Where do you plant your idea seeds? How do you give those idea seeds the love and attention they need to become your next great idea?
From my experience, most people have the hardest time at the incubation step in the creative process. We all have good ideas, but some of us don’t do a good job of capturing those ideas and tending them until they’re ready to come out. Hence the need for every one of us to have at least one idea garden.
An idea garden is simply a place to park your ideas. But it’s not just about planting your ideas somewhere — these seeds need sun and water, as it were. Without getting the energy and attention they need, they’ll become just more ideas that never see the light of day.
To make this concept more tangible, I’ll use my blog idea garden as an example. In a folder on my server are a bunch of text files, each with a title that represents the idea or topic for the post. Here’s what it looks like:
[2/2/23 Update: This post was written long before Notion, Obsidian, Drafts, and Ulysses existed. I currently keep my idea garden in Drafts and Ulysses, depending on how much I’ve tended them. Different tools, same principle.]
But it’s more than that. Each file has a brief abstract of what I was thinking. For instance, here’s the text from “The Tension Between Incubating Ideas and Dwelling Upon Them”:
There’s a very delicate balance between giving some time for incubating ideas and dwelling upon them for too long. If you try to push the idea out before it’s ready, it lacks the richness of a well-formed idea. On the other hand, if you hold on it too long, it loses its power and can become forgotten. Learn how long to hold onto an idea before sharing it — because great ideas are a social product.
As you can see, I have enough information to write a blog post on that. But, more importantly, you can see how that post connects with the one you’re currently reading: because I’d been thinking about that problem, I started thinking about a way to keep the ideas growing. This explains, to some extent, why many of my posts are so tightly linked to each other — the ideas don’t come from a vacuum each morning. Rather, I tend the idea garden and nurture ideas, and most of the time, they link to other ideas.
Of course, this also explains why I have to be careful how much I write: the more I tend the idea garden, the more idea seeds I get. The more idea seeds I get, the more I feel the urge to write. The more I write, the more I tend the idea garden. It’d be a great process if blogging and writing were the only things I did.
Another reason I do it the way I do it is because it’s relatively fiddle-proof. If I have an idea, I’ll start a new text document (since Textmate stays open, this is a keystroke), write the idea in the text window, and get back to whatever else I was doing. When I’m done with that, I’ll come back to the seedling, name it, and save it in the garden.
If I see that it needs some more work or that it connects with another idea in the garden (or on the blog), I’ll highlight that and then save it. Sometimes, if I have time, I’ll go ahead and write out the post. The main point, though, is that the seedling is there. It’s not lost somewhere in my head, and I’m not monkeying around with the app du jour to see how it works.
At least once a week, I’ll go through the garden, open up every seedling, and see what needs to be tended. Usually, I’ll have a good feeling about when I need to write a post based on how it relates to other ideas or how excited about or interested in the idea I am. After I write the post, I’ll move that seedling to my “completed posts” folder.
A downside to doing it this way is that I sometimes get bottlenecked — I see that for presentation purposes and logical flow, I need to write about certain ideas before I write about others. There is a tendency to get stuck on the preceding ideas, but I’ve gotten better about disregarding that and writing, but not posting, later ideas just so I can see the best way to lead into them.
Enough about my process and metaphors. The reason this works is because the tending of the garden is both Preparation and Incubation. (Tweet this.) The actual technique may be idiosyncratic, but the principles of the technique can be applied to any creative pursuit. A graphic designer may have a folder or notepad with half-drawn drafts that she reviews in the morning. A musician may have bits of a song that he plays while getting in the creative groove. An entrepreneur may just have a scrapbook of problems with potential solutions. A painter may display silhouettes of ideas on her canvasses in a separate place from her main work area.
It’s hard for me to give specific advice here on how to set up your idea garden because it’s really dependent on your workflow, processes, and creative pursuit. However, having an idea garden is a sure way to keep your creativity flowing and your ideas growing.
What’s your idea garden? How do you tend it?
