Benefitting From Random Ideas

I keep notes on most things I do, from work to personal interests. These range from speculative, random ideas to well-defined project tasks. Regarding the random ideas, now and again I go through them and am often surprised at how many I’ve completely forgotten about. Also, as time progresses, the original idea will often have quite a different connotation and occasionally be in a better position to be acted on. However I don’t really do this trawl in a very systematic way, say via a regular review, so progress comes through luck and mood rather than method.

I recently read about Steven Johnson‘s approach to this general problem, he uses the idea of a ‘spark file’:

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

The key aspect is the regular use of a review:

Now, the spark file itself is not all that unusual: that’s why Moleskins or Evernote are so useful to so many people. But the key habit that I’ve tried to cultivate is this: every three or four months, I go back and re-read the entire spark file. And it’s not an inconsequential document: it’s almost fifty pages of hunches at this point, the length of several book chapters. But what happens when I re-read the document that I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around: the idea I had in 2008 that made almost no sense in 2008, but that turns out to be incredibly useful in 2012, because something has changed in the external world, or because some other idea has supplied the missing piece that turns the hunch into something actionable.

I might try this myself although I’ve also started using some innovative software called TheBrain (from TheBrain Technologies) to do something similar.

Whatever approach you use, the importance of the regular review remains of course, so I’ve now got the next three scheduled in my calendar. I’ll also make brief notes on the reviews and include them in the list as well as that’ll be an interesting way to see how my thoughts grow.

Aside: TheBrain has been described as a knowledge visualisation tool but to get a feel it’s best just to watch one of their many explanatory videos. The free version of TheBrain is very good in it’s own right so you might want to give it a trial (it runs on Windows, Mac and Linux). For an independent assessment, see also the illuminating posts on Steve Zeoli’s site.

 

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