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Deep Habits: Forget Your Project Ideas (Until You Can’t Forget Them)

November 7th, 2014 · 21 comments

As discovered in my nightstand...

An Idea About Ideas

A graduate student recently sent me a note asking how I keep track of potential projects in my academic work. This got me thinking, and after some consideration I decided I had two answers.

The first answer is literal…

Since September, 2004, I’ve always kept an idea notebook with me to capture spontaneous thoughts relevant to many different areas in my life, including potential professional projects. (The picture above is a sampling of my large collection of full idea books.) I try to review my current notebook every couple of months.

The second answer is more honest…

Keeping track of project ideas, in my experience, is usually a waste of time. I used to fear that if I didn’t capture and review my sparks of brilliance I’d forget them and an opportunity for impact would be lost.

The reality, however, is that most people (myself included) have way more ideas for things to work on than they have time to work. Forgetting ideas is not your problem. Having too many ideas competing for your attention to execute any one well is a more pressing concern.

(This notion that ideas are cheap and execution valuable is not, of course, new: it’s been circulating through Silicon Valley start-up circles for a while; c.f., here and here.)

But my dismissal of tracking project ideas is about more than the relative unimportance of ideas compared to execution. I argue that the refusal to implement a system for curating these ideas provides an active strategy for figuring out what to work on.

In more detail, in recent years I’ve found that a useful criteria for selecting an idea to deliberately attack (both in academia and my book writing) is that it won’t leave me alone; it keeps coming back to my attention even though I’m not trying to remind myself about it.

This act of subconscious selection is not arbitrary. Indeed, there’s a growing body of evidence that for certain types of decisions your unconscious mind is better at sifting through conflicting variables and reaching a sound decision than more systematic conscious thought.

This approach works well for me. I expose myself to lots of different ideas and I dabble in many of them (a conversation here, a few equations scratched out there, a commute dedicated to noodling an interesting theorem), all the while not worrying too much about capturing every potential concept in some convoluted Evernoted nonsense.

I don’t mind if I forget moments of inspiration. The important piece is that I won’t deeply commit myself to a project until the damn thing won’t leave me alone.

21 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Forget Your Project Ideas (Until You Can’t Forget Them)

  1. Rohan Rajiv says:

    This is very very true! Thanks Cal.

  2. I completely agree. I have certain ideas that “bubble to the top” over and over again. If it doesn’t grab my attention repeatedly, then it certainly isn’t worth pursuing. Even among the ideas that repeatedly surface without conscious direction, I have to be very selective about what I pursue.

  3. Ma. Teresa Canete says:

    Very nice. I have 1000 notes in my evernote account. To find the time to review all of them is quite impossible. Yet somehow something surfaces through the pile. Your post gives me some consolation…somehow that “big hairy audacious goal” growing hairier and finally gets noticed.

  4. I agree with you about choosing a project.

    However in terms of actually executing on one of these important projects, I think it’s extremely valuable to write down and keep track of the steps you need to take and when. If you don’t, it’s too easy to know you should make progress on something but not to do anything about it because you’re unclear on the next steps and/or don’t have a sense of urgency that something should happen now.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth

  5. Adam Thomas says:

    I bounce between writing things down and not…I have a ton of writing (notebooks/writing pads/loose paper) full of things and ideas.But like Elizabeth (Great meeting you at 99U last year) said if I don’t get things down I get lost and they float into the ether. That lack of urgency scares me.

    I always get nervous about this. What about that great thing I had Tuesday after my sandwich…but maybe this is the ultimate truth.

  6. David says:

    I keep track of all projects, from potential ideas to resubmitted papers in a file of about 3 pages that I print out and carry around in my bag and annotate until there is too much scribble and then I make a new one. I also have a one page note on my desktop of the current agenda that I continuously update. I find it useful to have potential projects written down with a status indicator and periodically look at them and decide which to abandon and which to start to push forward. But maybe this is a personality difference thing.

