Oh man, I should totally make this website when I have a free weekend...
July 18, 2008 8:44 PM   Subscribe

How do you keep track of your project ideas? How do you get yourself to follow through on them?

I find that I get my best ideas when I have the least time and resources to work on them. When I have to stay at the office all evening or when I'm on a camping trip equipped with nothing but a metal spork, inspiration strikes! I'll have an idea for an amazing craft project, or a neat bit of code to work on, or a way to finally build that workbench cheaply. Then when I finally get some usable free time, I fritter it away on the internet, potential projects forgotten or perpetually stuck on the back burner. Many of my friends have the same problem.

How do people deal with this? Do you have a way to "save up" inspiration and enthusiasm for later, when you have the resources to undertake the projects you've imagined? Can you imagine a software solution for this? (Or, does one already exist?) I'm not thinking of a to-do list, but more of a notebook filled with mental bookmarks to my creative daydreams, with a clever pinch of "hey! go do that awesome thing you thought up!" notifications.

I'm learning Ruby on Rails, and making a website to help me record and pursue project ideas seems like a neat learning exercise. It would be great if it was useful to other people too! So, I'm interested in other people's take on the problem, and I would like to be aware of anything out there (self-help/anti-procrastination techniques, software, physical notebooks, lifehacker-style systems, whatever) that people already use.
posted by rivenwanderer to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
A combination of the following is a good start:


MyLife Organized

Getting Things Done

Hipster PDA
posted by Alabaster at 9:02 PM on July 18, 2008

I'm a photographer and I use Evernote to save ideas for photos. Before that I was using tiddlywiki, but Evernote has an iPhone app and you can more easily add images, PDFs, etc. into it.
posted by bradbane at 9:04 PM on July 18, 2008

In addition to a project-book, I have a wiki specifically for project ideas, shared with a couple of close and like-minded people, so ideas from one person can fuel ideas in others, or be refined, or prompt online or offline discussions.
The wiki also has sections for meta-ideas - thoughts about what projects should be trying to achieve, or which kinds of projects should have priority and why, ways to make projects more successful, etc etc.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:06 PM on July 18, 2008

Oh, and for the "frittering away time on the internet" problem:

Temptation Blocker

Instant Boss
posted by Alabaster at 9:07 PM on July 18, 2008

Oh, and:

Jerry Seinfeld's Productivity Secret

Joe's Goals

Along these lines -- when you come up with a project idea that you genuinely want to work on, set up a chart/calendar for that project, with an entire year's worth of checkboxes (daily, weekly, whatever's appropriate). Check the box for each day (or week) that you actually make progress on that project. Put this somewhere where you and your family will see it every day. Allow yourself to be shamed by all that white space. It feels good to put a check in a box (heck, use stickers if that's your thing), and just seeing that chart every day will motivate you to want to fill it up rather than fritter your time away
posted by Alabaster at 9:16 PM on July 18, 2008

I currently use a Palm and a combination of the Memos application and the todo list

I bring it camping / etc.. if I don't write down the idea right away it's lost forever.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 9:28 PM on July 18, 2008

One other, rather harrowing idea -- if you're a programmer it might be a project worth pursuing (just PM me for the finder's fee!).

Create a program which automatically logs your internet time and keeps a constant total of how many hours you have spent on the internet. Give the program the ability to show your internet time for the month, year, life-to-date, etc. with all sorts of graphs and other options. Give the program the ability use this data to predict your future time on the internet. Make the program customizable, able to log other idle time-wasters that the user participates in (games, chatting, etc.)

In another part of the program, allow the user to log projects and productive activity. These can be automatically logged if they're software based (for example, logs how much time you spend actively in software related to your profession/project). Some would probably have to be manually entered.

Include a big button that says "What am I doing with my life?" which shows a graph of your productive/project time compared to your idle/wasted time. Again, project this over an entire lifetime and compare the hours you will spend in your life on this vs. that. Can you really call yourself a programmer/writer/whatever, or is it more accurate to call yourself an Internet Browser who programs/writes occasionally? This kind of bald-faced comparison might be a good kick in the butt, and a reminder that all those hours "frittered away" eventually add up to a life frittered away.

To really drive the point in, the user could enter their age, and the program would return anecdotes about what others have accomplished by that age (as in, "by your age, Mozart had written 4 zillion sonatas," kind of stuff.)

The point is to a.)shame yourself into realizing that putting off your projects for idleness is a pattern that will waste your life if you don't catch it, and b.)to inspire you about how much time you actually have, and how much you could actually accomplish if you used it.

I think this could be a very useful program. Not sure I'd have the guts to use it though...
posted by Alabaster at 9:37 PM on July 18, 2008

I use google docs (also editable on my iphone). I keep a few lists there.

My to-do-someday (basically a "bucket" list)

My projects (programming / writing / etc)

My progress on projects (usually will have notes from my last programming session on what to do next, or my half written books are also in google docs as an example)

How to finish though? Wish I knew.
posted by ceberon at 11:49 PM on July 18, 2008

Despite the plethora of gadgets at my disposal, I have always come to rely on a Moleskeine notebook where *absolutely every random idea* gets noted down. Then, if I feel it needs evolving, I can flesh it out on paper first. I've yet to find an input system on any PDA that lets me input faster than pen and paper - and I like the fact that there no battery/network dependency either.

Once I'm happy with an idea and want to progress into the development phase, I usually create a project file for it on my computer, and will copy (more or less) verbatim into Yojimbo all the project notes for searchable reference.

