Summary: if you want to generate more ideas, carry a notebook and write down any thoughts you have.
I’ve heard these ideas repeated again and again in different forms: books on note-taking, writing, and creativity; the sorts of interviews where artists are asked “where do you get your ideas?”; and most recently, the final post in the Babble and Prune sequence (“Write”). It would be good of me to gather together some references (especially if there’s any academic research on this topic?), but I’m going full-on anecdotal here, and just present to you the most complete version of the thing I can cobble together from memory.
I’ve personally found this technique to be useful, and anecdotally, so have many other people.
The Basic Technique
Let’s say you want to have more ideas in some specific category. For example:
You want to write fiction. At times, you might feel like you’re full to bursting with ideas which you’d like to turn into stories. Yet, when you sit down to do it, you feel like you don’t have any ideas.
You want to do creative research. Maybe so far you only have worked on what problems your advisor gives you. Or maybe you’ve never worked on research before, and don’t know where to start, beyond just reading background literature.
You’re looking for ideas in some school- or work- related context, ideas for Christmas presents, startup ideas, etc etc...
Step 1. Get a pocket notebook, or create a new list in a phone note-taking app, et cetera. The goal is to maximize availability and convenience: to the extent possible, you should be able to capture ideas at any time and place.
Step 2. Write down any ideas that you have. Any idea at all. It doesn’t have to be good! This is brainstorming. One or two words is fine, so long as you know what it means. Elaborating the idea more will help you remember and may help you generate more ideas, but you can save that for later.
That’s it! It’s that simple.
Why write a whole post on this? My suspicion is that a lot of people won’t raise this very simple strategy to attention to try. I think writing down your ideas has a magical quality to it. You might think:
“It’s not that I’m forgetting my ideas. I just don’t have much to say.”
“I’ll write down ideas when I have something good enough to write down.”
“I can just write things down later—my memory isn’t that bad. There’s no reason to carry a notebook with me.”
Or other such thoughts. If you’re at a loss for ideas, I suspect these thoughts are wrong. The following “why it works” section is mostly to illustrate that there may be more to this technique than is immediately obvious.
Why It Works
There are some obvious reasons why this might help, and there are also some less-obvious reasons. In approximate order of decreasing obviousness (which is also, as it happens, decreasing order of probability):
The most obvious thing: you’re writing down ideas, so you’ll have a list of ideas to look at later.
Actually, writing things down seems to help even if you don’t look back at it later: as alkjash mentioned in Write, just the act of writing it down might be enough to make it stick in your memory.
It might be that you ordinarily only think about your creative project more-or-less when you sit down to work on it. You don’t have any ideas because the only time you spend trying to come up with ideas is when you’re sitting in front of a blank page.
Putting a notebook in your pocket means you can think about this at any time. Moreover, it creates the affordance: your brain will register this as a thing it can do. (Moreover, you’re probably more likely to have interesting ideas when you’re out and about, getting all kinds of sensory stimulus.)
Getting out the notebook to write one idea causes you to put more time into thinking of ideas. You might end up writing two or three more you thought of in the time it took you to write the first.
It could be that an important aspect of this is: you’re intentionally practicing noticing that you have ideas. Like so many other things, perhaps this is something you improve at through practice.
(Note that practicing noticing story ideas vs research ideas vs other kinds of ideas might all be different skills; you don’t necessarily get much better at one just because you’ve practiced the other.)
You know how level-ups in video games manage to be addictive, even though your brain has no intrinsic love of watching little numbers go up?
I think there’s a similar thing here.
Ordinary scenario: You have a passing thought which could be turned into a creative idea. You take no action, and are soon distracted with something else. Your brain concludes: that was a useless thought.
With notebook: You have a passing thought which could be turned into a creative idea. You take out your notebook and pen and start writing. Your brain concludes: looks like that was useful for something! I’ll try and come up with more things like that!
Keeping a list of ideas gives you the feeling that you’re building something. Each new entry is another brick in a palace of awesomeness.
Beware: if you don’t do anything with your list, this feeling will fade with time. Your brain will figure out that you’re laying bricks in nothing but a … sad pile of bricks.
The book Getting Things Done suggests that you need to build a relationship of trust with your future self, in order for lists like this to work—writing something down needs to mean that you’ll take appropriate action later, even if only to (appropriately) discard most of the ideas.
(This post won’t mainly be about how to take your ideas and do something with them, but see the later section “developing ideas”.)
Getting Ideas Out (to make room for more!)
Another idea mentioned in Getting Things Done is that writing things down gets them out of your head. According to the author, so long as an idea is in your head, it’s taking a little bit of your attention. If you write it down in a list, and if you trust yourself to look at the list later and take appropriate action, then your brain turns off the reminder and you free up the attention for other things.
Alkjash says something similar in Write:
Fast forward to 2013 and transport yourself to my first summer research program. Every Monday, we give a brief board about that week’s progress. I mull ideas on paper over the week before TeXing them up Sunday night.
A curious thing happened—all my progress happened on Monday and Tuesday. I spent the rest of the week meandering around the same ideas, checking special cases and writing up fragments of arguments. On Sunday night I write everything down, and the ideas crystallize on paper. They lose their grip on me, and I move on to new pastures.
(Note that, as a grad student, I’ve mostly heard rather the opposite: it seems most people make most of their progress the day before their weekly meeting, not the day after. But, both factors could be in play.)
Attention Leads to Detail
Maybe you’ve been vaguely dissatisfied with the way your apartment is set up for some time. All of these thoughts feel the same to you; you file them under “apartment is dumb”.
