You Need an Idea Inbox

You’re going along, there’s no idea, no idea, no idea… and then, boom…. This idea comes on the screen…. and then you go and write it down…. I write them down so I don’t commit suicide later, having forgotten the idea.

Write the idea down.

David Lynch

I have index cards and pens all over the house — by the bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, by the phones, and I have them in the glove compartment of my car. I carry one with me in my back pocket…. suddenly I hear something wonderful that makes me want to smile or snap my fingers — as if it has just come back to me — and I take out my index card and scribble it down.

Anne Lamott

Sometimes an idea leaps forth from your subconscious like a solitary piece of popcorn. If you don’t catch it before it lands, it disappears under the couch cushion, the car seat, the bed.

Your only job in that moment is to capture the thought. Don’t think for a second about spelling, organization, or logic.

If you’re a writer, or a creative person of any kind, you need a place where you can quickly jot down these ideas with minimal friction no matter where you are. You need an idea inbox.

I’m not talking about the dreaded Notes app, the junk drawer of your phone that all too quickly becomes long-term storage.

Instead, the idea inbox is strictly for temporary storage:

  1. Each time an idea arises that you’d like to follow up on, add it to your idea inbox.
  2. At the start of each work session, check your idea inbox.
  3. Move each idea from the inbox into its appropriate place (your to-do list, a story outline, a “future projects” list, or the trash bin).
  4. Then clear your inbox.

Your idea inbox stays clean, and your ideas never gather dust.

A good idea inbox…

Tools to use for your idea inbox

I’ve tried all of the below, and they all work well. Use whatever fits your brain best. Try to avoid employing more than one of these methods at a time. As soon as you’re checking multiple places to locate your ideas, it’s not an inbox – it’s yet another filing system.

1. Pocket notebook / Index cards

Nasty surprise: You need to carry a pen for this to work. This one wasn’t for me, because I don’t like to store a lot of things in my pockets. But if analog is your game, it’s a classic.

2. A “jotting” app

I use Tot (Mac + iOS). Pricey, but absolutely worth it if you’re in the Apple ecosystem. Syncs fast. Goes wherever you do. Gives you 7 nameless slots to store your notes in – no more, no less. Plus you can map the Mac app to a global shortcut (in my case, Alt + Space), so jotting down an idea is always a hotkey away.

3. An “email yourself” app

The two I’ve vetted are Pensieve (iOS) and mynderMail (Android).

Open the app. Immediately start typing. When you’re done, press send. It emails you a copy of your idea. Next time you’re at your desk, you can slot it into the appropriate place.

An example of an idea inbox

The post you’re reading was conceived of during a late-night drive. I parked, opened up my idea inbox, and typed the following:

- you need somewhere you can quickly jot down ideas
- the period of time between when you get an idea and when you capture it: most note taking apps aren’t optimizing for that moment. often they take a bit to load. often you have to press a button to create a note. they want you to think about where you’re taking a note and not jhit what’s in it (folders, etc.)
- a certain spontaneous type of creativity is contrary to organization
- a space that is closer to your thoughts, where all you do is slap ideas on the page / screen
- show how you used it to come up with the ideas for this post

Then I forgot about the idea and went on with my night. I knew it’d be waiting for me at the start of my next writing session.