I tend to use the smaller A6 notebooks, but if I need to write out code or anything, the A5 sizes are much better.
posted by jim.christian at 3:29 AM on July 19, 2008

If your problem is that you think, "I should do Project X today, but first I need to check out what's happening in cyberspace", then we can't really help you here. The solution to that is to do the project instead of sitting in front of your computer.

By all means map out your project using some of the tools above. But it seems to me none of these solve the basic "sit down and do it" aspect. If you really are unable to figure out how to do X instead of Y, then I suggest you estimate the amount of time to actually get this project going (and finished) and then schedule it into your calendar. Literally. Set aside that time, in advance-- Saturday the 14th is for Project X. At this point, you just then have to do it. If you have a partner (life, work, or other), tell them to nag you on that day to do the project. Tell your mother-- I'm sure she'd love to nag you to get your life in order, it's a mother's chief joy once the kids are gone.

I have to say these "get me organized" questions drive me crazy. No number of tools or ideas is going to get you organized, going, or anything else if you decide to sit down at the computer instead.
posted by nax at 5:56 AM on July 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've tried a lot of the online organizers, and end up finding them a little more fussy and artificial than I'd like. Maybe it's because I had an analog teenage-hood - but my lifelong habit of carrying a small, spiral-bound, unlined sketchbook works extremely well for me. Everything, but everything, goes in there - project ideas, fragments of creative work, shopping lists, packing lists, flight information, doodles and sketches. I never ever have to wonder where I filed/bookmarked those things, and it's always accessible, and it's very very easy to review an entire six months' worth of fleeting ideas to pick up on any missed threads.

Once something is in the goal-setting and achieving stage, I tend to set up spreadsheets for them. I do that for race training and workouts, budgeting, etc. And if it's a creative project, "just do it" totally applies once I determine to move it beyond idea stage. But for just plain idea capture, the notebook is perfect.
posted by Miko at 7:13 AM on July 19, 2008

I keep a small moleskine notebook for ideas / plans / things that go aha! in the night. It's small enough that it can go with me anywhere, doesn't need to be booted up or recharged, and when time permits, gives me a chance to review all of the ideas and threads in it.
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:15 AM on July 19, 2008

I have to agree with nax.

I have tried no end of moleskine / web app combinations to try to organize my crazy thoughts. For me, these "hacks" are diversions. I've spent hours researching organizational technique rather than actually doing anything because, deep down inside, I bitterly fear ... I will not execute as well as I plan.

The very few things I have accomplished in my life, I did so by digging in while the thought was hot and fresh. I recorded six songs one week when I just slapped down some drum tracks and did the guitars on top that night. I slogged out the details throughout the week. Mess piled up, I wrote the lyrics in marker on the surface of my desk, and I probably forgot eight other projects in the process. But it was the best and only series of songs I ever put down definitively.

If you're in the woods and a thought hits you, leave the woods. Get to the nearest pencil and paper and do as much work as possible right then and there. If you're with friends at a dinner, just leave them. They won't understand but who cares? Friends are just people you know. If your thought is that good, you'll make better friends later. I'm just kidding ... but am I?

For me, I've recently wondered a lot about what is more important -- creating a library of ideas or creating the things I have ideas about?
posted by metajc at 11:38 AM on July 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a notebook person. Usually blank Daler-Rowney books - I don't like the paper weight in Moleskines and hate the hype/pretension - but a lined one right now because my primary project is involving more data than drawings. My notebooks overlap between [work/college] and personal projects, and every creative idea goes in, and I'm generous with pages. I tuck in a pile of index cards for things like shopping lists because having a lovely, chaotic notebook makes me more inclined to spend time recording ideas in it. I use sticky page markers to highlight the parts of a single project/idea if I'm mining the notebooks.

I do really agree with nax though, and what works for you is probably the thing that feels most natural and doesn't jar, not some Brilliant System lurking out there waiting to change your life.

On the frittering front...a friend of mine actually sent me a link to this thread before I saw it, because when doing intensive studying or writing, I have to turn my wireless router off (or put it up on a shelf for a while). If there's something I need to check, I keep a running index card and set a time (say, 15.10 to 15.20) for fact-checking on the web, and set the card aside and keep going on another part of the work.

I find that for anything non-verbal, I can keep myself happily working away by making a pot of tea and putting on a podcast, and I will be so into listening to the content that I stay sitting and working through to the end of that bit. For the verbal stuff, it works best to set a block of time, tell myself to stop fucking about, and let myself have time off after it.

Also, consider a change in environment, or at least, sit in a chair at a table and have proper lighting and put your shoes on. I spent my Saturday afternoon in work doing a personal research project because I couldn't get myself to stop trying (failing) to make progress while sprawled on my bed with a laptop as long as I was at home and was lucky to be given the ok for this, but a library or coffee shop or a friend's spare space could work too - take your personal projects seriously if you want to make progress on them.

Finally, consider that you need downtime, and only you know how much you need. Maybe weeknights don't work for you, or you need to make sure you have Sunday off (unless you're having super mad fun on your project) so that Monday morning doesn't feel like it's part of a long string of too-tight days coming around without a break. Give yourself time to fuck about on the internet, and to do laundry and meet whatever other commitments you have.

In summary: clearly delineate fucking-about time and making-progress time, because the in-between stuff is frustrating and a total waste.
posted by carbide at 1:11 PM on July 19, 2008

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