’s how to find and capture those thought worms.
Train yourself to recognize ‘capture triggers’
I’m a practical person. So it was inevitable that one day I would decide to buy a Honda. Before that day, I’d never really noticed Honda vehicles. As soon as I decided I wanted a Honda, I started to see them everywhere. This is known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. You pay selective attention to things you learned about recently.
Pay selective attention to thought worms. Spiritual folks call this mindfulness. Most of your thoughts are random junk, worrying about stuff that will never happen. A lot of thought worms relate to practical stuff about your day. Some are good ideas. And some are great ideas that you don’t want to miss.
How do you know which are the great ideas? You’ll often hear as a writer: choose a niche. With a niche, your audience knows what to expect from you. It gives you an identity. More important for you: Your niche creates a filter for your thought worms.
Whenever you have a thought worm related to your niche, that’s a capture trigger. Write it down! Open the notes app on your phone and make a record of the thought worm.
Here are some other capture triggers — these apply whether or not the thought relates to your niche.
- You think: “I have to remember this!”
- You think: “This is so good, I will never forget it.” You will forget it. Pick up your phone, and take a note.
- You hear or read something that gives you a glowing “aha!” moment.
- You get a glimpse of a full idea all at once — whether that’s for an article outline, a product blueprint, or a new campaign.
For every capture trigger, write the idea down. And keep your thought-worms together in an idea garden.
Keep an idea garden
Each idea is a seed. As the writer Lauren Elise says, every creator should keep a story garden. Your story garden — also known as an idea garden — allows your ideas to germinate, grow, and cross-pollinate. James Altucher calls this “idea sex” and claims that this is the key to making millions of dollars.
When you keep your thought worms in a garden, you don’t need to come up with groundbreaking ideas. It’s enough to have good ideas, and see what emerges from their interaction. Your thought garden is a space for your thought worms to combine in interesting and novel ways. On this topic James Altucher quotes Stan Weston, the creator of G.I. Joe action figures:
“Truly groundbreaking ideas are rare, but you don’t necessarily need one to make a career out of creativity. My definition of creativity is the logical combination of two or more existing elements that result in a new concept. The best way to make a living with your imagination is to develop innovative applications, not imagine completely new concepts.”
Your idea garden is the place you store all your thought worms, such as a notes app or journal.
Open a plaintext document — then type
You can discover thought worms by loading up a plain text document on your laptop, and typing. Type whatever comes to mind. See yourself as a transcriber. You’re not trying to come up with ideas. You’re simply transcribing your thought worms.
Most of the thought worms you type up won’t make a lot of sense. Some will be vaguely interesting and lead you on to greater things. Some will be instant gold.
The physical act of typing out your thoughts will dredge up ideas from within that you never knew existed. You’ll find all kinds of weird and interesting stuff when you sift through your mind in this way. You will surprise yourself. You will discover great ideas.
Find content that lights you up
I learned this method when I heard that writer Sean Kernan finds many of his best ideas while listening to podcasts. And the ideas he gets are usually completely unrelated to the subject of the podcast.
After I heard that, two things happened:
- I started to notice I have a ton of while listening to podcasts or reading books. Like Sean found, these ideas are often unrelated to the content I’m consuming at the time.
- I stopped trying to consume content as a way to find ideas. Instead, I focused on choosing the content that makes me happy.
When you spend time with content you enjoy, you’ll be happier. In my experience, this improves the quality of my thought worms. Content is fertilizer for your mind.
Give thought worms space to mature
What if none of your thought worms feel good enough? The writer Anne Lammot recommends creating “shitty first drafts”. As a creator, she knows that many of the most powerful thought worms start as seemingly bad ideas. They’re underbaked and half-developed. Write them down anyway.
Once you’ve been capturing thought worms for a while, you’ll look back at previous thought worms and wonder “what was I thinking, writing that down?” You might even catch yourself thinking that as you note down your thought worms.
The point is, ideas iterate. Most Pixar movies change direction multiple times before the final story emerges. They start as a bad idea that becomes a good idea. With every thought worm you capture, you’re creating a launchpad for new ideas to emerge. Bad ideas can and do become good idea.
Your inner genius is an endless stream of ideas . It’s one of these that will lead to your big break. Every thought worm is a fresh opportunity. Teach yourself to filter and capture your thought worms. Mastering this skill is one of the most valuable investments you can make in yourself.
Remember This List:
- Learn your capture triggers — and take notes every time one of these is hit
- Keep an idea garden for ideas to cross-pollinate
- Create space in your life for ideas to breathe — I recommend free-writing in a plaintext document
- Find content that lights you up — ideas will emerge as you listen, watch or read
- Allow your ideas to grow and mature — the ideas you have now are launchpads for even better ideas in the future.