PRODUCTIVITY

How to Turn a Hunch Into Your Next Great Idea

Writer Steven Johnson explains how to create, and actually execute on, a running idea list.
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Humans, unfortunately, are limited by a fairly weak memory. But losing a potentially significant idea to forgetfulness is preventable -- if only you take the right measures. 

That's why Steven Johnson, author of "Future Perfect," created a method for remembering and acting upon his own hunches. He shared the details in a recent post on Medium. Johnson is a writer by trade, but he uses this approach for everything-- "for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I'm going to write, even whole books," he said. 

It goes like this: capture everything. Write down every thought, no matter how underdeveloped. And make the list in a Google document so that you can edit it wherever you are, Johnson said. Granted, this sounds absolutely no different from the lists that others create daily to supplement their memories.

But the difference is that Johnson carves out time to look through the document in its entirety at least three times a year. "It's not an inconsequential document: it's almost fifty pages of hunches at this point, the length of several book chapters," Johnson said. For him, it's the result of eight years of maintaining a thought catalog.

An Idea Bank

The method has two main benefits. First, it allows you to get small fleeting thoughts out of your head so that you can get back to focusing on your current projects at hand. Second, it provides you with a rich idea bank and allows you to make connections across months, and possibly years, of thoughts. 

You might find that the hunch you had four years ago is suddenly useful now. "Something has changed in the external world, or because some other idea has supplied the missing piece that turns the hunch into something actionable," Johnson said.

"In a funny way, it feels a bit like you are brainstorming with past versions of yourself," he added. 

In the post, Johnson runs through a list of ideas he came up with about six years ago. He reflects that he's still holding out for a particular idea to become a panel discussion one day. One item on the list became a book. He turned another into a web service. And a few hunches have now hit a dead end. 

"I'd say that's a representative sample of the spark file: a few hits, a few misses, and a few yet-to-be-determined," he said. 

IMAGE: James Box/Flickr
Last updated: Mar 27, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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