Blindsided by Inspiration? How to never lose that million dollar idea...again!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Did I just say a million? Um, well please forget that. I actually meant a billion. Er, wait...maybe I meant thousands. Well, the point is that the idea may not be worth a million dollars all the time, besides it might be really difficult to arrive at an appropriate methodology for instant valuation of ideas, but that’s again beside the point. The actual objective of this post is to talk about how to generate ideas and to keep them securely, so that given appropriate motivation and resources you could pursue them in future (and hopefully even realize that coveted valuation). Essentially, we’ll ideate on ideas.

Never lose an idea again - Never get blindsided by Inspiration

Hmm...interesting. But what about those million dollars you were talking about?

Oh! You’re still hung on that? We’ll come to that, worry not. Let’s first attempt to understand how ideas work. I always think (and sometimes say) that what is but man, if not a collection of ideas. One may contend that a man has identity and personality and is much more than just a notion. And I say that if you observe carefully, right down at the biochemical level we’re all so similar that it’d be hard to distinguish one from the other, and at that level the concept of identity is almost reduced to cipher (unless of course in DNA fingerprinting).

Moving up the biochemical level, however, we find that man, unlike most other living beings, has developed higher cognitive functions that enable him to generate ideas, and those ideas in turn confer upon him his identity, personality and other related concepts. Most animals don’t seem to have a very pronounced personality, and that's because of their limited ideation capabilities. Humans, however, have a very characteristic personality that is defined by their ideas. Even the word ‘personality’ derives itself from Latin personalis meaning ‘of a person’. So there you have it.

The human brain, with its immensely unique cognitive capabilities, is evolved for generating ideas and critical thinking. There is so much more to it than the basal reptilian component (or lizard brain), which we tend to express so often in the form of fear, territoriality, aggression, etc. To generate ideas, one needs to rise above these basic instincts and focus on higher cognitive functions (more about basic instincts in an upcoming post).

Well said, but how do we really generate ideas, I mean like for real?

Idea Toaster - Crisp ideas, served freshIdea generation is an extremely complex multivariate process, and the subject matter of high science. However, our brains make it appear so simple and instinctive that we hardly even give a thought to how ideas are really generated. You could take one of those multiple variables that govern this process as being the amount of exposure you get to different kinds of information. Another important variable would be how you (and more importantly, your brain) classify and catalog that information. Yet another crucial variable would be the time you allow for the processing of that information. The time is of essence as it allows the formation of those neuronal connections that then enable a cross-fertilization of those seemingly random bits of information and churn out fascinating ideas. And then your brain churns some more, iterating those smaller ideas some more, and you have bigger ideas. And so on.

So, in order to simplify a really complex neurological phenomenon, one can generate ideas by exposing oneself to as much of world literature and different kinds of media as possible, preferably in an organized/structured fashion,  and then allow some time for all that information to assimilate and cross-fertilize, et voilà! Your idea is ready. now that I have my idea, how do I know if it’s worth a million dollars?

For goodness’ sake get over the dollars already! The next logical step after generating an idea would be to identify if you actually want to keep it. So yes, it does matter if you know it’s a million dollar opportunity, but we’re talking about still bigger things here.

Keeping an idea costs time and effort, so you want to be almost sure that that’s what you want to do. How do you decide on that? Well, it could differ for different people, but generally if your idea has any of the below characteristics you may want to keep it (thanks to Farnoosh Brock for such an exhaustive list):
    Is your idea worth capturing
  • hear the idea in your head frequently
  • feel the urge to immediately write it down
  • find that you keep telling it to yourself
  • think about it – a lot
  • feel butterflies in your stomach from thinking about it
  • imagine what if you turned the idea into action
  • love hearing it said
  • love the idea itself, period
  • delight in saying it just to hear it to dissolve on your tongue
  • daydream about it
  • dream about it
  • lose sleep over it
  • wake up to it after a sweet slumber
  • stare out in space and visualize the idea materializing before you
  • obsess with the very thought of it
  • believe in it
  • want to keep it entirely to yourself until you are ready to reveal it
  • want to reveal it with passion, zest, enthusiasm and energy
  • defend it against naysayers or “the realists” after you do reveal it
  • know that the only way you can stop thinking about the idea is if you did something – anything – about it.

Yay! My idea qualifies. But why do I need to capture it? I mean it’s such a chore doing it every time I have a brainwave!

