Why organize your ideas, and how to do it

Just as important as the process you use for developing ideas is the process you use for organizing them.

Idea organization matters on many different levels: from getting your ideas out of your head and into a more malleable medium, to having a place where they can smash together serendipitously and evolve from one another.

While the “organizational” part to this concept is loosely defined (more on that in a moment), the capturing part is not.

If you’re not writing your ideas down, doodling, or even simply journaling, you’re already missing out on the benefits of idea organization. But by not ruminating on or capturing your ideas in someform or another, you’re building mental debt that your mind has to sort through on it’s own.

Your mind has a limited memory, it cannot hold onto every idea and it certainly can’t hold onto many ideas while also evolving them.

Even if you’re not a writer, you should consider writing. Free writing and journaling are great ways to capture ideas and explore thoughts, but writing down (or doodling) ideas as they strike – just so you have a place where you can look through your ideas – is good enough.

What happens when you start to collect ideas or musings in a central place is that things which otherwise might not have made a connection are given a chance to do so.

In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson writes about the importance of having a central place to store ideas.

Johnson recommends having a singular place you can go to list ideas. A physical notebook or sketchpad, or free software like Evernote. He explains that, by having ideas in some central place (whether in a notebook, an application, or even a physical space), any time we go back to the place where our ideas are stored, we are likely to encounter previous ideas.

Say you’re trying to think of a project to work on when an idea strikes you, so you go to store it or write it down and on the way your eyes skim over another idea you had last year. Combined, the two ideas give you an entirely different idea that excites you more than the previous two had.

Johnson uses the concept of a sparkfile for capturing all of his ideas.

The catch, Johnson explains in his book, is that we need to allow for these serendipitous connections to occur in the first place. A solution for this:

“Write everything down, but keep your folders messy.”

The tools and processes you use for capturing ideas might be different than what “experts” suggest or what you read about in books. This is an important point; you must find what works for you personally.

Maybe you prefer to write only in a notebook using bulleted lists, or perhaps you’re inclined to create elaborate, full-page doodles with each idea and then storing them in a closet.

Ultimately what matters is that the techniques you use for capturing and organizing your ideas is that it enables you to stumble across possible connections simply by chance.

This is why the “organizational” habits of the greatest creative thinkers often appears less-than-so. Einstein’s messy desk or Picasso’s studio.

But in each case of messy organization, there’s a clear underlining pattern: the papers are scattered about a desk, but always on the desk. In this way, when the creative is in pursuit of a former idea (or a clean sheet of paper) he or she must thumb through past ideas that might help spark a connection. This is the power of idea organization!

First you must capture your ideas, however works for you. Then you must find a way to keep them together in a messy way. This is the most beneficial way to organize ideas for creativity.