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How to Create and Use an Ideas File

Geniuses don’t have better ideas than you—probably—they just remember them better. Here’s how you can remember them, too, with an ideas file.

By
Stever Robbins,
Episode #560
ideas folder

They say one of the secrets to extraordinarily innovative people is that they have lots of ideas. Maybe. But maybe we all have lots of ideas. You have brilliant ideas, like putting your town under a sleeping curse so you can hoard all the Oreo ice cream cake. It’s a worthy goal. Maybe you just need the ability to make your ideas come true.

(Also, check with the producers of Once Upon a Time, because let’s face it, your idea may have been “inspired” by seven seasons of watching that plot play out.)

Want to make an idea come true? First, you have to remember the idea. We don’t bother with memorizing anymore. We trust our smartphones to remember for us, freeing our brains to scroll happily through social media, click on “Like” buttons, and inform people who are wrong on the internet that their opinions hold no merit.

But in order to be the next Einstein, you have to remember your ideas. You have to capture them in the first place. Then you have to organize them. And then you have to get them back when it’s time to turn your idea into the next revolutionary Big Thing.

Capture Your Ideas Using Audio

One great thing about smartphones is that you can use them to record audio. Move your audio recording app front and center. When you find yourself having a good idea, pull out your smartphone (if you’re like me, it’s in your hand anyway), fire up the recording app, and talk through your idea on audio.

Voice capture is great for non-linear ideas and things that require explanation and description. We can even close our eyes and just talk through the idea with no distractions. 

Voice capture is great for non-linear ideas and things that require explanation and description.

With a smartphone, you have to look at the keyboard as you type. Plus typing is a lot slower. Half of your brain is taken up being distracted by artificial intelligence autocorrecting your properly-spelled word into something completely different. 

Capture Ideas Using Paper

If your idea involves images or diagrams, you can use an app like AudioNote 2. It goes beyond mere audio. It records your voice notes and then lets you attach images from your camera to the audio notes. Images can be naturally better for some ideas.

If you need images, or you just prefer writing, you can simply carry around a small 3x5 notepad to jot down ideas. It’s not always as fast as talking, but it works well. If you’re a total stationery geek like me, writing by hand gives us an excuse to use Moleskine notebooks (thank you, Grammar Girl, for giving me my very first one) and Pilot Frixion pens, which Michael Hyatt introduced me to in our Free to Focus interview. Woo hoo!

Transcribe Your Ideas

Don’t leave your ideas on your smartphone. When you get home, review your notes and put them into a master ideas file. 

Ideas are easier to find and retrieve when they’re in text. So if you captured your ideas in audio, now transcribe them. “What’s wrong with audio?” you cry. Simple: a year from now you’ll be looking for ideas. You want to remember your brilliant insight about how to dispel a sleeping curse without the public health implications of true love’s kiss. (Maybe Sleeping Cutie’s pre-slumber meal was chicken liver. Do you really want to kiss that?) If your ideas folder has nineteen hours’ worth of recordings called Note0001, Note0002, and Note 0003, you’ll be out of luck. 

Now’s the time to transcribe your ideas into text. Listen to each file and type it into a text document. You can listen at double speed. You can type every word or just the highlights. You just want to get the idea into text form.

You may also want to use an app like Rev or Temi. Both are by the same company, and they will transcribe for $1/minute. 

Using a third-party transcription service might save time, but I like the discipline of listening to my ideas a second time. It reinforces my genius and helps me come up with even more grand insights and astonishing ideas. If you could see into my ideas file, your jaw would drop in amazement. You’ll even find a design for an over-the-mouth flycatcher so nothing flies in by accident while you’re gaping in amazement. 

Make Your Ideas Findable

Once you have your ideas in text form, make them findable. As very-long-time listeners know from episode #3 on cornering the world’s thread market, you should always file your sinister plans according to retrieval.

Your non-sinister ideas get the same treatment. Store them in a searchable, online format. You can put them in your Notes program. I like to put them in a spreadsheet, with one idea in each row. 

For each idea, think of all the ways future you might want to retrieve it.

For each idea, think of all the ways future you might want to retrieve it. You might want to find your sleeping curse idea when working on sleeping curses, or creating public health policy, or giving advice on non-traditional relationship complications, or hoarding all the Oreo Ice Cream cake.

At the end of the idea, simply write “keywords:” and then list the keywords future-you can use to search for this idea: sleeping, curses, public health, relationships, Oreo, and ice cream cake.

When you someday need to find an idea, just pull up your store of ideas and one search later, you’ll find all the relevant ideas.

Use Tabs for Context

Sometimes your ideas are only useful in a certain context. For example, you might have a bunch of ideas that relate to Project Oreo. If you ever finish Project Oreo, or abandon it in favor of your newly-inspired Project Cookie Dough, then you want to keep things manageable by dropping all the Project Oreo ideas from your ideas system.

In my Ideas spreadsheet, I have a tab for Get-it-Done Guy episode ideas, and a separate tab for Business-strategy-article ideas, and a separate tab for Burning-Man-Art-Project ideas. 

Not everyone wants to be a hyper-productive creative genius, but if you do, start capturing your ideas today! Capture them in voice or text, but get them transcribed to text and stored in some searchable format. Tag each idea with keywords that help you retrieve it when you need it, and pretty soon, you’ll be generating ideas faster than J.P. Licks can sell Oreo Ice Cream Cake. And that’s pretty darned fast!

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Follow Get-It-Done Guy on Twitter and Facebook. If you lead an organization or a large movement, you think big, and you plan to change the world, I can help you organize your life to make bigger things possible without getting overwhelmed. Learn more at SteverRobbins.com. Listen and subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you'd like productivity tips delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to the Get-It-Done Guy newsletter.

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