A Simple, Powerful Creativity System to Capture and Generate More Ideas

Creativity isn’t just about getting inspired — it’s about strong systems to capture inspiration when it arises.

Today I outline a simple system I’m using to capture ideas and put them into action.

In this 30-minute episode, I talk about:

  • A boring office supply that can boost your creative productivity
  • Why going analog (sometimes) can improve our attention spans
  • The two parts to an effective idea-capture practice
  • Some suggestions for what to do with the ideas that come your way
  • Why the “freedom to have stupid ideas” is so important

The Show Notes

Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me, I’m a co-founder and the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

Productivity is an ongoing challenge for a lot of us, especially me. And we have a funny assumption sometimes, that people who are organized are less creative. But if you know super creative people, usually they’re not disorganized at all, they usually have strong systems in place — at least for their realm of expertise.

I wrote the world’s longest post about what digital tools and toys are doing to our attention spans, and some ways to fight for our brain cells in an environment of distraction. Today I want to talk about a creativity tool I really enjoy that isn’t digital, because I think it’s actually super beneficial to get off the keyboard and screen regularly.

I love digital things, I love my laptop and the age of information we live in, but I also think we can widen our minds and become more resilient if we mix a few analog practices in there. You’re not a brain in a jar, you’re a human being with a body and hands and eyes, and doing things in the real physical world is a habit worth cultivating.

Today’s technique is a simple two-part process that will take well under 10 minutes a day. At first, probably more like 2 minutes a day.

We start with physical index cards

I got inspired on these by my friend Victoria LaBalme at RockTheRoom.com, who’s a very high-end speaking coach, and I’m working on snagging her for a few podcast episodes about becoming more proficient at communicating our messages across all kinds of media.

Victoria, or my friends all call her V, has a very simple and very powerful system for outlining important communication, like a talk, using index cards.

I’m going to guess that something close to 100% of her clients balk at using physical cards for anything. But she always uses them with her clients, including the executive team at Microsoft, which is the company that invented PowerPoint.

I’m not going to outline her system, because it’s hers, but I will give you a variant that I came up with specifically for improving creativity and the quality of your ideas.

To get started, I want to talk about a few benefits of index cards that you may not have considered:

Physical cards don’t have the D-bag factor. If you want to make a note about something, pulling out a little index card and jotting a note with a pen sends a completely different message than pulling out your phone.

When we get the phone out, what we communicate, even if that isn’t really true, is that we just checked our email or started a game of Dumb Ways to Die because what the other person was saying wasn’t holding our attention.

Using a phone when you’re face to face with another person is disrespectful. You may think that your friends see it differently — but just watch for their reaction when you write something down physically instead of putting it into your device.

Physical cards are distraction free, so you won’t get sucked into something that may or may not be a good use of your time. That’s also why I use a cheap physical kitchen timer to do focused work sessions, what you may have heard of as the Pomodoro method — because if I use my phone, all of a sudden there are all these other distractions there that start to vie for my time.

Physical writing gives you a memory boost. If you write something on a card — a quote, an insight, an idea for a piece of content, you start to attach it to your memory, because it’s multisensory. It has a tactile quality, you have an ink color and a card color. You can sketch on a card. You can draw a little map. If you’re into it, you can make up a card with your daily schedule and your time blocks for focused work.

Physical cards give you a tangible open loop. Writing something on a card opens a loop in your mind — a thing that requires more thought.

By contrast, clipping something to Evernote, for me, signals, “OK, this is handled.” Digital systems like Evernote absolutely have their place and I rely heavily on mine.

But the physical cards are to open up possibilities. And some of them, when you process them for the day, will go onto what David Allen called your “Someday/Maybe” list — you make a choice not to work on them right now, but the idea is parked for the future. Or maybe you put something on your calendar to look at it in 90 days when you’re not in the middle of your big project.

Physical cards get stuff out of your working memory. You can become very free and very present when you have a way to capture anything important — to park it, and know that it will get reviewed before the end of the day. Keeping a lot of stuff in your head causes a low-level background stress that you probably don’t even notice until you start to get rid of it.

What to do with the cards (do this daily)

For this to really work well, make a daily habit to process your cards at a specific time. I like to do this after dinner. Let me emphasize — this is a very, very quick process. I’m not talking an hour or even 20 minutes. Try to get this done in just two or three minutes.

Go through your cards and give each one a moment of focused attention. Then enter the information or the idea into whatever systems you use for different things. For example:

  • You can decide this idea isn’t worth moving forward on, and just recycle it
  • Schedule a time block in your calendar to work on that interesting post or podcast idea.
  • Rewrite out a quote in the system you use to capture these — and of course, remember to include the author and a link if that applies.
  • Start to sketch out a headline and some ideas for subheads, or an intro paragraph, for a post in Google Docs or whatever you use.
  • Decide what the Next Action is, to use a GTD term, then put it onto your to-do list.
  • Drop the card into a physical box labeled “Terrible Ideas.”
  • Pin the card to a corkboard as part of a big creative project you’re planning
  • Enter the card information into Scrivener if you’re writing a book
  • You can shred it if you’re feeling really intense.

