More thoughts about ideas

by Giles Turnbull

My post last Friday began life in a moment of uncertainty. I have a system in place for managing my ideas - of which more follows in a moment - but I was suddenly struck by the thought: “Is there a better way to do this?”


Charles Brown
2007-06-04 17:18:11
Just commented on your last post and thought it relevant to this conversation as well -- at least part of it, so here goes:

I find this discussion kind of beside the point -- kind of like asking "what God do you worship?" Ultimately it's pretty subjective. Use what works for you.

I would add that I think there are two separate issues that are being conflated here: list-writing and idea-preservation. The first is, to use the David Allen phrase, runway thinking. The second is 50,000 feet.

I doubt there's an app out there that meets both needs. And that gets me back to my "which God" really is what works best at different levels. And in that context, Giles, I'm not sure you're going to find that silver bullet you're looking for.

2007-06-04 17:24:22
I think a lot of the suggestions were also geared for task/project management. If you haven't tried "mind-mapping" software, it might be something you would find interesting for ideas. Freemind is, well, free. It's not a nice slick Mac OS X application. It's Java, but it works fine in OS X. For those unfamiliar, it's like a graphical outliner. You can expand/collapse sections. But you can link internal entries, external files and web pages etc., drag to rearrange, add notes to entries.

Stephen De Gabrielle
2007-06-04 17:26:37
What do the other writers in the 'oreillynet virtual office' do with their ideas? What do the writing teachers in writing schools tell you to do? Are their tools that support a digital version?

I know that in the world of pen and paper engineers and artist keep notebooks for their ideas. (Is their an artists equivalent to devonthink, an engineers version of tinderbox? or are their Documents folder in the same chaos of disorganized files that mine is.)

Sorry for the unsolicited response...


2007-06-04 17:48:18
Maybe what you need is a book like "How to Get Ideas" by Jack Foster.
2007-06-05 01:08:33
Wise words all. And these, posted by Lou Lesko under the previous post, are so good that I thought it worth repeating them here:

As soon as you employ one of the applications mentioned above, your idea ceases to be an idea, and becomes a project for which you need to organize your supporting research. It's important to avoid obsessing about the process. Mostly because it's an insanely easy thing to do. Downloading and testing new organizational software usually occurs when your in a rut to think of any new ideas.

Thanks Lou, I needed that.

Jochen Wolters
2007-06-05 01:15:32
As for the process of generating/capturing and developing/managing ideas, Giles, what really helps me is clear separation between both of these two steps.

When inspiration strikes (yeah, it does happen sometimes ;) ), I use the simplest tools to capture the idea, e.g., as a Stickies note on my Mac, on a piece of paper while away from my office, or with a little tape recorder while driving. This generates a separate physical "capture" of every idea, and it does not involve any idea management tasks.

As soon as I am sitting at my computer again, that's when the managing part happens. Based on the kind of idea, it ends up in Yojimbo, iCal, results in an email being sent out, etc.

It's like taking photographs: when shooting a picture, I want to concentrate on the image motif and scene composition, not about how this picture will fit into a story I might later create in iPhoto, or at what position in a photo book I would place it, etc. etc.

While reading your article, Giles, I had the impression that, in your "idea management" process, you do seem to merge these two steps into one: at first, you talk about "developing" ideas, then it's "keeping all my ideas," and a bit later back to "add a new idea." Only when merging this into one step do you have to worry about the distinction between "list-oriented" and "object-oriented" idea handling (which differentiation, by the way, I find very interesting).

As long as you capture every idea on its own, completely separate from any other ideas and with the tools most useful in the current situation -- writing on a computer and driving don't mix... -- you can leave the organizing bit til later. If you do turn it into one step, thinking about how that idea fits into the bigger picture only takes "brain power" away from the idea itself.

2007-06-05 04:47:57

I love

but since you use a lot of URLs, you'll probably stick with a link-aware app...

2007-06-05 10:13:45
Lists vs. Objects -- that's helpful. The great thing about Mac OS X is how many different apps there are, no matter what one's thinking style, learning style, or project demands. Here's my paperless academic workflow, and here's a page where I list and describe a variety of Mac apps useful for academic work.


2007-06-05 12:36:05
Giles, you said : One thing the introspection did offer me was a chance to study the anatomy of an idea - in my case, most ideas comprise a line or two of text and a URL. Anything beyond that is not an idea, it's a work-in-progress.

You asked the question about management of ideas and it did make me wonder when an 'idea' entry in your simple text file moved from just a thought to being a viable concept. Surely a URL isn't enough, so wouldn't you wish to be able to accumulate supporting material against the 'thought' in order to work towards viability?

I assume that once you have a viable concept for an article then you will be working towards a deadline and need to manage the production process to achieve the goal. You may have more than one article on the go at the same time.

Going from 'thought' to 'viable concept' seems to be the domain of whatever repository software that suits your way of working - I find a journal product, Journler in my case, works best. Going from concept to finished article would be more suited to some type of GTD product - iGTD in my case - to get the article out of the door while it still has relevance.

Where I struggle is that bit of the process that works out when a 'thought' has become a 'viable concept' - haven't found the software solution for that as yet!

2007-06-13 05:30:32
I use a system for capturing ideas, references, things I may want to look at later, quick change log notes and so on -- it's almost the one big text file.

What I do is have a new empty file created each day, using the date serial number, so 20070613 for today. This is hard-linked to a file called daybook.

Whenever I want to make a note, I use quicksilver to bring up daybook in textmate, and write it in, with a little preceding -tag- to roughly categorise it.

The nice thing about this is that my note is captured in the context of the other things I was doing that day.

I've written a ruby script and integrated them into my textmate bundle to be able to find the current tag in all the daybook entries in reverse date order and pop them up as an html window, with txmt links back to their documents.

There's also a findtag script I wrote which does the same thing, but inserts the result into the current document, which is useful for further processing.

The nice thing about it is that it provides easy capture, I can look over them relatively easily without being overwhelmed, I can find out what i was thinking about a couple of weeks back-- and mostly the stuff that I won't ever really need again is out of the way.

When I actually want to do something with a category, i use my findtag -category- to give me my raw notes, and I can organise that. Grep is still useful.

The scripts will be extended as necessary (I'm thinking of adding a file that knows what topics/dates have been processed, so they don't come up again in a general search unless asked).

I've also added a little thing to append memos on the palm to the correct date's entries, so I can capture ideas while out and about.