Organizing Ideas

I am a voracious, probably pathological, hoarder of ideas.  I write little notes to myself about them, I lovingly organize and re-organize them and crumple them up into balls and hurl them into the trash bin, only to haul them out 30 minutes later "just in case".

I have at least a dozen different idea caches in various physical and digital forms.

First and foremost, a chaotic stack of notebooks, of many sizes and variations.  A geological strata of ideas going back to spiral bound high-school notebooks to leather bound action item logs.  

On my computer, a semi-haphazard collection of files in folders:  ./writing, ./blog, ./fun/ideas, ./fun/ideas/blog, ./fun/ideas/projects, ./fun/writing, ./dev./projects

Online, I have notes stashed in Remember the Milk (RTM), Evernote, Google Docs, Gmail (3 accounts), Yahoo Mail, this Blog, and an older blog that I keep hidden (because I was stupider when I was 20).

They're on sticky notes on the wall, text messages to myself, they're in the margins of magazine articles, on the back of envelopes, notes scribbled into the wee bit of space on other notes, and on and on and on.

Organizing them is a hopeless endeavor.  After starting an organizational jag, I'm as likely as not to instead find myself writing yet more thoughts about the organizational process itself.

After some self-examination, it occurs to me that perhaps I don't care about the ideas at all.  I'm really only interested in the act of creating them, from thence to be cast off into the nether-regions of a notebook or hard drive.

And yet, there have been times that, moving an old notebook somewhere, a lonely little scrap of paper lofts into the air and upon re-reading it, it ignites a real project.

So, how to wrestle with this beast?

To be perfectly fair to myself, much of the cacophony is caused by my repeated failed attempts to tame it.  

I dove into Evernote a couple of times, in the hopes that digital storage/mobile apps/search might be a solution, but each time gave up on the terrible rich-text editing and cumbersome chore of managing a large note hierarchy.

I started using, and still actively use, RTM because I like the notion of ideas being actionable, but I'm not entirely happy with the number of steps it requires to keep any deeper level of detail about an item.

I tried, but ultimately disliked Google Docs because the data types it supports have many of the downsides of maintaining a folder of documents, but without many of the upsides.  Google Drive might solve some of those issues, but I'm already using Dropbox.  Most of the rest evolved out of moments of immediate convenience, rather than any earnest attempt to use them for storage.

So, what is my product wishlist?

  • Ideas should be like files.  I should be able to send them to someone, copy them, back them up.  I should be able to use any tool I like to produce them, Gimp, Sublime Text, Eclipse, PowerPoint  Lightroom, Excel, etc.
  • Ideas should be relatable to other ideas.  If I have two very similar ideas, I should be able to connect them together so when I find one, I can also see the other.  I should also be able to fully encapsulate, and thereby hide, an idea inside a higher-level idea.
  • Ideas should have flavors.  I should be able to lasso a bunch of ideas together and color them purple.  I should be able to endlessly sort and re-shuffle them whenever my worldview changes.
  • Ideas should be concise and compact.  There should be a constant pressure to shrink and boil-down ideas into concepts that can more easily be kept in human memory and considered when making decisions.
  • Ideas should have a lifecycle.  New and nascient ideas should undergo a churning process of honing/refining.  Older untouched ideas should sink to the bottom. 
  • Ideas should have value and urgency.  You should be able to rank and prioritize your ideas, potentially in different dimensions.  You should be able to look at a pile of them and get a sense of what is important.
  • Ideas should be templatized.  The general structure of ideas should be a thing in itself that you can use to efficiently capture new ideas or help refine old ones.  Creating a new idea take as little time as possible and should provide a skeleton to encourage turning fuzzy ideas into realizable ones.
  • Ideas should be sharable.  Both in the sense of collaborative, but also the sense of extensible.  Another person should be able to expand and pivot an idea without interfering with the source.  The default should be that ideas are private.
  • Ideas should be narrative.  They should be internally organized into a temporal structure where one part leads to the next.  They should be lists.  They should be stories.  They should be slide show presentations.  To be communicable, to others or a disconnected future self, ideas must provide a road map through the information.
  • Ideas should be lovely.  Anything you touch many times repeatedly should be lovely.

I've really no idea how to gel these together into a cohesive product.  Some of these wishes seem mutually exclusive.  Perhaps, being my own customer, I can't see the forest for the trees.  

If I figure it out, I'll let you know...