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The Idea File System: How to Capture and Organize All of Your Ideas

Use Evernote or OneNote with Google Sheets for a seamless system

Alexandra Samuel
Alexandra Samuel / November 23, 2017

Creativity isn’t just for artists. Creative thinking—and especially, creative ideas—drive business and professional innovation in every field. Whether it’s a potential topic for a single blog post or a concept for a whole new line of business, ideas are the bedrock on which we build our breakout projects and career moves.

But ideas don’t do any good if they’re stuck in your head—or if you forget them before they become actionable. That’s why it’s crucial to develop a system for capturing and organizing your ideas in a readily accessible idea file. The more systematic you are about capturing your ideas, the easier it will be to find inspiration for your next project or fodder for your next pitch meeting.

When I left my corporate job to become a full-time freelance writer, I had to become very disciplined about capturing every single idea I have for a potential story or blog post. But I soon found that the habit of capturing every single story idea spilled over to my corporate work, too: ideas for content marketing projects, corporate trainings, or software projects all started flowing (and getting captured). It turns out that my idea file is my single greatest asset, not only when it comes to pitching editors, but also when it comes to winning and serving clients.

In this post, I’ll map out what goes in an idea file, how to build a system for capturing and organizing your ideas, and how to use your idea file to fuel your professional success.

What Goes in an Idea File

What goes in an idea file? That depends on the nature of your work, but here are some possibilities:

  • Art and entertainment: Sculpture, painting, or other project ideas. Film concepts. Novel ideas. Character ideas. Plot twists. A song lyric or melody fragment that could be built upon. A situation that would make a great jumping-off point for a book or story. A dance move. Two songs you’d like to combine in a mash-up.

  • Content marketing: A business dilemma your customers frequently mention, which could inspire a great report. White paper ideas. A brilliant blog post title. Listicle topics. How-tos you’d like to read (or write).

  • Design: An illustration concept. A new potential use for a familiar material. A visual motif to sketch. A color palette.

  • Food and hospitality: Recipe or menu ideas. Ingredients to explore/experiment with. Event concepts. Decor concepts or ideas for new spaces.

  • Management: A new hiring process. A potential business line. An idea for a team-building exercise or retreat. A position to create or fill. A potential project or initiative.

  • Marketing and advertising: Taglines and slogans. A social media campaign idea that might be right for a future client, someday. Photo concepts. A crazy idea for a street team or word-of-mouth promotion. A fun idea for swag or promotional item.

  • Product ideas: Product sketches. Market opportunities to investigate or fill. A complaint you’ve overheard (or made) that suggests a product opportunity. Two products that could be combined into one. A product category that needs to be improved.

  • Research and customer intelligence: Questions you’d like to have answered with a survey, social media data, or other data source. Customer intelligence project ideas. Academic research paper ideas. A metric you want to start measuring/tracking.

  • Sales: A pitch line to try or refine. A new potential target market. An idea for accelerating the sales cycle. A new way of packaging your products or services. A pricing innovation. A new client you want to pitch.

  • Service improvement ideas: Friction points to address. Services you’d love to use. Services that could be combined in new ways. Delivery or on-demand service opportunities.

  • Sport and fitness: Equipment that could be improved. A type of player or coach to seek out. A new type of workout routine. A new diet you'd like to try.

  • Technology: Website ideas. Apps or games you’d like to find or create. Tech workarounds you want to look for or develop. Software tools or hardware products you or your company could develop. A URL or social media handle you’d like to snag.

  • Training and presentations: Conferences you want to pitch. TED or Pecha Kucha talk ideas. Keynote ideas. Internal trainings or "lunch and learn" topics you’d like to book for your team. Jokes or lines to incorporate into your talks.

  • Writing and journalism: People you’d love to interview. An experience that leaves you scratching your head…and which you could investigate by writing about it. A conversation that could be turned into an article. A response you could write to something that really annoyed you.

When you build up an idea file, you always have a place to start on your next project. If your boss, client, or team asks for fresh ideas, you’ll be ready. Best of all, the practice of capturing your ideas helps foster creativity: the more ideas you jot down, the more ideas you’ll have.

How to Set Up Your Idea File

A successful idea file is both comprehensive and well-organized. To make sure your idea file captures everything that comes into your head, you need to make it really easy to jot down every single idea you have. To make make sure your idea file is organized, you need to get that stream-of-consciousness idea flow into a more structured form.

My approach does both. I use an Evernote notebook to capture every single idea that comes into my head. I use a Google spreadsheet to organize and review my ideas. And I use Zapier to connect my Evernote notebook to my Google spreadsheet, so that I always have an up-to-date list of all my great (and not so great!) ideas.