Ari Koinuma says
I have gotten so used to WordPress that I set up a private blog under my domain and use it as my idea garden/diary/journal/note-taker — and it works as well as most other journaling software I’ve tried! The new versioning functionality is awesome for this as well.
Ari Koinumas last blog post..This Is the Sound of Your Ripping Yourself into Pieces (Digest)
Two things help me with my garden: I just started using Liquidplanner to help me with organizing tasks and mapping them to projects. Ideas could land here too! I also sometimes just use Outlook’s task pad to write an idea down so I don’t loose it.
My garden really rooted when I gave myself permission not to fully blow out the idea just because it came. We are all a work in progress, including the ideas we hatch. Sometimes it’s hatch time, or plant time or harvest time. A system helps!
I really appreciate that you point out what extra good stuff you get as a result of practicing “idea gardening” which is more good ideas. I like feeling a sense of accomplishment for having a system that helps me be accountable to my brilliance.
Seamus Anthony says
Pretty low tech myself – just a long scrolling list of ideas on one google document does me fine. ideas are cheap – making them happen is the hard part! But it is very important to capture them before they get away from you for sure.
Seamus Anthonys last blog post..How To Get High Without Drugs
Evelyn Lim says
I am very unstructured and need to get organized. I have some notes that look like your idea garden, some handwritten in a book and some in scraps of paper. When I am seized by an idea which can come anywhere and anytime, I have to write it down immediately and will just grab whatever that is available.
Evelyn Lims last blog post..Can You Read My Mind?
James | Dancing Geek says
My idea garden is either draft posts on my blogs or my ‘ideas only’ notepad.
Draft posts are fairly self-explanatory, I will either write them up later (picking whichever resonates when I’m feeling in the mood to write but don’t have a particular topic to hand) or delete them (if I later feel they’ve been covered or don’t resonate any longer).
For the notepad my rules are simple (and written in thick black marker on the inside cover!):
No working out
This is not my to do list
Then twice a week I go through all my ideas. This can mean any number of things, but generally results in either an action, a scheduled note, an addition to or creation of a plan or even a whole new system to try out.
James | Dancing Geeks last blog post..My Shiva Nata blog is live!
For me, ideas and projects are mixed together in one folder, because ideas flow naturally into projects, and sometimes the boundary is blurry.
Each idea/project has a short name, the name of the folder.
All folders are inside of one folder named 2008. Each year gets its own folders. Once in a while projects span years, but this hasn’t been a problem – usually they stay in the same year they started in, or sometimes if I want to leave an old version behind and make major changes, I’ll copy everything in the folder to a new folder in the current year, and go from there, leaving the old one intact.
So far this year my 2008 folder has 310 idea/projects in it. Over the years I’ve relaxed the rules about what qualifies, to the point where now I even include outside ideas and projects that I’m playing with, such as some open source project that I’ve downloaded and just want to play with, or a preemptive-backup copy of a website that’s in danger of being censored. I don’t have any trouble knowing which ones are my own ideas and projects, and which are ones I’ve downloaded.
I have a grep script to easily find any project by any substring that appears in the project name.
Also each folder has (optionally) a notes.txt file that contains tags I’ve given to the idea/project. Some folders have ONLY a notes.txt file and nothing else — that would be a pure idea or future project that hasn’t moved on to the project stage. These notes files are searchable for the tags.
The great thing about a folder is it can hold anything – images, mirrored web sites (using curl or wget), PDF files, text, scripts, zip files, installation packages not even meant for my current platform, but for use later — really, anything. It’s very freeing and yet still well organized.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to have 10 years of ideas and projects all lumped together in one folder, without having them at least grouped by year. Crazy talk, that. But I’ve been doing it for a while, so maybe my needs are different.
Then I also have an “ideas” folder that is really just pure bare ideas, as a kind of quick place to jot down ideas that aren’t ready for a folder. It also acts as a place to hold large collections of ideas from others, such as the downloaded results of a “best idea for a new gizmo” contest — not that I collect these things; I just find them sometimes good food for thought, and fun.