The card is meant to be temporary. Your processing time is where you shift the fleeting idea into your systems for taking action.

This multi-step habit is very quick and easy to implement, and it creates a two-step process for handling all of those things that fly into our brains all day — obligations, to-do items, creative ideas, intentions, hopes, dreams, resolutions, etc.

The two-steps are a tiny bit less convenient than just dumping into your device — and that’s the point. It gives you a moment of reflection to consider, “Does this really make sense to do? Is it a priority? How could I approach this from a more creative direction? Is there someone else who would be a better choice to tackle this?”

Cards are meant to be ephemeral. The idea is, we capture, then we recycle the card. That’s one of the reasons V doesn’t plan out a talk directly in Keynote or PowerPoint — once we’ve created a placeholder slide, in a way we feel like that’s “handled.”

You can play with cards. You can shuffle them. You can lay them all out on the ground. You can use different colors and color-code your ideas, if you’re that kind of person — this can be very powerful if you’re a visual person.

V has already got Jerod Morris on our team addicted to them, and he’s an evangelist like I am.

If you want to try it out, obviously first pick up some cards. (I’ll give you a link to a little notebook of perforated cards, those are easy to carry around. Or just hold some cards together with one of those really small binder clips.)

Then implement a mini habit: Capture one idea a day to an index card, and then process that card at a specific time. If you forget, and some days you will, it’s fine to do it right before bed. Scribble an idea on a card that you remember from the day, then put a note into your calendar for the next day called “Think about X.”

You can create as many cards as you want to, but to satisfy your “I did my habit today” resolution, you just need one. And again, if you’re coming up blank, just write a stupid idea on a card. “Note to self …” then come up with the dopiest idea you can manage.

It’s a two-part habit, so it’s important to schedule that daily review of your cards. This is a very fast task — say between one and four minutes. Put an alarm for that time into the calendar of whatever device you’re addicted to, like an alarm on your phone, so you remember to do it. It won’t take too long before you associate a certain time of day with just a fast review of your cards.

This is an ultra powerful way to increase the number of creative ideas you have for whatever you do — blog, podcast, parenting, managing your team, etc. Just have a habit of capturing one idea, with the paired habit of processing it. It will blossom on its own, you don’t have to push it any further than that.

If you do any creative work — and we all do — you will actually probably end up saving a huge amount of time if you implement this, because such a big part of creative work is trying to get an idea happening.

Other options

That throwaway nature of the index cards is psychologically useful, because it lets you play around with ideas and not feel like you’ve made any kind of commitment.

The freedom to have stupid ideas is one of the fundamental creative freedoms that allows for good work.

But some of you will already be using paper. For example, as I said in a talk at Hubspot last year, the Moleskine notebook is the Book Of Our People. Lots of content creators love them.

If you already have a habit of capturing things in a Moleskine, you could just tuck some index cards into that envelope in the back, or you can do the work right in the notebook.

By the way, in my opinion there are some nicer options to Moleskine, which has kind of crummy paper if you use fountain pens like I do. I’ll give you a link.

I have a notebook where I keep all kinds of things — nutrition journal entries, workout logs, goals and habit development, journaling about what’s on my mind with business or my personal life.

If I used it for my idea captures, I’d start by writing something consistent like IDEA CAPTURE at the top of a blank page, then use that page exactly the same way I’ve outlined the index card process. Then during my idea processing time, I’d consider each idea, do what I need to do with it, and physically cross it off.

For some people, writing in a notebook makes it overly “official,” so you won’t have that Stupid Idea Freedom working for you. Others are more accustomed to writing random stuff in their notebooks, and they won’t get caught up. Start with whatever feels right to you. I personally prefer the cards because they’re small and light — my notebook stays on my desk, my cards travel with me.

Don’t start digital

I know many of you, possibly most of you, are thinking, “I’m going to create this entire process on my phone so I don’t have to mess around with paper and a pen or pencil.”

A lot of us have terrible handwriting because we don’t ever do it. And we just don’t have the physical writing habit.

If you’re physically able to write, I really recommend it. It just seems to hit a different set of synapses. One of the things that makes this process work is that crossover between physical and digital.

At least give it a shot — go through a pack of index cards and see if it adds something. If you never, ever physically write, it will feel a little weird for sure. Try to find a pen you like, get index cards in an awesome color that makes you happy, this can give you that little motivational boost to get your new toys out and play with them — and that will give you the energy to get the habit in place. If glitter or stickers or really fancy coloring markers, or any other kind of fancy office supply, helps you get motivated, by all means go for it. A good art store will have some enticing options for you.

By the way, Brian Clark shared another nifty post, written by Julia Roy, on work hacks for your physical environment, on his Further newsletter. That article is on FastCompany.com, and I’ve got a link for you in the show notes.

You know I always love your thoughts and comments! If you have an analog component to your creative work, I’d love to hear about it.