Your capture file

I use Evernote as my all-around note-taking application on both my computer and phone, so it was a no-brainer to make it the place I’d capture all my story ideas. But there are lots of applications that could serve this purpose for you: you just need to choose a note-taking app that works on both your computer and your mobile device(s). (Check out this list of note-taking options.) I recommend using Evernote or OneNote, since they both integrate with Zapier.

Once you’ve chosen the note-taking application you’re going to use…

  • Set up a notebook for your ideas, named something like “Ideas” or “Innovation File”
  • Make sure your note-taking app is installed on all the computers and devices you regularly use
  • Create a shortcut to your ideas file on every device
Evernote ideas file
A snapshot of my Story Ideas notebook: some notes are titles only, while some have brief notes attached.

Every time you have a new idea—however half-baked—add it to this notebook. Most of the time, I use my phone to quickly dictate a new idea into my Evernote ideas notebook; if I’m on my computer when inspiration strikes, I just type it directly into Evernote, which I always have open on my Mac. Once in a blue moon, I email an idea to myself instead, using my Evernote email address to create a note via email. You’ll probably need two or three ways of quickly adding notes to your idea file: what matters is that you always have a capture tool handy, and that you’re consistent about adding every single idea to your ideas notebook.

Your ideas spreadsheet

As soon as you’ve captured more than ten or twenty ideas, your notebook will become unwieldy. I’ve been using my Evernote ideas file for 18 months, and it’s got 281 ideas. That’s way too many to scan when I need to pitch an editor or client on some project possibilities!

That’s why I use a Google spreadsheet to organize my long list of story ideas. It allows me to quickly sort ideas when I need to find a particular type of inspiration.

How you set up your idea file will depend on your particular work and the particular kind of ideas you need to capture or review. But you will almost certainly need the following columns:

  • Idea: The summary of your idea. This is whatever’s in the title of a note you capture.
  • Details: Any additional notes you’ve jotted down about your idea, from the body of your note. This is also where you’ll add any additional notes or details when you’re reviewing your ideas spreadsheet.
  • Quality: It’s easier to be relentless about capturing every single idea, however weak, if you know you’ll have a way of filtering your best ideas later.
  • Category or type: If you’re using a single Ideas sheet to track a range of ideas, this is where you’ll categorize your ideas by type, like “presentation idea,” “product idea,” or “marketing project”. If you’re only capturing one type of idea (like story ideas or product ideas) you can categorize them by type: For example, if you’re capturing product ideas for your bakery, you might categorize as “desserts,” “breads,” “breakfast items,” and so on.
Google Sheets ideas file

Once you start using your ideas file to drive your work, you’ll quickly discover whether you need additional columns. I’ve found it’s helpful to have the following in my file of story ideas:

  • Status: When I first add an idea to my sheet, it’s marked as “idea”. Once I actually send it to an editor, I mark it “pitch”. If my pitch is successful, I change that to “accepted”.
  • Pitch to: If I have an idea about where a story might land, I note it in this column. If I’ve got an idea for a report or blog post that would work for a corporate client, I note the client’s name here.
  • Date sent: When I send out a pitch, I note the date here.

You may also find it useful to create a couple of additional sheets in your Idea file so that you can archive ideas you don’t need to see anymore. I use several:

  • Assigned: Once an idea has been accepted for publication I move it to this sheet so I don’t accidentally pitch it to multiple publications.
  • Deprecated: If an idea gets dated or I decided I don’t like it anymore, I move it here.
  • Project ideas: Sometimes I chuck ideas into my story ideas file that don’t really make sense as articles, but could be interesting as a presentation, client project, or book. Those go into a separate sheet for future reference.

Once you’ve finished setting up your idea spreadsheet, take a few more steps to ensure it’s always easy to find:

  • Star your Ideas sheet in Google Sheets.
  • Bookmark your ideas spreadsheet in your web browser. (I keep mine in my Bookmarks bar, so it’s always visible.)
  • Install the Sheets app on your phone.

Your idea Zap

Now that you’ve got a notebook setup to capture your ideas and a spreadsheet ready to organize them, it’s time to create the Zap—the automated workflow in Zapier—that links the two together. Note: You’ll need to have at least one recently created note in your ideas notebook for this to work, so if you haven’t added an idea yet, create a new note called “My Great Idea” and enter a random sentence in the body of your note.

The template below will help you get started. It's best to open the link in a new window so you can follow along with the directions below to customize your Zap.

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