Ideas are seeds that need to grow.
What you need is a process for collecting ideas and nurturing them until they’re ready
Where do you find your ideas? It’s a common question that gets asked at some point by every creative person struggling with ideas. The thing is you don’t find ideas. Instead, you set up an environment for ideas to find you.
The more you do anything, the better you get at it. Creativity is no different. You have to exercise your creative muscles and train them. It won’t happen overnight, but if you keep at it, you will come up with more and better ideas.
Ideas are seeds that need to grow. They need time and care to become more than an idea. What you ultimately need is a process for collecting ideas and nurturing them until they’re ready.
Step 1: Set Up Your Collection Process
Finding ideas isn’t the problem. Ideas are everywhere. You have to train yourself to recognize which ideas are the ones you can turn into something worthwhile and that starts by setting up a collection process for any idea you have.
Ideas really are plentiful and you probably have more of them every day than you realize. One reason we think ideas are hard to find is because we let most of the ones we have drift away before we record them. The best ideas might come back to you, but do you want to take that chance? If you don’t record the idea the moment it comes to you, it may be lost to you forever.
Better is to set up a collection process. Have a single place where you keep any idea that comes to you; a swipe file of sorts. Where is up to you.
I like to store my ideas digitally and I’ve used a number of apps over the years. I tend to use note taking apps, though a database app (or something like Evernote would work well, too).
Any method that works for you is fine. You can collect your ideas in a notebook or even collect them all on scraps of paper that end up in a shoebox. The main thing is for all of your ideas to be collected in a single location.
Equally important is to have something with you at all times to record new ideas or add new thoughts to older ones. Odds are you have a smartphone with you wherever you go. If so, you can write your ideas. speak them, draw them, take pictures and video of them, or use any other form of input your phone allows.
Again, it doesn’t have to be digital. You might prefer to carry around a small notebook or sketchbook and write or draw your ideas with pen or pencil. You might have to try several forms of collection to find which one you like best.
You can have multiple places where you initially collect ideas when they come to you. You never know when you’ll have an idea and you should have a way to record any idea as quickly as possible. When you have more time you should move all your ideas into your central storage location, the sooner the better.
Ultimately there are two reasons to collect ideas. One is to store them for later use. The other is as a way to exercise and build your creative idea muscles.
Step 2: Generate Ideas to Exercise Your Creative Muscles
Recording every idea that comes to you is a good way to exercise your creative muscles. You practice being creative every time you come up with new ideas. The exercise part of idea collection is less concerned with any of the specific ideas and more concerned with helping you become better at recognizing ideas.
If you make it a habit to collect all you ideas, you’ll find yourself having more ideas more often and you’ll start noticing better and better ideas as you do. It’s practice and like everything else, the more you practice, the better you get.
Not too long ago I read an article by James Altucher with an exercise for generating ideas. His suggestion is to write at least 10 ideas every day, typically around a theme like “10 businesses I can start” or “10 ways I can promote a product.”
The article was business focused, but the themes are up to you. You can write “10 things a horizontal line communicates” or “10 characteristics of the color purple” instead of ideas specifically about starting new businesses.
I’ve recently started the 10 ideas exercise and while I haven’t yet made it a daily habit, I already find it helpful. It’s a good exercise and it’s led to a few ideas I’m continuing to develop.
Step 3: Nurture Your Ideas
As an exercise collecting all your ideas is great practice, but hopefully you want to do something with the ideas you’re collecting.
The second function of your idea storehouse is to provide a place where your ideas can be nurtured. Ideas become something through their execution. The idea is the seed and seeds need to be cared for before they become plants. Your ideas need time to grow as well.
Unless I’m pressed for time when I’m recording an idea, I’ll usually jot down some quick thoughts with it. I might write down what I was doing just before the idea came to me. I might brainstorm and see where the idea takes me. Sometimes I have an immediate goal in mind for the idea and I’ll write that down.
