In today’s Q&A Monday, methods for organizing your ideas that make it so much more convenient to act:
How do you store your ideas to be organised and easily accessible to use as raw material in different projects?
Anonymous (via Quora)
I find ways to make storing ideas fun and rewarding. I have little “rules” (ie guidelines) that help it feel like a game. The basic outline of my system includes sketching, lists, and a calendar. I keep as little in my brain as possible. Delegate remembering any thoughts and ideas to the system.
Getting Things Done
I’m a big fan of Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen and base some organizational ideas on that. One of the main ideas of Getting Things Done is to write down anything you think of. Then put it in a place where you can remember it. The other principle is separating an actionable task from reference material. Actionable items are broken down into small tasks and included on project task lists.
Then the only habit I have to have is to check the lists or calendar. It’s a lot more freeform than it may sound, basically just write things down. I have designed this “Choose Your Own Adventure” style Getting Things Done cheat sheet that I’ve hung up at my desk at work:
The system shown here helps with my graphic design work as I decide how to accomplish all of my daily priorities. At the same time, when thoughts drift to personal tasks and ideas that could be distracting I can quickly make a note on my shopping list.
I keep a Google Tasks app on my phone to keep lists of various thoughts, quotes, and links to articles I’ve found. It’s a pretty simple system with some basic categories like painting ideas and quotes. Within each category, a lot of what is captured is in random order.
Step 1: Brainstorm using a trigger list
A trigger list is a short list of keywords that helps with brainstorming even more thoughts. It reminds me to write down ideas I may not have written yet: Boss, Painting, Bills, Important Dates, Weekly Events, Projects, and Unfinished tasks. The words themselves jog memories. I jot downanyl thoughts that come to mind when reading my list. Then organize them into the above systems
Sketch when you can
Sketching and doodling are fun ways I get ideas to paper. I like to get ideas out of my head where they can seem perfect and large onto paper where they’re small and can be thrown away. I scribble sketches. I like cheap spiral notebooks. I have sketchbooks where I move up to a different level of finished artwork and design. The cheapness of the notebooks helps me feel less precious and anxious about whatever I’m putting down.
A study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that doodlers remember more than non doodlers when told to tediously delivered information (via Time.com). Participants had to listen to a fake voicemail filled with rambling information. We’ve all had to do this at some point. Even after they were removed from their papers, doodlers were able to retain more details. The researchers conclude that doodling helps focus and prevents daydreaming.
Step 2: Sort Reference Material and Inspiration
For any thought or idea that isn’t related directly to an action, task, or project I keep on lists by various categories. Joan Rivers was known to use index cards to store every joke, as she explained in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”. She would type each on index cards and file them by the subject of the joke. If it’s an idea related to landscape paintings, I have a list for that. I keep lists of quotes, articles, and all kinds of thoughts.
Blogging and social media can help!
As Austin Kleon wrote in his book Steal Like An Artist, “Do good work and put it where people can see it”. I’ll often write a short blog post combining ideas from various articles, studies, and inspiration. That way they’re available for me when I need them. Often others will have new points which help with my creative process.
Pinterest is a nice tool for storing inspiration. Anything inspiring me on the web gets pinned. I also use it to search for visuals. Anything that has an image associated with it gets pinned.
Step 3: Keeping lists of actions
When I have decided on a project, I sift through the lists and put the items in priority order. For example, if I’ve decided to paint any tasks involved in making the painting onto my task list. You’d be surprised how much putting things in a single place can create inspiration and motivation. It makes difficult and complex tasks suddenly feel easy
Actions include sketching out thumbnails, working out any drawings, and finally any ideas that might work through the painting. It’s almost magical how separating references from actual tasks helps me to focus. Suddenly it becomes convenient and easy since I have a clear next step to take.
A lot of procrastination happens when I don’t have a clear direction. I dread having to think through a project after each step. Figuring out the whole scope within 15 seconds of typing makes it all go by quickly
Someday Maybe Lists
It’s also worthwhile to set aside ideas that aren’t happening any time soon. It’s a relief to let them go here. When you have free time, having a bunch of ideas that might suddenly become possible or appealing is also a lifesaver.
Another type of organizational tool I use is having lists based on location or context. This could be “When I’m on my computer”, which I’ll abbreviate @computer. This would have lists reminding me to read a website, pay a bill, or order art supplies from Amazon. Other examples of contexts: Home, Car, Work, Bathroom, TV, Microsoft Word, During Monday’s Meeting.
Step 4: Schedule what you can on your calendars
Some ideas belong in the realm of scheduling. If you can schedule it, then schedule it. Setting simple reminders of days that would be great to sketch helps me get on track. Google Calendar lets me set phone notifications, so I don’t even need to actively check for most things
Perhaps I have an idea to do plein aire painting. Not very useful in the winter. I could leave a note on my calendar reminding myself not to waste the summer and look back into this. Having a loose plan for your day, week, or year is an amazing way to spark creativity
Step 5: Forget the rest
In a recent episode of her podcast Happier, habits researcher Gretchen Rubin suggests instead not organizing and getting rid of clutter. Some ideas may never happen or won’t be useful. Learn when to let them go as you’re going through this whole process. If any ideas are timely or have a shelf life, make that clear in your system.
Readers, how do you organize your thoughts and ideas?
Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.