If you do anything remotely creative, then you naturally come up with ideas throughout the day. These could be articles to write, marketing tactics to try, businesses to test, books to read, people to contact, anything.
Hopefully you have a system for catching these ideas (I like to carry a notebook around), but if you don’t, or if you’re briefly without that system, you might end up in the sad situation of forgetting that brilliant idea you just had.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to make that idea pop back into your head. These are the three I use on a regular basis.
1. Think Back Through the Topics that Led to It
Say you’re having a conversation and you both get distracted and lose the topic that you were last on. One easy way to figure it out is to talk back through everything you were discussing leading up to it:
“Okay, so we had started by talking about the beach, then I said how my dog never liked going in the water, and you said you had a corgi who could swim faster than a jetski, and that reminded me of a video of a corgi rolling down some stairs, and I was about to show that to you before that bird decided to try to make a nest out of your hair.”
You can use the same tactic for ideas you’ve forgotten. Simply by trying to think back through the series of thoughts that led to it, you can stumble back on the same idea or at least something close to it:
“Then I was thinking about that dog rolling down the stairs and how happy he looked at the end, and I was wondering why human bodies can’t take that kind of beating, and then I remembered how frogs seem fine even when dropped from significant heights, and oh yeah I was thinking about an article on terminal velocity relative to body mass and how that affects humans and other animals.”
When that fails, another option is to…
2. Recreate the Stimulus for the Idea
One thing I miss about college is how bored I was. When I was sitting in class bored out of my mind trying to feign interest in a poorly designed powerpoint presentation, I came up with tons of ideas. They seemed to spring out of thin air and into my notebook as fast as I could write them down.
I don’t get forced into that kind of boredom anymore, but sometimes I’ll deliberately read an interesting-yet-just-boring-enough book (On the Origin of the Species is fantastic for this) which stimulates a similar flood of ideas when I start to zone out. If, however, I forget one of those ideas, I can usually get it back by rewinding a few paragraphs and reading the section that sparked it again. It was typically some phrase, word, or idea that sparked my own idea, and by re-exposing myself to it, I can find it again.
This works for anything that could stimulate an idea. You might listen to the same song you were listening to when you had it, watch the same movie, talk to the same person, look at the same photos. Whatever stimulated the idea, return to it, and the idea will usually return with it.
But if it’s been a little bit longer and you don’t have that exact same mental stimulus, a third effective option is…
3. Return to the Environment You Had the Idea In
My housemates don’t know this since I’m the only one who works from home, but occasionally, I’ll spend a minute or two in the afternoon standing fully clothed in the shower with the water off.
It’s not to scream incantations (though that’s fun too), rather, to remember some idea I had in the shower earlier.
The shower is one of the best places to stumble upon new ideas, but unless you’re particularly brave with your iPhone or have some magical waterproof notebook, you probably don’t have a great way to save those ideas.
But by taking a second later in the day to hop back in the shower (this time with less water and more notebooks) you’ll frequently find those ideas come popping back into your head.
This can happen with any idea-prone environment. Get back in your car, go back to the park, take out your bike, wherever you normally get hit with ideas, go back to it and you just might find one returning to you from earlier that you’d completely forgotten.
And don’t forget the notebooks.