How Can I Turn My Mess of Ideas Into Something Organized and Useful?

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Dear Lifehacker, I have tons of ideas for projects and things I want to do, but they're all halfway there, only partially fleshed out, or just inspiration with no real plan behind them.


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Dear Lifehacker,
I have tons of ideas for projects and things I want to do, but they're all halfway there, only partially fleshed out, or just inspiration with no real plan behind them. How can I sort them all out and actually get started instead of just thinking up great things?
The Idea Guy
Dear Idea Guy,
It's been said that an idea without execution is worthless, but don't feel bad about that. You've got great ideas, which is a wonderful thing. Now we just have to help you take the next step and get organized so you can bring them into reality. It's not that hard to do. Once you start getting your ideas out of your head and into a format that lets you be free to think, you'll be able to come back to them and work on them at any time.
Since you have plenty of ideas floating around your head, the first thing you'll want to do is start an "idea bank" for them. The first step in making those ideas real is to get them out of your head and into something you can look at when you're in the mood to work, not just brainstorm. Doing this instantly relieves that "there's too much going on in my head" frustration. I've mentioned before that I use Wunderkit for this, but Wunderkit is on the way out (to be replaced by a new version of Wunderlist), but there are plenty of other tools to help you keep and organize your ideas:
Whatever tool you use, even if it's good old pen and paper (which we know many of you still prefer), make sure it's something you feel comfortable using and will turn to as soon as inspiration strikes. Get those ideas out of your head and into the bank so you can make a withdrawal when you need to. Keeping those sparks of genius in your head only guarantees you'll eventually forget them, and you'll be frustrated when you do.
Once you have your ideas in a format you can draw from, your next step is to add meat to their bones. You may have a genius idea, but it takes more than that to make an idea reality. Start brainstorming and ask yourself "How can I make this real? What tools will I need, and how much time will it take? When can I set aside time to work on this?"
If you have trouble organizing your idea into a step-by-step or sequenced list of to-dos, you might consider mind mapping, a technique for organizing your thoughts and brainstorming that we've mentioned before. We even have some suggestions if you need a good mind mapping application to try.
If mind mapping isn't really your thing, you can always grab the old pen and paper and try good old fashioned journaling and note-taking to help you brainstorm and organize the ideas that come to you on a daily basis. Keeping a work diary lets you document your successes, which in turn makes you more motivated and productive. It also serves as a running list of ideas and thoughts as they come to you. This way you don't have to wait until you have time to sit and think about how to solve a problem, just jot down your idea (or the meat for your idea's bones) as it comes to you. Also, by writing about how you solve problems on a day-to-day basis, you can use the lessons you've learned to flesh out your ideas.
The hardest part of managing the ideas in your head is getting them out of your head and into a format where you can look at them, review them, and build a plan around getting them from idea to completion. Once you have a system in place to do that, let it do the work for you and keep you going. Remember, getting started is everything. Photo by Mark Turnauckas.
At the same time, don't forget to prioritize those ideas. You want to tackle the timely ones first; the ones that depend on changing external conditions. For example, if you're a writer, you want to tackle the blog ideas that are relevant to the here and now. If you're a developer, you want to get to work on your brilliant Windows 8 app before someone else beats you to the punch. Also remember that ideas have a shelf life. Not that your idea itself will be bad later, but that the conditions that made it brilliant will have changed. You may get another idea that's better, or you just won't be motivated to work on that old idea anymore.
Make sure you don't exchange frustration with keeping everything in your head for frustration that you have a huge idea bank and don't use it. Make sure your system enables you to work on ideas, not just work on organizing ideas.
The last step is one you may or may not have trouble with: don't just pull from your idea bank when you need to. Make deposits part of your routine, whether it's part of a weekly review or some other regular brainstorming session. The best way to do great work is to do a lot of work, and the best way to come up with great ideas is to keep brainstorming and writing them down. You'll find your idea bank will be a lifesaver when you're short on things to work on or looking for inspiration, but you don't ever want to look at it and wonder where all the good ideas have gone. Ideally, if brainstorming is part of your routine, you'll never have too much trouble coming up with something worth doing. If you do run into creative blocks, we can help you overcome those, too. Good luck! Photo by Philip Brewer.
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