Recently, you’ve decided to do something about it. In order to get started, you’ll record your ideas. You stick a notebook in your pocket and start writing thoughts whenever they occur to you.
When you write something down, you have to put it into words. Even if it’s just a short phrase, it involves a little bit more detail than your fuzzy mental handle.
Now you notice that you actually have a diversity of complaints, with an implied diversity of remedies. Because you’ve written each of them down, you can see this diversity at a glance.
This certainly happened to me, when I was first taking notes on rationality (after reading HPMOR). What seemed to me like a single, unified concept kept splintering and splintering.
The opposite could also happen. You vaguely think your cloud of ideas on a subject is huge and diverse, but when you carry a notebook and write every thought down, you find out that everything comes to just two or three points.
Babble & Prune
Since this post was inspired largely by reading Babble and Prune, a few words on the relationship to that model:
In the subsections on “practicing noticing” and “reward”, I implied that there was some kind of learning going on—training your brain to notice/produce the kinds of ideas you’re looking for. Can we explain this in terms of Babble & Prune? The Babble & Prune model naturally splits this into two distinct types of learning:
Training your brain to babble more in that general direction. If you do anagrams a lot, you learn some really good heuristics for flipping letters around to form new words. Similarly, by paying attention to thoughts of the special kind you want to foster, you may train your brain to flip concepts around in ways more likely to help with that. Confusion about how the subway works might turn into a short story idea about a world where travel works differently. A weird hiccup in your reasoning might turn into a setting where a religion is devoted to precisely that mistake in reasoning. And so on.
Training your brain not to prune those things. You might normally ignore ideas of that kind, which teaches your brain not to bring them to conscious attention, or store them in memory. By paying attention and writing them down, you might adjust those filters, opening up the gates of attention to more of those thoughts.
By the way, if you want to get more into conscious attention generally, something to try is the meditative practice of mental noting: simply giving labelling words to what is going on in your brain. If you notice that you are thinking, say “thinking” to yourself (out loud if that helps); if you notice that you are remembering, say “remembering”; if you notice that you are bored, say “bored”; if you notice mental images, say “images”; and so on. The point of this exercise is, amongst other things, to develop awareness of what your brain is doing. In terms of Babble & Prune, this softens the filter of conscious attention, giving you access to more of what’s going on.
A lot of Babble & Prune is oriented toward simply pruning less, an idea which I don’t inherently agree with. Yes, pruning less overall might be the right thing for a lot of people. But I’m much more interested in fine-grained adjustments to the pruning filter.
Relatedly—in the “basic technique” section of this post, I emphasized that you should write down any ideas at all. Of course this isn’t literally true. You have to calibrate your level of pruning.
Often, at the start, it’s good to dramatically reduce your filtering in order to start the flow of ideas. Write down absolutely any related idea which comes to mind. If none are coming to mind, write down totally unrelated things just so there’s something on the page. Write down bad ideas so you’ll have something to compare your better ideas to. Write down absolute nonsense so you’ll have something to make your bad ideas look good.
As you start to get good ideas, you’ll naturally start to put filters back up. If this technique is, overall, successful, you’ll eventually have more interesting ideas than you can execute on. At that point, it’s natural to only write down additional ideas which have some significance—a good-enough chance of being worth your time.
Note, however, that it’s easy to make the mistake of letting good ideas choke out your source of inspiration. Feynman wrote about how he couldn’t come up with any ideas after working on the atom bomb, because he had got an image of himself as someone who worked on big important things. This problem persisted until he told himself that he wasn’t allowed to work on important things—unimportant things only! After that he worked on the physics of spinning planes, which eventually turned out to help with some fundamental problems in quantum physics.
Another disagreement I have with Babble & Prune is the idea that more layers of filtering is worse. I think the “three gates” (first filter: conscious thought; second filter: saying it out loud; third filter: writing it down) was one of the best and most useful parts of the sequence. (Modulo the fact that for me, the position of the second and third gates is often reversed: I’ll write something before I’d say it, due to my close relationship with notebooks.) Yet, I disagree with the contention that this is too many filters. It’s too few filters.
Imagine if you had no filter. In order to avoid saying bad things, you would have to learn to self-censure your conscious thoughts a lot more. Less ideas would rise to consciousness, and the ones that did would be more constrained by the Gricean maxims and other factors.
Adding a buffer between thinking and speaking allows us to think more, and to develop our thoughts more fully before speaking them aloud.
Jot: Very concise handles used for idea capture. This current post is all about jot-taking. Jots remain meaningful to me for at least a week, but eventually I might have no idea what I was talking about.
Gloss: Paragraph-ish summary I write when I intend to develop a jot more fully. A gloss gives enough of a summary that I won’t lose the idea if I let it sit for weeks or months. Takes considerably more focusing to write than a jot.
Development: Free-writing based on an idea. Mostly very informal and narrative-based, dramatizing the ups and downs of an idea as I propose solutions find issues with those solutions, etc.
Refinement: More formal write-ups, often for an audience other than myself. Revising drafts in response to feedback. Engaging with comments on posts. Etc.
This might not fit your use-case. For example, if you’re trying to do visual art (for example, drawing a webcomic), your workflow can’t all be different types of writing.
The main thing I’m trying to get across here is that in order to develop the ideas you’ve captured into something worth sharing, you probably need several stages.
The Babble & Prune model mentioned that babbling is far from totally random, and in particular, as you babble you’re mostly mutating ideas (less like random sampling from idea-space, more like a random walk around idea-space). By adding more stages of filtering, I’m suggesting that the way to produce high-quality content is something like simulated annealing: gradually imposing higher and higher standards on our ideas as we continue to mutate them, so that the final result can crystallize into a strong metallic alloy.