A simple, effective system for working with ideas

There’s an inverse ratio of actual idea value to speed of NDA demand. The quicker you’re asked to sign an NDA, the lower the actual value of the idea being shared.

Ideas have very little value. Maybe no value. They’re full of potential value, sure. But having an idea isn’t that tough (as demonstrated by the many people with armfuls of NDAs and not much of anything else).

Doing something with an idea is the difficult part.

There’s plenty of advice on generating ideas. I’ve produced some of this advice myself. (Sorry?) But the more I write and do other creative work, the more I face this truth: ideas are everywhere, hanging from trees, growing from cracks in the sidewalk, flinging themselves at your feet. Pick one up. Pick up another. Soon you’ve got a dozen, and…

Now what?

The hurdle to ongoing creative work isn’t lack of ideas but knowing what to do with the ideas.

How do we collect and qualify ideas?

How do we answer questions like How do I know this is a good idea? and What do I do with this idea once I have it?

Create a system for idea development

Instead of focusing on generating and collecting ideas, solely, we need to shift. Our system for ideas needs to include steps to process and qualify the ideas we collect, and then do something with the ones that pass muster.

I propose that a solid, helpful idea system supports these four steps:

  1. Collect
  2. Filter
  3. Develop
  4. Graduate

I propose, too, that we quit thinking of ideas and idea systems and idea generation as “restocking the pond” or “filling the bucket.”

I’ve used this type of analogy before, and I’m sorry. A good idea system isn’t about collecting and hoarding ideas in a little Idea Lake. It’s about becoming a conduit, with a continual flow of ideas in and ideas out. Some ideas go out with a whimper, via the Good Ship Rejection. Other ideas go out with fireworks on the Good Ship I’m Doing Something with This Shit.

How to collect ideas

Here’s the big question with collecting ideas: Do we collect all the ideas, or only the good ones?

We already know not all ideas are good ideas. Duh.

If we try to collect only the good ideas, we have to add a filtering layer to the collection process. An efficient collection process is about speed and ease: how fast can I collect an idea (when I have it or find it) and how much work does it take to collect an idea?

Filtering an idea before you collect it, or as part of the collection process, destroys the speed/ease. Or reduces it.

We do need to filter ideas—before we spend time developing them—but shoot first, ask questions later is a good motto: Collect first, filter later.

Then develop a little later.

How you collect ideas? You find an easy, reliable tool and you use it, all the time. You pop ideas into it, or something that will remind you of an idea.

A notebook is the epitome of simple collection tool: portable, reliable, easy to use, fast. It works great unless most of what you want to collect is digital. In that case, go with a digital notebook.

Pick something that’s as simple as possible for what you need it to do. 

Think about the kind of idea-material you collect, most of the time. Images? Videos? Sounds? Music? Recorded conversation? Links? Book highlights? Quotes? Notes that you write down or type?

Find the simplest, most accessible tool that accommodates what you save. Then stick with that tool. Master it. Use it exclusively and use it often until using it is automatic.

How to filter ideas

Having ideas is easy. Collecting ideas: also easy. Filtering ideas is a little bit harder.

Set aside a regular time. Daily or weekly is good. Monthly is acceptable, but you’ll have some stale ideas on your hands.

Having established criteria can help. It may not be necessary, but if you struggle with indecision, come up with standards and stick to them. What should your standards be? I don’t know, but mine are these three simple questions:

  • Do I want to work on this idea?
  • Am I able to work on this idea? (Do I have the resources needed? The time? The energy?)
  • Does this idea fit with my big picture? (Is it supportive of my current missions or goals?)

Look at each idea you’ve collected. For each one, make a quick decision: Yes or No. I advocate the “go with your gut” approach, but use your criteria when unsure. Sometimes my gut is confused. Sometimes it is hungry and distracted.

Ideas that don’t pass go away. Delete them. Get them out. Don’t save them to “think about later.” That’s how you create a stinking pile of stagnating idea muck. You don’t want muck. You want a flowing, energized river of ideas. If there’s something you want to save, move it to wherever you save things.

Ideas that do pass move on to the next step: development. Maybe at this point you want to enforce a bit of organization, a tag or label. Maybe toss them in a folder or category. That’s up to you, whatever works for you and your system. Remember to keep the ideas moving, flowing; they’re headed out. Don’t spend more time than necessary on organization.

How to develop ideas

This is where methods diverge. What works for me (a writer) may not make any sense for you (an entrepreneur or product developer or painter or videographer or whatever).

I think many people don’t do this part. They skip from choosing an idea straight to trying to make something out of the idea. Maybe for some people that works well. It doesn’t work well for me. I suspect that many people get stuck at this point in the creative process and don’t know why.