Too bad I can’t edit that post.
Should read: Each year gets its own folder (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, etc.)
And in case it wasn’t clear, inside each of those folders, there is a whole slew of folders, one per idea/project. Some of these I’ll be working on full time for a year, because I’m getting paid to do them; others are just five-minute knockoffs, but it’s great to have all of them recorded in a way that doesn’t depend on any special software. Works the same on Mac, Windows, and Linux, and easy to back up a project at a time, a year at a time, or all at once. I add folders at the drop of a hat, sometimes more than 10 a day, sometimes zero.
I have a script ‘tagthis’ which run from the command line adds tags to the notes.txt file in the current folder. Very quick; great for people who live on the command line.
@Charlie Do you have a separate garden for each project (such as this blog or the other work you do)? Or do all your writing ideas begin in one big greenhouse?
Rebeccas last blog post..Mix it up for fun and inspiration
Ivan | blatternet.ch says
I use Evernote for my ideas. I have a special tag “Blogidee” (blog ideas) where I collect my ideas with some keywords.
Unfortunately I don’t review my ideas at a regular basis. So sometimes I forget them or I don’t understand my keywords anymore. But I try to implement it in my weekly review of my tasks.
Ivan | blatternet.chs last blog post..Reminder: Spezialpreis Online-Seminar
I have post concepts in Marsedit, the software I use to write my posts in. But I think an ‘idea garden’ should not exist of post concepts, rather of ideas in any form. When you’re already structuring them into a post you’re narrowing things down, I think.
So using a place like a wiki seems like a good idea to me, where you can just write things down, link pieces of text to each other and create a web of ideas. This is possible in DevonTHINK, or VoodooPad. I really like to use a system that keeps my stuff together.
Hugos last blog post..How To Use The Internet to Communicate Effectively
@Ari: I’m thinking of writing the majority of my dissertation on a private wordpress blog since I’m already so used to using it. It really is an awesome platform – I just worry that I’ll quickly slip back to writing here, which would defeat the purpose of trying to write for the dissertation. Thanks for sharing!
“My garden really rooted when I gave myself permission not to fully blow out the idea just because it came.”
This is critical! I can’t believe I forgot to write about it, but I’m glad you bring it up. There are things in the garden that I don’t suspect I’ll ever write about – and some are nearly done posts. It’s just my place to get it out of my head without it being available “out in the world,” because sometimes ideas (and, really, I’m) not ready to be seen.
Tending the garden is both awesome and frustrating at the same time. But the internal rewards outweigh the frustrations by a long shot.
@Seamus: I’ve tried that – I personally got lost in the weeds. I had to move to another system so that I can see the garden without seeing too much of it. But I’m glad that works for you – as I said, the specific technique will be very personal.
@Evelyn: It’s the loose paper that kills me. I set up a home server so that no matter where I was at (with internet connection) I could plant in the garden without having to remember where I put the idea. Getting ideas from notebooks into the garden is the hardest part.
And don’t beat yourself up about the organization bit. You post high quality posts almost everyday – over-organizing may not be the way to go. Just think about it…
“For the notepad my rules are simple (and written in thick black marker on the inside cover!):
No working out
This is not my to do list”
Nice! I love how you detangle an overly critical mind AND the guilt to do the writing out from your idea generation process. Excellent technique!
@Mark: In earlier days, I would have said that your system is far too technical. Now I understand that what may seem to be technical to someone else is just how someone else thinks. I agree with you that folders are great because they can hold anything – sometimes my ideas are “promoted” to their own folders when they have appendix files and such. I love your system.
Ten years of folders and ideas, though, is crazy talk. It boggles my mind – I’ll go sit down somewhere before I hurt myself thinking about it. Thanks for taking the time to share!!
@Rebecca: I generally keep them separate, mostly because my different metaprojects carry different thinking styles and emotions with them. I don’t want to switch to creative mode on some of my other projects where I need to be in a more technical mode, and I don’t want the funk from one metaproject to carry over to the next.