A chore, is it? Well, I understand where you’re coming from, because ideas, particularly the great ones, strike us at the least convenient of times - during a shower, for example. And let’s settle on it that inspiration really does have this nasty habit of blindsiding you, striking when you least expect. Furthermore, I wish I could tell you there is a magical wand to foster and enable creativity, but let’s face it that in our workaholic lives we spend most of our time trying to force productivity. No wonder then that in such a ‘forced set-up’ our brains don’t always have the luxury of mixing up the right blend of those aforementioned variables to brew the greatest of ideas. Let’s just accept it, and move on. Move on to accepting that we can’t afford to lose an idea just because it strikes us at an inopportune moment. No can’t do, sir.

Blindsided by Inspiration - Ideas strike when you least expect
If you’re already convinced enough that you should capture your ideas as and when they come, move on to the next paragraph, else allow me to strengthen my case further. Ideas don’t just happen when you’re sitting there with a notepad...they happen all the flippin’ time! And great ideas that have a high probability of success, develop from smaller ideas. Literature is replete with stories that some of the most brilliant ideas of our civilization have occurred by serendipity and in the least likely of situations - bathtubs, bus commute, sitting underneath apple trees, you get the idea. Same goes for the ideas that have spawned some of the most successful businesses of today. It pays to capture and organize your ideas, because - it keeps you from losing them, gives you peace of mind, saves you time looking for those ideas, and finally gives you a sense of clarity and purpose. Evidently, you just can’t afford to not capture these ideas, and I don’t mean just memorize them, because memory is fallible (though it does work brilliantly for a gifted few).

To sum it up, the human mind is not bound by the same physical limitations as us mortal beings. So when your eureka moment finally arrives, it would help if you’re mindful and ready to capture it. You can’t just leave ideas to chance, it’s too risky!

OK, OK! Got it. But that cross-fertilization thing sounds so chaotic. Is there an actual system to capture ideas?

It is true that ideas do thrive in a seemingly chaotic environment. Whereas, we humans are naturally inclined, even more so in the artificially ‘forced set-ups’ of today, to organize and structure anything we see, hear, smell, taste or touch. Therefore, in order to reconcile and bridge these apparently opposing concepts, we do need a system to structure the chaotic mess that our ideas may appear otherwise. That system would then enable us to develop them further. 

Allow me to share the system that I personally use and find quite useful for capturing and organizing my ideas. It’s fairly straightforward. Once I have an idea, I capture it ASAP. This first bit is largely influenced by willpower. Then comes the more crucial part of classifying and organizing the ideas into various categories, using very specific and robust tools. Listed below are the categories I use, and the corresponding tool recommendations:

To-do Ideas

Capture you ToDo ideas with
These are ideas that lead to clear, definite actions, for which the timeframe may or may not be defined.
Examples: Take the Statistics 101 course, try out a T'ai chi session, learn to make cupcakes at home, update résumé, write an email to uncle, medication reminders, etc.
Tools of the Trade

Draft To-be-developed Ideas

Capture everything with Evernote
These are ideas that come as fragments, are vague, and need to be developed further to see what actions you want to take based on them. Often quite big and exciting, they typically require additional research to develop further, and may turn into multiple actions or even transform into full projects.
Examples: Computer Programming (learn/not learn? worth while/not useful? career/fun? which language? etc.), Trip to China (when to travel? requirements? what to see? best deals? etc.), Essay on global warming (what’s causing it? can it be mitigated? who are affected? impact...numbers, species? etc.), Relocate to a new city (pros/cons? is it really necessary? packing and moving? new service providers? etc.). 
Tools of the Trade
  • Evernote - collect snippets/stuff from all over the place, and bring it all in one single organised dashboard
  • Google Keep - simplified, neat, Google, need I say more!
  • MindMup - smoothest and most “frictionless” mind-mapping app, visualize your ideas, see the dots connect, super clean UI.

Calendar Appointment/Event Ideas

These are ideas that do not require much deliberation, and enter straight into your schedule. Nevertheless, they may be quite important and missing them could negatively impact you.
Examples: Birthdays, anniversaries, appointments, sporting events, deadlines, upcoming conference, etc.
Tools of the Trade
  • Google Calendar - simple, straightforward, delivers on what it promises
  • Cal - gorgeous, functional, syncs with
  • Sunrise Calendar - for iOS users who don’t like iCal and use Google Calendar anyway!