Here’s why:

When you launch into making something from an idea before you’ve spent time developing the idea, you’re trying to figure out what you want to create while you also figure out how to create it.

In other words, you’re multi-tasking. You’re asking your brain to work on two creative problems at the same time.

Perhaps for some types of thinkers, or some types of work, this is a beautiful, connected approach that leads you right to energized creative flow.

It leads me right to banging my head on a wall.

I’ve learned to separate the tasks. Developing the idea is about figuring out what I want to do with it. Once I know that, I can start figuring out the how, and get into creating.

Methods to try

Here are some ways to develop an idea:

  • Make a list. No, a longer list. Nope, not quite. Longer. Keep going. There… almost. Yep. (10 is easy. 25 is uncomfortable. 50 is challenging. 100 is creative fireworks if you can make it there.)
  • Ask it lots of questions. Who, what, when, where, why, and how are good starter questions.
  • Research the topic: the broad one. Now more narrow. More specific. More. Broader again. Follow rabbit trails. Look for connections. Ask more questions, and research those.
  • Find similar stuff (based on a feature or aspect or keyword or whatever) and compare. What’s missing? What do you notice? What holes do you see? What connections exist? What connections are missing?
  • Mind map all the stuff on your list or all the questions or what you’ve researched.
  • Sketch the idea you’re playing with. What does it look like as a drawing, as shapes, as colors? I’m not a visual artist at all, but I use simple sketches all the time to wrap my brain around concepts and explain things (to myself and sometimes to other people).
  • Have conversations about it. Careful here. You can get so much satisfaction from conversing that you lose the energy you need to do something with the idea. Or maybe you get too influenced by what other people think/say and lose your own track. You need some self-awareness (and appropriate self-imposed limitations).

Limit your time

Put a time limit on idea development. It can become all-consuming.

Perhaps aim to develop a certain number of ideas per week. Or schedule a certain amount of time for it in your day or week. Or go with the flow and see what happens.

Just watch your time.

Developing ideas is meant to aid your creative work, not take you entirely away from it.

Define an endpoint

When is an idea developed enough and ready to move on?

Define a stopping point, a known endpoint. That might be as simple as a time limit. For me, it’s having a detailed outline of what I want to create with the idea. I’m a writer; I work in words; an outline makes sense for almost everything I do.

What would a good endpoint be for you? Once you reach the endpoint, it’s time to graduate the idea.

How to graduate ideas

A graduated idea has morphed from a tenuous, intangible, maybe-I’ll-do-this thing to a thoughtful, deep, definitely-creating-this thing.

It’s kind of a big deal.

When an idea reaches the endpoint, get it to your workspace, on your desk, in your calendar, on your task list, whatever you use. I copy and paste my finished outline into a new page; now I’m ready to write the first draft, referring to my outline. 

Move the idea in a way that makes sense with your creative process. Signal to yourself that it’s ready and it’s ready now.

Don’t leave a graduated idea for too long. Ideas are like salad. When fresh? Very good. When slightly old? Very not good. When older than slightly old? Very gross and bad.

Don’t let your developed idea age into grossness. You’ve spent time on it. You’ve put work into it. It’s fresh and bright and ready. Do something with it, soon.

If it’s a big idea, divide it into sections and schedule those sections.

For best results, try this at home

And try it at work, in your office or out of your office, while traveling, by yourself, with other people, in and out and around and all over. Ideas are everywhere. Pick some up next time you’re out. Then do something with them.

A few tips that might help

Keep the idea system flowing. It’s a river, not a lake.

Don’t build a huge backlog of ideas. Limit yourself. How many will you hold in your system, waiting? Those waiting ideas become a psychic burden. If they’ve been waiting for very long and you’ve done nothing with them, let them go. Breathe the clear air. Be unburdened. More ideas will come.

Revisit work you’ve already done for new ideas. Ask yourself: what is missing? What could I expand? What questions does this raise? What alternate perspective could I use? How does this look from another angle? What other help is needed? What story is untold here?

Feedback on your ideas can be helpful but keep it in perspective.

Quick and imperfect is the right approach for idea development. Trust the rest of your creative process to do the heavy lifting, the creating, the fine-tuning, the editing, the polishing.

Don’t strive for originality. Follow your curiosity, your own interest, your desire. Leap from connection to connection. Have fun. Relax.

The more work you do, the less important every individual piece of work becomes. This creative prolificacy gives you loads of freedom and increases your capacity for joy in the work you do. It takes the pressure off. Learning how to work with ideas (not just collect them, not hoard them, not feel guilty about them) is key.

When you find yourself hating all your ideas, you either need a) a big break from everything, ideas included or b) a big dose of hard work. Try one option. If it doesn’t work, try the other.

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash