I could write this article in three words and be done: “Keep a notebook”. But if it was that simple, everyone would be doing it.
I’ve had so many times when a brilliant idea struck me. I turned my gaze fo a moment and it was gone, never to return. All I’m left with is the inkling that there was an idea — like the remnants of a forgotten dream. I’m like a kid in the forest who sees a stick and knows it was once a magic wand, but I’ve no idea how to recreate that magic. All I’m left with is a stick, the sense that magic had once visited, and is no longer.
So, how can you make sure that you bottle up the magic of ideas every time they show up? Here are the five techniques I’ve found most powerful in my own writing.
Give yourself a motive
I’ve created a system for capturing writing ideas so many times. Usually, I do it simply for the sake of capturing ideas. And when that’s my motive, the sytem fails. Often it doesn’t get off the ground. Sometimes it lasts a few weeks, or maybe months. I’ve got dozens of quarter-filled notebooks on my shelves, each one tells a story of good intentions that lost momentum.
You’ll start capturing ideas when you give yourself a reason to do so. Police detectives write in their notebooks because they’re motivated to do so. They’re gathering clues to solve a murder. Their actions are part of a bigger story. They take notes as they need to, they don’t wait to be inspired.
As a writer, I use notebooks actively when I’ve got a place to share my ideas. I first noticed this at university, when I was writing my thesis. With thousands of words to get written, I had a reason to capture ideas. So, I started noting them. I didn’t have a good system at the time. I’d usually wake up at midnight and scramble around looking for scrap paper and a pencil. But come what may, I got those ideas written down.
The same things happens when I’m writing for an audience on a consistent basis. The more I write and share my ideas, the more ideas show up in my mind. I’ve discovered it’s best to be generous with my best ideas, and more will come.
Since I started sharing my writing, I’ve found hundreds of more ideas, and typically add several ideas to my list in a single day. I’ve got far more on my list than I could ever find time to write about. The more you share, the more will come, so be generous in sharing, don’t hold back.
If you’re writing on a regular basis, in large part the ideas take care of themselves.
Set up a capture system that you carry everywhere
For years I believed an old-school notebook is the only tool a writer should use to capture ideas. As a result, I spent hundreds of dollars (potentially thousands, I lost count) on notebooks that never got used, or that I carried around for a couple of days before getting fed up with keeping them in my pocket.
I didn’t start capturing ideas on a daily basis until I accepted that my phone is the best tool for this. I’ve got nothing against notebooks if they work for you — just don’t hold onto them out of a romantic ideal. I say that as a romantic idealist.
It’s easiest to build new habits stacked on top of current habits. I already have the habit of carrying my phone everywhere. I don’t even think about it. Building an idea-capture system on top of that habit is much easier than training myself to carry around a notebook and pen.
I earn my bread in the field of online article writing. It’s my job to make sure people open up the websites I work for, then stick around when they arrive.
There’s a simple way to send away readers before they’ve even read your first sentence: Have a slow-loading web page. And by slow-loading, I mean split seconds make a difference. Readers expect web pages to load super fast, and if they don’t, they’ll get what they’re looking for elsewhere. We’re busy people living in a fast-moving world. Few of us have the patience for anything that buffers.
Bear this in mind when you’re choosing your capture system for notes. So many notetaking apps are bloated and take a couple of seconds to load, or they crash easily. These lost seconds are when ideas leak away, or fade into oblivion. For the longest time, I tried to get along with Evernote. I still use it on occasion on my laptop, but it’s no longer installed on my phone. Why? It takes a few seconds to load, and in those few seconds, I’ve often forgotten the idea that I loaded it up to capture. Plus knowing I’d have to wait those few seconds put me off even trying.
The best apps are those that load fast. Two options that work well for me are Simple Note and Google Keep. I recommend either of these. I mostly use Google Keep because 99% of the time it loads quickly, and it auto-syncs effortlessly. That said, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, so it’s a good idea to try several different apps and see which slips most neatly into your workflow.
Whenever you find yourself thinking “I should jot this down”, don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t try to work out whether or not it will become a full article or story. You can’t know that right now. Write it down. Save your judgments on the idea for later.
Accept any idea that comes up. This encourages the creative part of yourself to keep sharing. When I judge my creative self, it stops sharing. It wants to be loved, affirmed, and listened to. Once you start listening to your creative self, you’ll get so many ideas that it doesn’t matter if some of them are bad. You’ll never have the time to write them all in any case.
Don’t commit the worst sin: telling yourself you will remember it later. At least 50% of the time, I lose ideas that I tell myself I’ll remember. It’s usually because I thought the idea was so good I’d never forget it, so I’ve lost some of my best ideas this way.
What if you can’t write it down right away? From time-to-time it’s not appropriate or convenient to pick up my phone, such as when I’m in a work meeting, meditating, or in the shower. I’ve learned to expect ideas to come up at these inconvenient times.
When this happens, I use a technique I discovered while reading about the world champions of memory. Make your idea into a striking visual image, then place that image somewhere in the room around you. Memory champions have found this combination of a striking image in a particular location is the best way to memorize information.
As an example, for this article, I could create an image of a bathtub filled with tiny notebooks. The notebooks are disappearing down the drain hole. Meanwhile, I’m trying to grab as many of the books as I can before they disappear, because they contain my best ideas. If I had the idea for this article while I was in a work meeting, I’d place the bathtub in the corner of the office, somewhere I can’t help but stumble over it again. It’s an effective method to make sure ideas stick around long enough for you to write them down. As a bonus, creating images like this gives you handy metaphors to use in your writing.
Accept that some ideas will slip away
The more I’ve practiced this system for capturing ideas, the more forgiving I’ve become of myself when an idea slips through the cracks. I’ve learned to be confident that more ideas will come. I’ve found my brain pours out an endless stream of ideas — and I’m sure you’ll learn the same.
Some of the best writers don’t even have an idea capture system. The bestselling author Paulo Coelho doesn’t even keep a notebook. He believes that if an idea is important, you will remember it. “What is important remains, what is not important goes away,” Coelho says. Taking zero notes doesn’t work for me, but it does reduce my stress levels to know that if something is really important, it will likely come up again.
Here’s an example: One of my most popular articles started life as an idea nearly a decade before I published it. For most of those 10 years, I’d completely forgotten about it. I only realized what happened when I revisited an archive of old notes I’d jotted down a decade ago.
Ideas will slip away. When that happens, don’t let it defeat you. Don’t stop using your idea capture system. Show compassion for yourself, and move on. If you beat yourself up too much, you’ll likely stop collecting ideas at all — and that will mean your whole writing system dries up. Instead of aiming to be perfect, focus on doing the best you can.
When you start capturing ideas, they’ll pour out of the faucet
The more I’ve implemented the above systems for capturing ideas, the more ideas keep showing up. My inner creative values being listened to.
In summary, to stop your best ideas leaking away:
- Have a motive. Share your best ideas, and you’ll find more ideas keep showing up.
- Build on your current habits. If you alr