Capturing Ideas

Re­lated to: Bab­ble and Prune, What Makes Peo­ple In­tel­lec­tu­ally Ac­tive?, Zet­telkas­ten.

Sum­mary: if you want to gen­er­ate more ideas, carry a note­book and write down any thoughts you have.

Ci­ta­tion Needed

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):

Memory

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.

Time

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.

Prac­tice Noticing

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.)

Reward

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.

Devel­op­ing Ideas

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.

Similarly, in Zet­telkas­ten, I de­scribed my pipeline for de­vel­op­ing ideas as con­sist­ing of at least four stages:

  • 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.