Ideas/Inspiration from the Interesting Randomness of the Web

Capture all the visual inspiration you find on the Web with Pinterest
Ideas you stumble upon while surfing the web and find interesting. You may want to read further on them, or actually implement them in your life, or you might just be short on time and save them to read/view/share later.
Examples: DIY ideas on redecorating your living room, interesting links and resources from your Twitter/Facebook/G+ news feed, a really long but interesting The Economist article, a step-by-step tutorial video of how to assemble your mountain bike, etc.
Tools of the Trade

Whoa! Some system that! Don’t you think our good ol’ paper notepad and sticky notes be the best?

Ideas on sticky too many to manage!
Most of us naturally tend towards actual physical notes, and for all the right reasons. It’s just preferable most of the time to have a concrete list at hand to review and quickly make changes. Some like it as a back-up to the digital versions. While some of us just enjoy the feel of putting pen to paper. All valid and good reasons. The point here is don’t throw away your existing idea-capture system, just for the sake of change. If it works, and works the way you want, stick to it by all means. And you might’ve heard/experienced that thing about too much of automation. Take calculators for example - use them too much and you forget how to add in your head (unless you’re an Indian, in which case you’ve been hardwired by the system to cram and crunch numbers even in your sleep!).

But if you have doubts about your system, or your system doesn’t work at all, it’s time for change. Let technology help you get organised and productive. If you must use a physical notebook for capturing ideas, and many of us do need to, get a special, aesthetically appealing notebook for the purpose. It keeps the task of jotting down interesting and you do want to look at it every now and then. DON’T note your idea on some flimsy piece of paper that just blows with the wind, and you discover it months (or years) later only to regret that there’s the idea I so wanted to pursue months (or years!) ago. Damn, that would be frustrating!

Yo! I prepared this massive list in Excel and when I actually needed it, realized it’s at home, on my PC!

We live in a world of multiple screens and multiple platforms. There’s a fine line between having just the right number of gadgets that peak your productivity, and getting overwhelmed by the sheer number of devices you own! Worry not, friend. Help is at hand to make you truly independent of these device and platform dependencies.
Sync your data across all of your devices for accessing it anywhere

Device-dependency is the first thing to tackle, and to that end the #1 lifehacking tip anyone can give you, is to SYNC. Build an idea-capture system that enables you to - one, capture ideas as soon as you get them, and two, store them in a location which you can revisit whenever you want. If your present system doesn’t allow you to perform either of these tasks, you need to reconsider it. Most of the tools recommended in the list above are offered as suites of cloud and desktop/mobile applications, and can be installed/accessed on almost any device that you own (desktops, laptops, mobile, tablet, etc.). Browser extensions and bookmarklets, available for most of them, make your experience even more smooth.

The next thing to tackle is platform-dependency. Your idea-capture tools might work just fine on Windows, but what about your iOS device, or Android, or Kindle even! Relax. It doesn’t have to work across all of those, but at least find something that works across the devices and platforms that you use regularly. Even though most of the tools these days work across multiple platforms, you might want to check if your idea-capture system is working fine across all the platforms that you’re using.
What, you own a BlackBerry 10 device? Don’t you worry mate, have faith that the free markets will sort it out eventually, until then they’ve allowed Android apps to sneak in! So there you have it.

But what if I get those million dollar ideas ONLY during a shower? What if I really have to have to write down while I’m in shower? What if...I were Aquaman?!!

Aquaman needs special apparatus to write underwater
There, there. Let’s clear the air. You don’t want to be Aquaman. Nobody does! Duh. But just in case, and an extreme one at that, there is actually “apparatus” available for writing underwater, and I’m not even kidding. See here, an entire category of stationery! I can still understand if you’d want to use the gadget when you get that million dollar idea during a shower, but I’m really skeptical people would take additional gadgets with them during a SCUBA diving session just in the hope that the idea might hit them 100 ft under water. You would never need that gear, unless you’re one of those who want to maintain a dive-log (yeah, that’s a real thing too), note down marine biology stuff, or maybe you’re someone who takes notes of the whale songs! Anyway, maybe there are people who actually take notes of whale songs, what do I know.

Assuming you’re not that much into water (see what I did there?), for all general purposes, just use some memory technique to keep that idea in your mind so long as you’re in the shower and then transfer it to your idea-capture tool, as soon as you get out of it.

