Oct 27, 2012

Get your head together

Ideas are what moves this world forward. The special thing about ideas is, we all have them.
The difference is made when you act upon an idea instead of just forgetting about it.
One reason people choose not to act on an idea is a feeling of the idea being incomplete.
Most times they are right, an idea is rarely fully functional at first and the first idea is almost never the best.
To act upon an idea you first have to groom the idea, give it time to grow and look upon it at different times while in different emotional states.

An obstacle in this is finding a way to catalog your ideas.
Most of the time people trust themselves not to forget their ideas. While this can be true for the basis of the idea, the details of an idea are easily lost. This means you always have to start from scratch, disabling the possibility of ever creating a meaningful idea to act upon.
A second common practice is scribbling an idea on a piece of paper. This is a vast improvement over the memorizing technique but still isn't flawless. Unless you are a very tidy person you're bound to lose some or all of your loose papers. Even if you manage to keep them all together it's easy to get them out of order which can create confusion when going back to them later on.

Now, the solution to this will be different for everyone, but I have found a way that works well for me.
Contrary to what you might think it isn't a digital system, mainly because an idea isn't always definable in words.
Secondary because an idea can occur anywhere at anytime and computers aren't always at my disposal and I don't own a smartphone.
Before I can get into my solution I have to define what I mean by idea in the context of this article.

When I say idea I mean any form of thought that can spark a future project. This can be a drawing, a basic premise for a game, a robust outline for a main character, a possible solution to a problem you're struggling with at the time, etc...
It can also mean a thought process you are currently going through. For example a step by step rundown of a solution you are defining as you are writing it.

Using this basic definition for what I mean when I say idea I need to make a second side note to my solution.
While the basic implementation is the same, I have to divide my method into a professional approach and a personal one. This may not always be the case, but it is for me, solely due to the difference in nature of the ideas needed in these contexts.

Phew, now that we got that out of the way I can sum up my solution in a single phrase : write everything down in a hardcover book. I guess you were expecting something more radical or life changing than this but allow me to explain why this is a game changer.

  • It's easy to lose a piece of paper, it's far less easy to lose an entire book. It's not impossible of course but if you're anything like me this book will become an extension of your brain and you'll regard it as a very valuable possession.
  • Books are chronological by nature, meaning you will always be able to determine what part of an idea sparked a different part of it.
  • A book is highly mobile. Mobility is a big buzzword these days but books had this figured out ages ago. You can always fit your book in a bag or even in your jacket and whenever an idea pops up you can simply write it down. No need to frantically start a search for paper.
  • My final reason, and this is a big one, is that you can review all of your ideas when you have some time to spare. You can read up on what you've been writing at any time and this might help solving a problem you first believed impossible to solve. Often I find an idea I scribbled down ages ago which I totally forgot about, sparking a new idea that would never have existed if it weren't for my book.

Now for how I use it. This is highly personal and you'll have to find you're own way of doing things. In the long run this book will resemble how you think about stuff and how you link things in your mind. I will start of by explaining how I keep my personal book which only has a few rules and end of with my professional book which is far more structured and even has a legend.

I use my personal book mainly for drawings and game concepts.
For these I only write down a title, a number of occurrence and a date. For example if I had an idea about a game where you play a monkey jumping from tree to tree the title could be Tree Jumper.
The occurrence simply shows how many times I've written about this idea. So if I had in the past written down the basic idea and now I have an additional idea to add bananas to the concept that grant you extra powers I would title it Tree Jumper #2.
The date doesn't need explaining. Knowing when an idea was written down can give you an indication of how long something has been on your mind and what state you were in when writing it.

In my professional book I write down meeting notes, database models, contact information, coding examples, thought processes, etc...
In this book it is very important to be able to find a certain item quickly and to easily refer to items from within other items.
The basic title is build in the same way as in my personal book : title + occurrence + date. However it is preceded with an overall index. The very first item in the book starts with 1) title + occurrence + date, the second 2) title + occurrence + date, etc... This makes it possible to refer to an item from within another item by simply adding #itemIndex. For example, "the database model for this project can be found at #18".

Another addition is labeling the items with icons and project numbers. I don't do this in the title but in the bottom corner of the page. One icon I use is '|-|', meaning a meeting. I can quickly go through the book looking at the icons in the bottom corner of pages in search of meetings for project 1 by looking for |-|P01. The first page of the book lists all used icons and projects.
A last trick is to write down all the dates used on a page at the bottom as well. This speeds things up if you know you worked on a certain project in a specific month without having to look at the titles.

As I said, this is a highly personal approach and everyone will have different systems to find order in their book but I know this has uplifted the quality of my work and freed my mind of having to memorize all my ideas. I know other people who also use a book to keep track of their ideas and use it in very different ways but have been benefiting from it as well. I can only advise you to give it a try, keep it up for a few weeks and I believe you'll be surprised with the results.


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