@Ivan: How do you have them your blog ideas categorized? Are they distinctly grouped together, or do you have them sprawled out over your Evernote database? I’m just thinking that having them with all your other ideas may be part of the problem – maybe, to use Rebecca’s wonderful term, you need separate greenhouses?
@Hugo: Hmm…maybe I stretched the idea/post connection too far? Sometimes ideas split into several posts – sometimes they’re a series. The “post” categorization is just handy because they’re all sort of related to ideas I’ve had in the context of this blog.
I’ve tried a wiki but fidgeted with it too much. Or I put the ideas on one page and got lost in the weeds – see above. But give it a shot – it’s better to have the ideas captured and migratable rather than in your head and forgettable!
Wow, what a great website you have here. It is nice to see actual fresh content for a change. From one webmaster to another, I congratulate you for the effort you must have put in. I will definitely recommend your website to my readers which is highly related to your theme. Keep up the great work on your website!
Mike King says
Great tips and discussion of the value of such an idea garden. I’d highly suggest you look a mind mapping software or online mind map tools for this type of thing. They make it far easier to link content, add new ideas, add pictures, comments, URLs, and all of it shows the relationships between each of them.
I do this to help collect many ideas and turn them into cohesive posts or even a series of posts if I have enough ideas on one topic. Mind mapping is far more natural for this type of thing.
Mike Kings last blog post..Maximum Productivity: Series Introduction
Mark Dykeman says
I’m jealous – I’ve had a very similar idea for some time and you’ve articulated this very well.
However, the more that I look at it, I see some differences which might complement this idea. If I ever finish developing my idea, I’ll certainly link back to this as a resource.
Mark Dykemans last blog post..Temporary site downtime offsite post
@Mike: I’ve tried mind mapping and do it upon occasion, but firecracker brain can get frustrating. I’ve found that actually separating the ideas allows them to grow a bit better because each one gets its own energy. Plus, I’m a fiddler and feature-junkie, so I spend a lot of time messing with programs. But I do recommend mind mapping to others as an alternative way to brainstorm and capture ideas.
@Mark: Please do link back as soon as you get it done. Hopefully, I’ve provided a good overview that individuals can tailor, and I’m really curious as to how people are applying this idea.
Big Dreams says
I like to use mind maps.
Big Dreamss last blog post..Coffee For Link
Just stumbled upon your blog… wonderful content! I’m going to put this idea to work, right now I have notes everywhere. Some of the comments offered great suggestions as well.
Tanias last blog post..7 Gifts of Passion
For my blog, I use WordPress drafts, sometimes only a title or, as you’ve done, a short summary of what I was thinking at the time. I also use this idea in the studio, though: I have a decorated jar titled “Inspiration Inside” where I scribble down ideas or techniques I want to explore. If I’m ever panicky about looking at a blank page/canvas, the inspiration jar gets me going.
Angeliques last blog post..I Voted
I totally agree that you need to collect your ideas, if fact I’d go a little further and suggest you collect other people’s ideas too !!!
I like your Idea Garden metaphor too. That’s exactly how we need to treat them. I wrote a short parable that tells a story about it.
steves last blog post..10 Actions for better design
Charlie, you’ve given us a universally applicable method for all of us creative types to get the head-junk out so we can focus, no matter what our endeavors may be. As a serial entrepreneur with ideas coming at all different times and places, I’ve found a simple notebook the best place to coalesce 1-line ideas.
Using your Idea Garden framework, I can now see that if I want to take the ideas further I can move them onto an indexed page further in the notebook where I can then do some brainstorming and mind-mapping. Then this page will serve as the starting point for figuring out what the next action is and hopefully getting the idea from the page to reality. I realize that most ideas won’t come full circle, but now I can be sure that I at least try to get as many out there as possible.
Thanks for making my ideas workflow even better. Keep the fantastic content coming.
Michelle Russell says
Charlie–Love the garden metaphor. Because creative thinking is organic and messy–even though my Inner control Freak *hates* hearing me say that. She’s the part of me who is obsessed with the care and feeding of systems and planners . . . but she thinks that EVERYTHING must conform to them, and I’m getting more and more frustrated with that.
A garden? That’s a nice balance. It’s partly planned out, and partly dependent upon on variables we can’t control.
Especially when you write, “At least once a week, I’ll go through the garden, open up every seedling, and see what needs to be tended.” To me that sounds like the GTD weekly review, as applied to whatever specific area your “garden” encompasses (in your example above, blog post ideas), only much more intuitive. Therefore, at least for me, less rigid and paralyzing.
Now I just need to keep experimenting until I find the “gardening” method that works for me. I’m a low-tech, analog-method person, so it’ll be somewhere between a Franklin Covey Planner and a bunch of Post-It notes strewn all over the place. Realistically? Probably closer to the Post-It notes. :o)
Chris Atherton says
Another vote here for MarsEdit. I like to keep all the unsprouted stuff in the same text file (loosely grouped by theme) ”” I worry that if I keep it all separated out, I won’t form connections between related ideas. I do also usually have several separate draft articles, ones where I’ve put down most of the words and nearly gotten to the point but haven’t quite written it all into a coherent plot yet (yes, I need to write to think!)
.-= Chris Atherton´s last blog ..Let’s diss incentives: why potential rewards are killing your creativity =-.
I use a mind map software to record new ideas and to link them together, It works and can’t see how i would work without it now. Great article, thank you:-)
.-= Chelsea´s last blog ..Icebreaker: Congratulations =-.
I write titles to blog with a short one liner and save them as drafts.
I find that since I write about a lesson I have learned from life every day, i keep getting more and more ideas, because there are days you learn a heck of a lot more than one thing.
Ruben Berenguel @mostlymaths.net says
Thanks for pointing me to this post in twitter Charlie! Very interesting, and very close to how I also manage my idea garden. I keep my ideas (mostly) in a small Moleskine notebook, and once a week (in my blog writing day), I take a look at them to see if something has developed enough to be written. If there are no ideas big enough I always have some backup theme to write about (trying not to force them to get into the wild).
Some other ideas I collect in my iPad or iPod Touch, also in plain text files in my Dropbox folder. And when the writing time comes, they are also part of the crop.
I’m very partial to Evernote, it saves automatically which is a super bonus for me because I never remember to save. I also like using just lists and lists of stuff, and I can just make a new note with different themes of ideas with more and more lists. Either that, or I’ll go the old fashioned way with a composition book (never spiral…eww) and a pen, and jot stuff down in no neat manner.
This is so genius! I never thought about doing it this way. I’m constantly coming up with new ideas and always hate to put them aside or (gasp) ignore them for the current project. I’m creating an “idea garden” right now! Thanks for sharing your experiences!
I’ve got many different types of creative ambitions. An invention idea just draw the basic idea (not enough to for a full blown scamatic) in my sketch book, or make a miniture version for my toys until I have the chance to do something with it, drawings I have once I close the file or sketch book I pretty much am done with them intentionally or not, and I kept a couple of folders like that were might qualify as an idea garden when I was working on espdigiart.com. Don’t get me started on the book I am writing. In a since you might say my idea garden is a the room where all my sketch books my computer, and my other supplies are kept. I guess you might the question for me isn’t where is my idea garden but where isn’t it.
I just read this today. I saw in a previous comment someone mentioned using Franklin Covey. The quote from my 7 Habits Franklin Covey planner is from pages 106-109 from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Some short-term goals may not directly reflect your mission. Sometimes there are things that nag at you or keep you up at night. Creating a goal around completing one of these can simplify your life and create more time to concentrate on mission-centered goals. You are supporting your mission by creating the space to honor it.” Thus, I’ve created a space in my tab for my Idea Garden — behind one of those numbered tabs at the back of my planner — may the cultivation commence!