Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple, learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.
— John Steinbeck
This is a detailed account of exactly what I do to start generating lots of ideas (with some of them actually being really good) every single day.
I always liked to think of myself as an imaginative person with a lot of ideas and that I am relatively creative, but I soon realized that I didn’t have a clear process for documenting them or that I actually even needed to. Earlier this summer, I read Choose Yourself by James Altucher and it changed my way of thinking and approach to so many aspects of my life. One of the most profound takeaways for me (and something that I added to my Daily Routine) was the concept of coming up with 10 ideas each day, no matter what.
Before committing to this practice, my system for ideation fell into one of these buckets:
- I would have an idea and do nothing with it because I didn’t truly believe in it or felt the need to actually write it down
- I would have an idea and email myself a note about it
- I would have (what I thought was) a great idea and mention it to someone else and if they loved it, I would maybe write it down and consider doing something about it. If they weren’t jumping up and down excited about it, I would usually just forget about it
- I would have an idea and write it down somewhere
So essentially only a very small percentage of my ideas ever saw the light of day. Ugh. So I knew that I needed a better way of getting everything out of my head, but I still had some reservations that were holding me back from actually committing to incorporating this practice into my permanent Daily Routine.
No Bad Ideas
About a month after I finished ‘Choose Yourself’, I saw a video by Ari Meisel where he talked about the importance of getting your ideas out, even the bad ones. If an idea is in your head, get it out. Ideas in your brain work like traffic on the highway: you have to create idea-flow for good ideas to come out.
This was a revelation to me because I always felt that an idea wasn’t worth writing down or exploring unless it was a great one. It eventually dawned on me that I didn’t have to come up with some breakthrough concept or the next light bulb with every idea.
I just needed to get the stuff out.
Are you a numbers person? If so, think about it this way:
10 ideas each day for 1 year (365 days) = 3,650 new ideas per year
Now let’s apply the Pareto Principle to this and say that 80% of those ideas are going to suck and that you are going to get your most value from the other 20% — that’s 730 new ideas to work with each year! Let’s even look at it really conservatively and say that 99% of your ideas are going to be ho-hum. You are still going to have 36 killer ideas.
Remember, it only takes one brilliant idea to change everything.
“I’ve learned from experience that if you work harder at it, and apply more energy and time to it, and more consistency, you get a better result. It comes from the work.” — Louis C. K.
I knew that coming up with ideas was important. I understood the math. I got it. However, for a few weeks I kept coming up with any reason to skip a day here and there and my excuses usually fell into one of these buckets:
- It was the weekend (I need a break on the weekend, right?).
- I was tired (I’m not going to be able to come up with anything good when I’m tired, right?).
- I had too much other stuff to do (How I am going to be able to come up with good ideas with all of this other stuff going on?).
- I wasn’t feeling particularly positive or inspired (I can’t expect to come up with anything worthwhile if I’m not in a good mood, right?).
But just like everything else in life, I found that NOT coming up with 10 ideas each day (when I knew I should be) was a lot harder than actually just doing it. I also found that it was always much harder to get started again after I had stopped for a couple of days. My concentration had been broken and the ideas had been backed up and were causing gridlock in my brain. Consistency, structure and commitment are key. Once I completely committed to the process, ten ideas came easy. Ten became my new minimum and I now faced a new issue.
How do I get all of these ideas down during the course of a day?
Enter the Tools
I have always loved pen and paper (specifically a simple lined notebook and a black Paper Mate Flair pen) but it just wasn’t possible or practical for me to have a little notebook with me at all times of the day (have you ever tried writing in a notebook in the shower?). At first I put everything in my notebook and didn’t think about the future. This isn’t a good idea when you have a very active 4 year old at home. One spilled glass of water later and I realized I needed a better solution. Here’s what I use today…
I have my iPhone with me on a daily basis (the jury is still out on whether this is a good or bad thing) and I experimented with lots of different apps but I wound up settling on two reliable workhorses – one that I had been ‘using’ for years and the other that I had been using in a different capacity for over a year.
Evernote. I know what you’re probably thinking, “Oh great, another blog post about productivity and creativity that mentions Evernote.” I bet you didn’t see that coming right? I would love to have given you something else and be more original here but the reality is that Evernote does it better than everyone else and they keep getting better. I had been using Evernote for years but that was more because I felt I should be using it rather than really getting any value from it. Heck, I was even a Premium account holder (like that was going to magically offer me more value and make me a better, more organized and creative person alone). I knew that Evernote had to be good but I never really took the time to find out why.
