Journals to Build Your Idea Muscle
My old cross country coach used to remind us: “You get good at what you do a lot of. Do push-ups every morning and you’ll get good at pushups.” 1
Ideas are no different: if you produce a lot of ideas on a certain topic, you’ll naturally get better at producing those sorts of ideas. Whatever kind of thoughts you want to train, you can start with the simple technique of keeping a journal wherein you write ten ideas that you want to have each day.
For example, you can practice generating project ideas. When I advise young programmers to build projects that they’re interested in, they often complain that they don’t have any project ideas. I couldn’t relate to this until I spent several years in pure coding roles where I wasn’t coming up with product ideas regularly. One day, I was startled to discover that I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to build. My ideas had dried up!
On the advice of an old classmate who was now a product manager at Facebook, I started an idea journal. Every day I wrote down ten product ideas that were interesting, even if they weren’t particularly good. After about six weeks2, I started spontaneously having ideas again, and was back to the state of having far more ideas than I could conceivably actually build. And I was surprised to notice that my ideas were not just more numerous, but also more interesting — my mind naturally sought out interesting ideas, guided by my taste and interests.
Journaling daily helps produce thoughts of all kinds, not just project ideas! I suspect this is why gratitude journals work: if you practice having thoughts about how good your life is, you will start naturally having those thoughts, which become a part of your mental landscape that shapes your emotions.
At one point, I realized I had fallen into a bit of depression. I noticed one aspect of the depression was that I wasn’t looking forward to anything. As an exercise, I decided to write down ten things I was anticipating in the near future. It took me four hours to list ten things I was looking forward to, which I found horrifying. So I started an anticipation journal: every day I wrote down ten things I was anticipating. Again, after a few weeks, my mental landscape had changed, I started regularly having positive thoughts about the future, and my general mood was much better.
The idea that most of your thoughts are driven by habit is well-understood by the Zen Buddhists. If you frequently think about why the future is bad, you’ll end up being generally pessimistic. If you frequently think about how much more money others are making, you’ll be tied up in a desire for money. An important part of the Zen meditation practice is to recognize and wash away those habits, freeing your mind from the patterns it naturally falls into.
But you can also build habits of positive thoughts, thoughts that you want to have more of. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches patients to recognize their negative thoughts and practice counteracting them by thinking of evidence to the contrary. The positive psychology of Learned Optimism teaches people to look for optimistic explanations rather than pessimistic explanations.
Journaling this way is like exercise. Regularly writing ideas changes your mind, the same way exercise changes your body. Remember: you get good at what you do a lot of.
Whether you think of it as building a muscle or a building a habit, you can train yourself to naturally and effortlessly produce the thoughts and ideas that you like. They can be pragmatic and focused, like new project ideas. Or they can be about your general mindset, like things you’re grateful for or looking forward to.
Regardless of the subject, you can guide your thoughts by simply writing down ten ideas that you want to have each day. You don’t have to worry too much about the quality of these ideas, because they’ll naturally get better over time, so long as you keep writing them daily.
Here are some journal ideas that you might try:
- gratitude: ten things you’re thankful for
- anticipation: ten things you’re looking forward to
- project ideas: ten projects you could start
- project polish: ten small improvements you could make to whatever you’re already working on
- date ideas: ten things you could do with/for your romantic partner
- curiosity: ten topics you’ve wondered about enough that you’d like to read more about them
Whatever thoughts and ideas you want to have, just write down ten of them each day. I guarantee after a month those thoughts will have improved in both quantity and quality.
There might be more efficient techniques or progressions, but I maintain that for an average person who wants to get stronger, it’s hard to beat just doing pushups every morning. “You get good at what you do a lot of” is a pretty amazing property of humans! We are so wonderfully general and adaptable. In the Industrial Revolution people liked to talk about how machines were stronger and more durable than human bodies. In 2020 we hear about “superhuman artificial intelligence”. And yet none of these machines are as flexible as humans beings who just get good at any random task that they do a lot.↩
Six weeks seems pretty long, doesn’t it!? I’m almost embarrassed to write it down. But that’s how long it took, and I feel I owe it to you, dear reader, to be honest about it.↩