I prefer to spend at least five minutes writing down whatever comes to mind, though I’ve at times spent an hour or more fleshing out the idea the moment it comes to me.
As you continue to collect ideas and spend a few minutes adding notes to them, you’ll start to notice things during your day that will work with an idea in your collection. Record what you noticed and add it to your idea when you’re moving things to your central storehouse.
While ideas are everywhere, most aren’t very good. Most are best left as ideas in your collection. Unfortunately it’s hard to know which ideas are the good ones and which are the bad ones until you’ve attempted to turn the idea into something finished. It gets easier with practice, but you do need to work through some ideas to get that practice.
Some ideas simply take time. Time for the idea to mature or even time for you to be ready to turn it into something more. Maybe one idea needs to be combined with another or some are really multiple ideas and need to be separated before you can do something with them.
You’ll likely revisit your ideas multiple times before you ever do anything with them, which means you’re going to need a way to retrieve them from your collection.
Step 4: Organize Your Ideas for Better Retrieval
When your storehouse has only a handful of ideas you can easily find them again, but hopefully you’re going to fill your storehouse with new ideas daily and pretty soon you’re going to need a way to organize ideas so you can retrieve them.
Your collection becomes a well to draw from whenever you need an idea or want to pursue one. How you organize it is up to you and what your collection tool allows. I recommend organizing your ideas in some way, whether it’s a directory structure with folders inside folders or a system of tags.
You want something that lets you view groups of ideas in isolation from other groups. I find folders are good to keep things separate, though tags offer more flexibility in how you combine them and filter your results.
I try to use both systems and I say try, because it’s a lot of work to remember to place things in the right folder or add a few relevant tags to an idea when you first record it.
Your organization should change and evolve over time as well. One of the main reasons I switch collection apps at times is because the new one offers better methods for organizing and retrieving what’s collected in it.
It’s also a good opportunity to review your ideas and organization.
Step 5: Review Your Ideas and Your Collection System
Your ideas need time to grow. Your organizational system needs time to evolve. You’re going to revisit your storehouse often and I recommend regular reviews of your ideas, system, and organization.
Most of the ideas in my collection are ideas for writing projects. To keep myself on schedule I maintain an editorial calendar in which I add ideas to the dates I publish on my site. I like to review the calendar and the ideas I’ve added to it at least once a week, usually at the same time I’m reviewing my productivity system.
The review is a good opportunity to look again at your ideas after a little time has passed so you can see them with fresh eyes. It’s easy to get locked into an idea, even a bad one, after you’ve put a little time and effort into it. A review with fresh eyes makes it easier to see the ideas that are better left for later and those that are ripe now.
Sometimes during a review I find ideas I’d forgotten about. Sometimes seeing two separate ideas I notice a connection between them. Sometimes just looking over idea after idea, fills me with new ideas to record and add to my collection.
During reviews I’ll add more notes to the ideas I revisit. It might be a thought that pops to mind and it might be an active brainstorming session for the purpose of adding notes.
Little by little I build up ideas this way so that when I’m ready to work on one, it’s already more than a simple idea.
Ideas are anywhere and everywhere
Where do you find your ideas? Anywhere and everywhere. The trick is not to focus or worry about the ideas themselves, but to focus on the process of collecting ideas in general.
Set up a system where you have something to record ideas with you at all times. Record ideas as they come to you and add a few notes as time allows. As soon as possible move your ideas into a central repository where all your ideas are stored.
Having a process for collecting and storing ideas is good practice for generating more ideas. You’ll find the more you keep the habit, the easier it is to come up with new ideas and the better your ideas will be.
Nurture ideas that weren’t born ready. Review the ideas you’ve collected and add to them, combine them with other ideas, or let them inspire you to come up with completely new ideas.
If you keep at it, in time you’ll discover the question to ask isn’t where do you find ideas, but how do you find time to work on all the ideas you have?