I realized early last year that I had been writing in a journal for more than ten years.

It's a practice that is part of my daily routine, a ritual of sorts, but I had barely noticed. It helps me collect my thoughts and document my ideas. Ironically, I had never really paid attention to how long it usually takes or that I follow the same basic routine. It was baked into my brain like a cherished quote or a fond memory.

One morning, I decided to pay attention to the process. Hmm. It takes exactly seven minutes. It always takes me that amount of time to write in a journal, and I always do roughly the same thing each time. It turns out there's some serious science behind this, because we can typically focus our attention for about seven minutes on average (it's called sustained focus). What a wonderful coincidence, huh?

It proved to be a rather stunning realization, too, because it led to my most popular and well-read article ever. To give that some context, I've published around 8,500 articles in 15 years, which includes dozens of game reviews per week in my early days, countless music reviews, hundreds and hundreds of gadget round-ups, and one or two pieces per day from Inc.com these past few years. It also includes one infamous game feature that racked up over 13,000 comments once. There's a large body of work, so "most popular" is a big accomplishment for me.

As I get older, I've learned to cherish these aha! moments. (Aha! always needs an exclamation mark after it, otherwise they don't seem quite as profound.) Ideas are like fine jewels. I agree with David Whitford, the editor-at-large for Inc. Magazine, that a spark of an idea is not as useful as a flame. What I take out of that comment is that people want an idea that has turned into a product they can purchase. (You can take that an extra step and see how it applies to investing as well.)

Yet, the spark is required to create the flame. For me, I had to flesh out that article. I had to write out the steps. I had to perfect the timing. (I asked several friends to go through the process to make sure.) I had to create a catchy lead. The idea did not write itself. It's amazing, though, because that article came out in May of 2015. I still get one or two emails per week from people saying they are following "the seven" and enjoy it. I like to imagine, possibly somewhat with a hint of over-confidence, that I helped in some small way to help people deal with stress, to generate some fresh thinking, to chronicle their accomplishments, and maybe even find success.

I doubt scientists will ever be able to precisely determine how we get these aha! moments. Or, how do we know it is a true spark? Maybe there is a certain part of the brain that thinks creatively. Maybe it's the coffee. For me, I've learned to relish in the flood of insight. I do know this. They only come on occasion.

My advice is to document them. Don't let them pass unnoticed. Write them down. Keep a record, and take them to the next stage. Build on that idea.

And, make sure you fuel them. I am constantly reading, constantly observing things, constantly looking for boxes I can think outside of. I'm obsessively aware of the sparks and how infrequently they come, and that it only takes one good idea to create a flame and become something that could be world-changing.

I'm curious about your view. What really good ideas have you turned into flames? Let me know if you started a company from one spark of an idea.

Published on: Jan 27, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.