Laying Effective Idea Traps

I recently read two really great blog posts about writing — specifically, how to log ideas, improve concentration, maintain focus and enhance your craft. It got me thinking about the process of capturing ideas.

First, about those blog posts. One of them came from Chris Brogan. He wrote about generating ideas, spreading ideas and the process of cultivating ideas into written messages. Brogan talks about writing as not being something you sit down at the computer to do. It’s more like a habit, a reflex, an ongoing filtration of the world around you. Writing is reading. Writing is thinking about topics to write about. Writing is publishing. Writing is praying without ceasing.

The thing is, you have to practice writing when you can. I don’t think it’s good enough to say, “I’ll write every morning,” or “I’ll write after the kids go to bed.” When I say this, I understand that you have to find time where you can, but the actual practice of writing is something I want you to try doing all the time.

As someone who made a big production of finding an hour every morning to write or run, I appreciated this reality check a lot. Anyhow, go read the post. I won’t blame you if you don’t come back. It’s good stuff.

The second post was on 10,000 Words, a great blog that explores the intersection between journalism and technology.  The post in question listed five ways to improve your writing and concentration. The two that resonated with me the most were 2) Write down ideas when you have them and 4) Tame the web.

With regard to #4, the post quotes the anonymous truism, “Being a good writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet.” How true is this? How many times do we shut down Tweetdeck or e-mail to get anything done? Probably not as often as we should.

With regard to #2, back in college, I made the new year’s resolution one year to always carry a pen and notepad with me. For me, such resolutions were usually fleeting affairs, but this one I kept for years. I didn’t carry a bag then, so my notepad was perpetually in my back pocket, pen in my front pocket. I was writing more poetry then than anything else, so most of what I captured were ideas for poems, lines or verse fragments.

Now, I carry a bag and it always has a notebook in it. A lot of my ideas also come to me as I am lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep. It generally does not take me long to fall asleep, so there is a preciously small window of time when these ideas will come to me.  For this reason, keeping a bedside notepad within easy reach is critical. I love waking up the next morning to find some scrawled insight perched atop my alarm clock.

And of course, nowadays I have technology I couldn’t even have conceived of back in college. With my Blackberry, I am always e-mailing myself ideas that comes to me when I am out and about, whether it’s a blog topic or a point to make in The Project — not to mention ideas for work. I’ve also used Evernote a little bit, usually for more extensive writing I am doing on the go.

We often conceive of emerging technologies as facilitating new ways of broadcasting out, but what about broadcasting in? With technology, we are tremendously more empowered to talk to ourselves, and we can take advantage of much-needed system redundancy and backup. (More on this in a bit.) A tweet this morning by Brian Kenyon was particularly timely:

(I hadn’t heard heard of reQall before. Kinda neat.)

Memory: The Unreliable Narrator

What is the common denominator to all of this advice? It’s all about creating systems and habits that are more reliable than our weakest link: our memory. If we were computers, we would need to have a program running in the background all the time that captured critical bits of sound, image and text for later reference. All of these tips and strategies are akin to coding that program for ourselves.

We cannot trust ourselves to remember. It’s sad but true. The human memory is a strange and glorious function, but I wouldn’t trust it with an important new thought farther than I can throw it. When that thought arrives, you have to put on the brakes and make a note of it. Your memory is too busy remembering the lyrics to En Vogue songs you haven’t heard in 10 years to make lasting note of your epiphany. The other morning, as I was doing dishes and a Mountain Goats lyrics triggered an idea for The Project, I ran, wet hands dripping, back to my desk to write it down. I had no choice. I had to snare the idea while it was still alive.

The gap between having an idea and communicating it is wide and precipitous. We need to set up our own safety nets, to rescue our insights and ideas when they fall off the tips of our tongues or the forefront of our minds. That is writing.

I wondered why I happened to read those two blog posts so quick on the heels of one another, and then I looked at a calendar. January is almost over. The freshness of a new year and all the good intentions that come with it have been kicked to the curb, into the crust of a two week-old snow. People are losing sight of the focus with which they seized the new calendar. We need to be reminded of this stuff, our backpocket promises. We need to make it not a resolution, but habit. We need to always set our idea traps — and never let a good catch get away.

Photo by somegeekintn / Flickr Creative Commons

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One response to “Laying Effective Idea Traps

  1. Note to self: Keep note pad near the sink so I don’t drip dishwater on hardwood floor when trundling down hallway to home office on opposite end of house.

    Good stuff.

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