Sounds like a plan...and then again, it sounds like a chore still! Besides why haven’t you disclosed much about those million dollars?

Boy! You’re a persistent one, aren’t you? Not letting go of those million dollars, are we? Anyway, your resistance to build/adopt a new idea-capture system is understandable. It’s easy to say that it’s a chore, but understand that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to actually build your system and get it up and running. It takes a little willpower though, I’ll give you that.

The hardest part of this system is to get your ideas out of your head and put them into a format where you can review them and create action items based on them. You need to start doing it consciously. You don’t need to write entire paragraphs; trust your brain, it can create full-length stories out of brief snippets. Use reminders, they take only seconds to set-up, and the app would ensure the idea reaches execution stage.

It’s like developing a habit. It takes time. Try to make it fun, and it might get easier. Find the right tools that work for you. You need to like/love your idea-capture tools. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us, relax! But the good thing is we all are capable of developing those habits. The rest is plain old automation, doesn’t take much doing from your end.

I have like ten pages full of earth-shattering ideas jotted down in my notepad, and I still don’t see myself getting a million dollars. Why?

Well alright, let’s talk about your million dollars now. See, there’s one last step that I haven’t told you about so far. Once you’ve generated that awesome idea, and have taken efforts to properly capture it as well, the last thing you need to do is to ACT on that idea. Yeah, apparently this last step is quite critical to unlock the value of your idea. So, just a word of caution, don’t get too enamored by some or the other part of the process and forget that the end objective is to ACT on those captured ideas! That’s not to say that the previous two steps are a way to distract and get you away from the final step. In fact, they actually preserve, sharpen, and bring your idea to this stage where it can finally be acted upon. To act on those ideas however you would require a lot of tolerance, which we would discuss in an upcoming post.
Just do it...ACT on your ideas...Execute your plans.

Not every idea would be in your priority list at a time, and hence only capturing ideas is not enough. It is pertinent to review your ideas from time to time. You must do it, there is no option. Keep them in a place you’d like to or at least have to revisit frequently. This way no idea will ever pass you by. Keep them fresh and in front of you all the time – eyeshot, earshot, and complete-senses-shot so that they don’t get shot down to pieces before you’ve had the time to act upon them. Reflect on them and allow your brain to form those neuronal connections, and given the right environment the thoughts would surely cross-fertilize and bloom into even more beautiful and creative ideas.

Review is the key. Heard that ol’ saying “out of sight, out of mind?” It is very easy to forget what we do not see.

Ideas never run out...always be ready to capture them.

So what you’re saying is?

In the words of Alexander Pope -
“Order is Heaven’s first law.”
Ideas could spring upon us any time from apparent chaos, and inspiration has an old tendency to blindside. Hence, it is important to be mindful of this fact, and be ready with an effective system to capture and organize those ideas. There’s no ideal system for this purpose, and each of us needs to build our own individual systems. Only once we capture ideas in the right format can our brains process them and enable us to act upon them, which ultimately unlocks the idea’s true value.

Hope you found this post useful. I’m sure you too maintain you own personalized idea capture system. Do share it with us so we could learn from each other.

© Jayant Rana, 2014
Image credit: / csm_web / CC BY; James Nash (aka Cirrus) / CC BY-SA; MGoBlog / CC BY-NC; Leif (Bryne) / CC BY-NC-ND; dbwilldo / CC BY-NC-SA; Bunches and Bits {Karina} / CC BY-NC-ND; Inha Leex Hale / CC BY; eugeniot / CC BY-NC-SA; Pete Labrozzi / CC BY-NC-ND; Sean MacEntee / CC BY; adihrespati / CC BY; ecstaticist / CC BY-NC-SA


  1. I love it. According to me information generates information but the hardest part is its expression. keeping the idea factor constant, the expression mode always robbed me of all the adulation (bad handwriting). But with all the tools its now become easier to set the horses free. They will help to couple the "start" with "finish" and every thing in between will be some million dollar ideas.

  2. Thanks Rishi for sharing your thoughts. Loved your comment! :)
    I absolutely agree, that ACTing on the ideas is the toughest part. But for some of us, even capturing the ideas too becomes a difficult task, which it shouldn't be, as discussed in the post.

    Glad you found it useful, and hope you do "set the horses free" as frequently as you want, and realize those million dollars soon. :)


Jayant Rana's Blog © 2014