From Inspiration to Creation: My System for Capturing Ideas to Making Them

I was lying in bed staring at the ceiling when the idea came to me. More confused about why I randomly woke up to this idea, I rolled over and checked my phone.

5:24 am.

Goddammit.

I tried to go back to sleep, but the idea kept bouncing around my head like a 7-year-old who stole his old sister's energy drink. I had to put it somewhere. So I got up, grabbed my notebook, scribbled the idea down, and rolled back over.

When I woke up, I went about my day as if nothing happened. It wasn’t until later that evening that I remembered I wrote something down. I picked up my notebook and flipped it open.

“A learning framework to streamline studying so I spend more time studying effectively with less time wasted.”

Hmm. Sounds academic.

Underneath, there were four points:

  • “what study habits are best for each person? It’s gotta be individual”

Weird. But, the idea intrigued me. So when I had some free time later that weekend, I pulled out my notes from the books I’ve studied (some that covered productivity, learning, or communication) and flipped through, pulling concepts out and putting them into a document. I stared at this mess of ideas strung together, and when the masterpiece was finished, I looked at it and simply said to myself:

“What the everliving hell am I looking at.”

Frustrated, I closed the document and went about my day. The next day, my mind was bugging me to open the document again. So I did, and over time I deleted, added, and reorganized points into a rough framework. I edited it, re-read it like 20 times, and decided I might as well test it out.

Over the course of months, I ran different subjects through this framework and saw how much it worked for me. Whoa: did I just make something that actually works?

The framework is still in its infancy (I wrote it out last year), but I took a random idea that popped into my head and fleshed it out into something practical. I took an idea from inspiration (the thought into my head) to creation (the final “product”).

I didn’t realize it, but during this, I was laying the foundations for a creativity system that I have now used to start developing three new projects, gain clarity in a chaotic mind, and take ideas from a mere thought into something that I can share with the world. This system is helping me create new projects and progress on old ones every day, so I want to share it with you. Hopefully, you gain something from it.

Let’s jump into it!

Step 1: Capturing Ideas

The first step is to capture ideas that come to mind. Since creativity starts in your head (where thoughts collide and potential projects mix together) it’s important to have a mechanism to get those ideas out of your head. Once they’re out of your head, you can take an honest look at what you have and shape it into something more tangible. However you do this, the most important aspect is the ease of access. You want to be able to get this idea onto paper/into a file of sorts ASAP.

Whether that’s a small notebook you keep nearby, or a notepad on your phone, have a designated area to store your thoughts. I currently keep my ideas in Notion in a Quick Capture page, but find what works best for you!

Here’s my quick capture page on Notion. I throw literally anything that comes to mind into here.

Since I work predominantly from a laptop, having my quick capture page be the first thing that pops up when I open Notion helps with the ease of access. If I’m mobile, I’ll use the app. If you’re more partial to paper, a small notebook you carry with you as you go about your day is all you need. I have a satchel, so I used to keep it in there. If you don’t carry a bag, buy a notebook small enough to keep in your pocket.

My old ideas notebook. Yeti mug for scale.

I can’t stress this part enough: get those ideas out of your head. The longer they stay there, the more likely you are to forget them, confuse them with another idea, or overthink it and give up on the idea. When you put an idea onto paper or into a document to look at, you get a much better idea of what you can do with it.

Step 2: Put them into a “commonplace”

This step can be ignored depending on how you develop your creativity system. If you’re using one book for ideas, then this is your commonplace book and your quick capture page. It’s where you throw any and all ideas together and let them mix. If you use a digital approach like I currently do, it may help to have a separate page where you can put ideas into simple but separate cards/tags/points and look at them in an organized fashion (but still have them in the same place).

The commonplace is important for your creativity, as it lets you naturally tinker with seemingly unrelated ideas. This way you can see patterns more easily, put together concepts, or organize by theme so all your ideas are easy to pull from (something I do frequently when it comes to communications, as I work predominantly in marketing/social media/PR).

A commonplace book is a hidden gem in a creative life.

My current commonplace is a page in Notion where each idea is a “card” in a gallery: I write out the idea, thoughts on it, the origin of it, and potential applications. I also assign tags so I can filter them. If I wanted to, say, look at my “fashion” and my “psychology” cards, I can filter out the rest and just keep those.

If you want to learn more about this idea, check out this article from Ryan Holiday where he writes on a similar system (which he learned from my favorite author Robert Greene), and the Zettelkasten website for information management (most likely where Robert originally learned of this system).

(PSA: remember each idea is contestable, and you can come back and delete an idea that you’ve proven wrong or isn’t useful for you anymore.)

Step 3: Project Boards

The third step is creating a “board” or place for individual projects, where you put the new ideas you’ve thought up. This step is the vaguest and is really dependent on your goals and how you work best.

Here’s a snapshot of my Writing page on Notion. If I have a subject I want to write on, I’ll pull ideas from the commonplace and put them into subpages! Here’s a sneak peek at some of the subjects I’m currently working on. No promise I’ll have them finished anytime soon.

I currently have my “project boards” split into three: a page for writing (where I store potential blog post subjects and the supporting points I want to make), a page for personal projects (for things I want to create, like the learning framework I spoke above, or maybe an Instagram account you want to make), and finally a page based on themes (where you store ideas long-term that aren’t developing into specific projects, but to have in one place. I have a themed page for comedy, digital literacy, political campaigns, and more).

All ideas born out of the commonplace book are split into any of these three!

If you’re working with notebooks, having a separate notebook designated to what you’re working on (say a potential side business, short story, a project for work, etc.) might be a beneficial approach. Be creative with it. The important part is having a designated place for all information you need for a project.

Side note: this isn’t a concrete process. If you have an idea and want to put it right into a project board, skip to step three. I typically do this for any comedy ideas I have.

And there you have it. A three-step system to take ideas that pop into your head (be it a potential project, something you learned from a podcast, a note from class) and turn them into something big. I hope it helps you as much as it’s helped me.

And I hope, for the love of God, you don’t get ideas at 5:24am like I do.

Carpe diem, kids.

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Poli Sci grad, Comms Strategist, great at remembering names and terrible at pronouncing them. I write on a number of different topics!