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Idea Management

Ideas are a dime a dozen. On any given day I come up with multiple ideas for half a dozen different projects at home and at work. If I'm reading a good book, it will generate even more ideas, and I may want to remember or write about them at some later date. When you're thinking about hard problems, ideas just happen, and they can happen anywhere at anytime. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with ideas, and I have to organize them.

One project in particular that I need to manage is this blog. When I started nearly two years ago, I came up with a list of ideas that I thought would get me through the first six months of writing one article per week. This is now my 95th post, and my list of ideas to work from has grown to 56. (At that rate, I should be well stocked with ideas until the heat-death of the universe.)

I've tried many different tools for managing these ideas, and they each have their pros and cons. I started out with a simple outlined list in Google Docs. I tried using mind maps. I even took a look at Basecamp. Finally, I settled on Trello, which seems to fit my preferred workflow pretty well. Here's a blow-by-blow of how I came to that conclusion and why Trello is working better for me than any other tools I've tried.

The Outline


  • Topic 1
    • Idea 1
      • Sub Idea 1
      • Sub Idea 2
    • Idea 2
    • Idea 3
      • Sub Idea 1
      • Sub Idea 2
      • Sub Idea 3
  • Topic 2
    • Idea 1
    • Idea 2

The outline is the classic organizational tool. I learned in high school, as did many people, that when planning out a writing assignment, the outline is a great way to get your thoughts organized and to flesh them out. You can list your main points, sub-points for each main point, links to references, quotes, and detailed thoughts that you know you want to hit in your prose. You can go as deep as you need to go, and it's all laid out nicely on the page or screen so you can see your whole argument at once.

If your outlines are on the computer, it's fairly easy to reorder ideas and modify them, allowing you to shape your argument as you see fit. There are software programs made specifically for outlining that make this even easier. I decided to go with Google Docs for my blog idea list because I already use it, it's a straightforward, low-tech solution, and it's available anywhere I have access to the internet.

It's really important to be able to access these outlines almost anywhere, because that's where I get ideas—anywhere. I could carry a notebook for those times that I'm away from my main computer, but then I lose the flexibility of a digital document. Besides, Google Docs is so much more convenient. I can edit them anywhere and not worrying about keeping track of a physical object. It's very rare that I don't have access to Google, and in those situations where I don't, I can jot a note on a piece of paper, shove it in my pocket, and transfer it the next chance I get. I think I just talked myself out of ever buying a Moleskine.

Google Docs isn't all good when it comes to keeping track of lots of blog ideas, though. Its main drawback is that it doesn't scale. If I want to keep all of the ideas in one document, and I'm expanding on a number of them while taking notes on a couple books that I'm reading at the same time, it gets unwieldy rather quickly. On top of that, once I'm done writing about a topic, I have to delete the notes for that topic or at least move them to another document so they don't clutter up my list of ideas with ones I've already written about. That's not efficient.

Additionally, some of my notes for books will go on for multiple pages, which makes it difficult to get an overview of all of the topics I have to choose from when I want to pick one to write about. I could create a separate document for each topic, but then I lose the ability to organize the topics the way I want, and it becomes much more difficult to move ideas from one topic to another. In the end Google Docs was not working out so I went in search of alternatives.

The Mind Map


Example mind map

I was turned on to mind maps by Kathy Sierra, who passionately advocated for them on her blog. The idea is compelling, so I gave mind mapping a try by using them to take notes for half a dozen different books. What I found was that it didn't really fit in with my workflow, and it ended up being a lot more work than it was worth. For highly visual people, mind mapping may provide more benefit, but I guess I'm not one of those people. I didn't get much more insight into the books from looking at notes in mind map form than I do from looking at them in outline form.

In the end outlines and mind maps are two equivalent ways to represent the same thing, but in different formats. For me, the mind map had a number of downsides in addition to those already plaguing outlines. First, the only decent software I could find at the time was desktop software, which severely limited my access to the maps. Today, I would probably use something like mindmup.com, which looks really slick. It saves maps to Google Drive, makes nice-looking maps like the one above, and it's free.

Good cloud software eliminates the availability issue, but there are other issues. For instance, I read most of my books on a Kindle, and highlighting and taking notes is built into the Kindle software. I can do all of the note-taking I need without having to leave the book, everything is automatically copied up to Amazon's cloud, and then I can copy and paste my saved notes and quotes directly from Amazon's cloud to my blog. Building a mind map is a lot of extra work when the Kindle makes note taking so easy and seamless.

That's not all. The biggest problem is that like outlines, mind maps don't scale well. It's hard to get a good overview of a ginormous mind map, and when all of my notes and quotes are added to a mind map, it gets pretty big. We're still only talking about a mind map for a single book, too. It doesn't even make sense to build a mind map with a book's worth of notes as one topic in a larger map of all of my blog ideas, so then I'm back to managing multiple maps for different things. Not ideal. Even a map of only my blog ideas doesn't work very well because they're all spread out on the map and scanning through them is not easy.