The turning point came when I truly understood that Evernote is designed to mimic the way my brain thinks. Then I came across a post that helped me to realize that I’ve been using Evernote all wrong and that was actually awesome news! Evernote has become my de facto place for all ideation. Here are the four ways I get the most out of Evernote for ideation:
1) Each morning I start a note called ‘Ideas for Today’ (with the actual date in place of Today) which I then update throughout the day. If I’m feeling particularly inspired and want to come up with a bunch of ideas, I write them all in there.
2) If I come across something on my phone or when I’m on my computer that inspires me, I email it to my Evernote upload address and add some notes about what my take on it is or why I thought it would be helpful. I don’t worry about tagging it or getting overly specific about anything. The Evernote search functionality is great so I can ignore the idea of different notebooks or folders because that was always something that held me back in the past. I would get so concerned with organizing everything perfectly that I would just think ‘this is too much work’ and ignore it. Now I just focus on getting stuff out.
3) If I don’t have my phone on me or am using a notebook or something else (more on these tools below), I use the photo attachment option to add it to the idea note for that day so that everything is in the same place.
4) Usually there will be an idea that jumps out at me each day and I take action on it. The rest I just leave in Evernote and revisit them later when I am ready. I simply open up Evernote and do a search for ‘ideas’ and it brings up all of my lists. I can then take my time and go through them and see what inspires me. It’s amazing how much better some ideas seems weeks or months later. Some are still bad and that’s just fine too. I simply leave them alone.
Day One. Ahh, the beautiful simplicity of Day One for journaling and getting stuff out of my head in a more structured way. I have been keeping a daily journal for the last year or so but I wasn’t doing it for anything related to ideation. I would typically write my journal entry every night before I went to sleep as a way to reflect on my day and get out anything that was bothering me, to remember all of the things that I was grateful for that day or to list out things that I wanted to improve. But then I started to realize that there were a lot of ideas coming out of this process of reflection and began making a more conscious effort to recognize the potential ideas contained in my journal entries. In the words of Leo from Zen Habits:
…every single post idea that I have for Zen Habits (or other blogs I write for) comes from reflection. Basically, I reflect on things that I’m doing or that are going on in my life. If things aren’t going well, I learn stuff I can share with others. If I reflect on something that’s a success for me, I think about how I got that success, and share that too. I’ve had hundreds of great ideas this year from reflection.
I have tried a bunch of different things to journal. For a while I would simply use a notebook and pen but I would inevitably be reminded that I have a very active and curious 4-year-old daughter… I tried Word and Google Docs on my computer but I didn’t like writing on my computer at night. I finally found Day One and just loved the simplicity of it.
There are a lot of journal apps out there but the thing that sets Day One apart for me is simply the design. It’s a beautiful app and the design makes me feel better about being creative. That might sound shallow but it’s the truth. I think that’s an important point for anything though, find what’s right for you and just embrace it. You might download Day One and absolutely hate it. That’s completely fine — it’s all about creating, accomplishing and feeling good in the process.
Washable Markers. The shower is an amazing spot for inspiration because you feel like you are in a safe place where you can be totally relaxed without having to concentrate on anything in particular. Leo from Buffer points to the shower environment as being a magical combination:
If you are in a relaxed state of mind, easy to distract and full of dopamine, your brain is most likely to give you your best, most creative ideas.
I used to always play music or listen to something funny/sad/motivating/etc. for the sole purpose of keeping myself entertained. Once I started meditating on a regular basis, I eliminated all the distractions but I still wasn’t doing anything to document any of the ideas that I had. Then one day I started writing my ideas on the wall with these washable crayons that we had got for my 4 year old (are you noticing a pattern here?).
I think I was probably getting an average of about 2 of out of every 10 ideas down. I would then take a picture of these and add them to my Evernote idea thread for the day. Two may seem a small number but that was still two more than I was getting before and an impressive 730 ideas per year!
But I still craved more…
Aqua Notes. So I decided to order some Aqua Notes and give them a try. This is one of those products that just seems so obvious but also so genius. I don’t know who came up with this idea but I have a good feeling that it probably came to them in the shower one day and they jumped out, slipped and fell but still made it to a pad of paper to write it down. The next thing they knew, they had a best-seller on Amazon.