  7. Mukunda Madhava Nath says:

    A similar sentiment was expressed in this blog post by Oliver Emberton.- “If you want to follow your dreams, you have to say no to all the alternatives”
    https://abetterlife.quora.com/If-you-want-to-follow-your-dreams-you-have-to-say-no-to-all-the-alternatives

    I urge @Cal Newport to check out Quora, it is a deluge of knowledge.

  8. AR says:

    It’s true we come up with too many ideas to execute. The goal is to identify the best idea out of the thousands we come up with. You claim the best means is by not tracking, and letting our subconscious choose?

    I would still find it helpful to have a notebook of ideas to review. Our minds are not good at holding everything in memory, and there’s no guarantee that the best will float to the top. Would you ever manage a project without a task list, or manage a budget without keeping a ledger, or manage time without a calendar? Some times the brain needs a tool.

    1. Duncan Smith says:

      Well that was a closing anchor tag fail. The quote is from Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware by Andy Hunt.

  9. Tim Siwula says:

    Hey Cal,

    What notebook do you use?

    1. Duncan Smith says:

      See the ad on the right side of the page. 🙂

  10. Chris says:

    It’s also important to disregard really good ideas for complete focus on one thing–the source of great output. This, I believe, is one of the most emotionally hurting part, but killing your darlings is necessary, as it seems to be the domain where killing your spouse is ethical.

  11. Joe says:

    I agree with the sentiment of not worrying if you forget all the ideas we end up scribbling in a notebook in the middle of the night. But the process, perhaps more than just subconscious decision making, allows creativity. For example, I write fiction and I keep a bunch of ideas tagged in evernote as “Characters/Locations/Situations/Objects/Themes that occur to me during the day, or night. (this comes from a great book: Developing Story Ideas by Michael Rabiger) I forget most of them but the process of making the notes gives me confidence when confronted with creating new stories.

    Side note: Here’s another Chris Rock example of deliberate practice: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/10/duke-doubt

  12. ed says:

    Good advice – I saw this after from Warren Buffet in an article, basically to write down 25 ideas or goals or projects, and then circle the top five. Now you have two lists, a list of things to focus on , and a list of things to avoid in order to get the priorities done:
    http://lifehacker.com/prioritize-your-goals-with-warren-buffetts-two-list-sys-1639146039

  13. John says:

    Cal,

    If ideas were organisms, then your test would be a test to see if an idea is obsession worthy. If it has the quality of persisting in our minds even when we don’t remind ourselves than it must be a promising idea worth pursuing.

    Great insight.

    Side note: I have always been a proponent of the watch that tells you how many days you have left to live. This constant reminder will keep you focused on what really matters.

  14. Joanna Jast says:

    Interesting approach, Cal and I can see your point.

    However, if I write down my ideas, I can free up my mind to think up more. Some of them will be better, some not so. I like John’s metaphors – ideas are like organism, and only the best, strongest etc would survive. Yes, life is too short and we need to focus on what really matters. But often, we need time and distance (usually created by time) to know which ones really matter and which not.

    So I let them live them in my notebooks until I know better. Sometimes it takes years before I come back to an idea – and then it is there, in one of my notebooks, waiting for me to pick up where I left off. And I may change some details, or re-do it completely, but at least I have something to start from.

  15. Masimo Lindsay says:

    Project ideas definitely help to provide better success for any business. There are various tips and strategies that would definitely help you to gain increased productivity as well as efficiency as such.

    There are various such apps that help in easy project and time management and the best ones include Basecamp & Google Calendar. Other online tool that you can access from anywhere using a web browser has been Replicon project time management apps.

  16. Pingback: Harvesting Ideas
  17. Ofer Zelig says:

    Awesome words. Exactly what I was struggling with for a while. There are so many things floating in my head in any given moment – you just need to acknowledge you will not get everything done so it’s better to just concentrate on a few and get them done.

    In a different area but on the very same idea, there’s Joel Spolsky’s legendary backlog grooming post: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2012/07/09.html

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