Mind maps were not working out, so I moved on to another project organization tool.

Basecamp


Basecamp example

Basecamp.com aims to be a simple project management tool that allows you to collaborate with your team through discussions, to-do lists, and shared files and documents. It's a great tool for working on team projects, and I thought maybe it would also work well for managing blog ideas. The core useful feature in this case is the to-do list. As the only one working on the blog, I wouldn't have much use for the discussions, files, or documents.

The to-do list can actually be a number of different to-do lists, each with their own title. This format essentially creates a two-level outline where the titles could be the different topics I want to write about, and the bullets would be the main points for each topic. Each bullet point can also have a comment thread attached to it, which could be used to expound on the corresponding points, if need be.

You may have noticed that I'm talking about Basecamp as if I might use it, not that I did use it. That's true. I evaluated Basecamp and Trello together and decided to go with Trello, but Basecamp has a number of advantages over outlines and mind maps that make it a good option to consider, especially if you're working on a project with other people.

First, as an online app, Basecamp is available everywhere. It also has smartphone and tablet versions for easy project management on those devices. Second, it looks like it should scale pretty well. The to-do lists are structured to keep things short and sweet with links to separate comment pages, so lists of dozens of blog ideas should be manageable. Finally, it's dead simple. There aren't many extra features, so there's basically no learning curve and working with it is very responsive and intuitive. If I wasn't using Trello, I'd probably be using Basecamp.

Trello


Trello example

Trello.com is a project management tool done in the spirit of agile software development. You can create a series of boards that correspond to projects, and on each board you can create cards that represent topics or tasks for that project. Each card can contain a description, colored labels, checklists, a due date, attachments, and comments. Cards are organized into columns with their own titles.

This system is incredibly flexible, and it fits perfectly with what I want to do with my blog ideas. Having the cards organized into columns makes a board equivalent to a two-level outline in a very compact format that's easy to reorganize. I can make columns for different categories of topics that I want to talk about, and I have one column on the far left labeled "Up Next" to hold the next topic that I'm preparing to write on. Within the other columns I can sort the cards so the higher priority topics are at the top, and I can instantly see which categories have the most topics ripe for developing. Dragging the cards around to organize them is a snap.

Looking at a board, I have a great overview of all of the ideas there, but I don't get overwhelmed with details. To drill down into one idea, I can click on that card to bring up all of the information on that idea, and I can review it, edit it, and add to it quickly and easily. I use the description to expand on the general idea in the title of the card. The checklists are handy for holding the main points I want to hit, and the comments work well for notes that don't fit well in the checklists. Links can be used anywhere, and they just work, making external references easily accessible.

If I'm reading a physical book instead of a Kindle book, I'll even take all of my notes on one card. Even if it is a Kindle book, I'll put a few main points I want to address in a checklist and then link to the notes and highlights page for that book on my Amazon account. Once I'm done writing about a topic, I can archive the card so it's off the board but still available if I need it. Seamless, I tell you.

Trello beautifully addresses my three main criteria for a great idea management tool. It's an online app with Android and iOS versions, so it's available everywhere. It's wonderfully scalable while staying compact—I could manage hundreds of ideas without getting overwhelmed. And it fits well with my organizational style, giving me a visual format that I can work with quickly and intuitively.

Trello works so well for my blog ideas that I've been using it to keep track of my other work and personal projects as well. It works equally well for tracking project features, with features grouped by those you need to start, those you're currently working on, those you need to test, and those that you may or may not do in the far future. I'm not sure how Trello would work for collaborating with a team. It was definitely built for that purpose, but it may not scale too well that way. It probably depends on how well it's used by the whole team. For personal tracking, though, Trello is a big win for me.

Outlines Vs. Mind Maps Vs. Basecamp Vs. Trello


In summary, there are many ways to manage a big collection of ideas. The tools I covered here are by no means the only options, but they represent a good cross section of what's out there. Outlines are a basic tool that everyone should know about. They can be done in any text editor or word processor, and can represent a set of ideas in a straightforward, linear way. However, editing and organization can become a burden when the number of ideas gets too large, and it's difficult to maintain a history of completed ideas. Mind maps are equivalent to outlines, but are represented in a more visual format that works well for spacial learners. Maps can require more work to create and maintain than an outline, and compared to other tools, they get too big to manage rather quickly.

Whereas outlines and mind maps are general tools with many different implementations—you can even use pen and paper to draw them out if need be—Basecamp and Trello are more specific tools built as dedicated applications. Basecamp is closer to an outline with its to-do lists, and it has additional features for collaboration. Trello is closer to a mind map, but is much more compact and easier to organize in comparison. Personally, I find Trello to be the easiest to use and the tool that best fits my style. It's been working great for me so far, and the more I use it, the better it gets. I wouldn't completely discount the other options, though. Each one might be the right choice in certain situations, and different solutions are going to work better for different people. The best thing to do is experiment and find out what works best for you.