Basically, Aqua Notes are just a waterproof pad and pencil that get suctioned to the wall of your shower/bath and can be torn off just like any other sheet of paper. When you get a brainwave, just write it down and then grab that sheet and load it into Evernote. I probably come up with an average of 4 ideas in the shower each day (some days it’s zero and on others I might come up with 10 in a row). The best thing is that I don’t lose any ideas. Don’t forget, ONE idea can mean all the difference in your life so all of these methods are about making sure that we don’t lose those.
Misc. I also tried using a Google Doc spreadsheet but I found that I was spending a lot of time trying to make sure everything was categorized the right way. The main thing that I use on my computer now (aside from Evernote) is a simple little Chrome Extension (Email this Page by Google) that lets me email a web page to Evernote (or to myself if I want to develop the idea further in Gmail). I know that this can also be done with the web clipper function in Evernote, but I just prefer this option instead.
Paper & Pens. At home I just make sure that I have a pen on me and that there are pens in every room (these are my favorite). If an idea strikes me, I want to make sure I can get it down right away and don’t want to have to worry about having my phone on me.
Your Hand/Body. When all else fails, you can do what I do – grab a pen and write on your hand. I have had to do this a few times and I actually managed to save one really good idea this way.
Putting This All Into Practice
Years ago I read about Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘Break the Chain‘ productivity secret:
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.
I wish I could say that I started doing that back in 2007 when I read that, but the reality is it took me quite awhile before I incorporated this into my life. For the last year and a half, I have done a version of this with all new positive commitments that I want to make into habits for my Daily Routine. It removes the guesswork and it also removes the word ‘should’ from my life. I figure out what I need to do and then I commit to it on a daily basis. I saw the value in coming up with 10 ideas each day and instead of saying “I should come up with 10 ideas every day”, I simply made a commitment to it and changed that sentence to “I will come up with 10 ideas each day.”
Coming up with 10 ideas is one of the 34 (currently) things I do each day no matter what. I know that this is manageable; I wake up at 5am each day and typically go to sleep at 10pm so I know that I have 17 hours to come up with 10 ideas, which is less than one an hour!. If I think I have to come up with 70 ideas each week, that is overwhelming and I’m most likely going to procrastinate and wait until Sunday night, come up with 31, be exhausted and say ‘F@#! it, this isn’t really that important any way”. So I break it down and make it manageable through a commitment. One thing I know in life is that it’s always so much easier to just do the right thing than to not do it because if I don’t do it, my mind will be plagued with negativity.
I use a simple little app called Way of Life to help me keep track of all of my daily commitments. It’s the simplest idea and it’s also my favorite app and the only one that I use everyday, throughout the day.
One of my daily entries in there simply says ’10 Ideas’ and each day when I accomplish that task, I mark it green. If I don’t do it, I mark it red. I hate having to mark anything red.
There is a third option in this app, where you can mark something in blue if you want to skip it (blue is the neutral color). Towards the beginning of my ideation adventure, I used to give myself the weekends and holidays off. I convinced myself that my mind needed the rest and that it was actually good for me. WRONG! It actually made it harder to start up the next time. We all have an idea muscle and if we don’t use it, it atrophies:
If you were sick in bed for ten days and then tried to walk you wouldn’t be able to. How come? Because your leg muscles have atrophied. Just two weeks of non-use and you might need six months of therapy to walk normally again. We’re in a world that is running 1000 miles per hour. If you let your leg muscles atrophy you will get left behind. The idea muscles in your mind are the EXACT same way. They atrophy in about ten days of non-use.
I saw this first hand and decided to change up my routine and never take a day off from coming up with 10 ideas. I can ALWAYS find enough time to do the things that I need to and know I should be doing.
Find What Works for You
I suspect many of you were nodding in agreement at my above confessions, either because you experienced the same thing or have already resolved to delete “should” from your vocabulary this year. In my quest for satisfaction and fulfilment in my daily life, ideation is my way of exhaling and identifying those actions which may bring me even greater satisfaction. If my notions can be brought to life and have a positive impact on those around me too, even better.
This is just my story of what fuels my Daily Routine. I encourage you to review yours and create your own custom version. No matter what tools, systems or processes you use, embrace them and feel confident in your ability to take charge and realize your life’s joys.