Later, I sit down, and try and remember it, and WHOOSH. Nothing. It's gone.
So, a few weeks ago, I decided to start trying to record those ideas. The name of the practice is idea mining. The goal is to collect ones ideas and thoughts, organize them, and use them later as sources of inspiration and action. Or maybe pass them off to someone better positioned to act on them. Or just put them aside because they're impractical, or just plain dumb. Whatever.
Step One: Record
The first step in building an idea mine is recording your ideas. The obvious choice would be a notebook. I personally use Evernote on my iPhone. A handheld digital recorder, a PDA, whatever. Some people like Wikis.
Regardless of what you chose, it has to be:
a) Something that you always have with you - you can't record your ideas in it if it's not there
b) Something that is low friction and quick - you aren't going to record your ideas if it takes a significant amount of effort to record them
c) Something that is easy to work with later
That third point is my main reason for sticking with Evernote, but again- it doesn't matter what you use. Focus on the goal- record ideas when you have them. I'm the sort that does his best thinking on the toilet or as he drifts off to sleep, so my phone is great. If you do your thinking in the car, a digital recorder might be better.
It also takes some discipline. I know, several times, I've been near sleep, had an idea, and had to force myself to sit up and scribble it down. I try and say things like, "Oh, you'll remember it tomorrow," or "it's not that good an idea anyway".
And you'll have that thought a lot. "It's not a good enough idea to be recorded." Irrelevant! Maybe you're right, maybe you're wrong, but record it no matter what. Even if you ignore everything after this step, record every idea. Don't try and only record the good ones, because you're not always going to be able to tell, and the goal here is to build up the habit of recording your ideas. Once you get into the habit, you're going to get more ideas.
My experience with this step was that, for the first week, I was a virtual font of ideas. It tapered off and I went through a dry spell for a few weeks, and now I'm getting up a steady output of a few ideas a day, coupled with a few longer "jot of the day" notes- several paragraphs expanding on an idea of interest to me.
Step Two: Organize
You're going to be generating a lot of data, here. You're going to need to spend some time going through it. Fortunately, you've got all your ideas recorded, so there's no real rush on this. Even if you get backlogged, the ideas are still written down some place, and you won't forget them now.
How to organize them is up to you. Using Evernote, all the notes I record on my phone are synced to my home computer. In my Evernote client, I can tag the notes, using tags like, "good idea", "bad idea", "impractical", "actionable", "todo", "done", etc.. I tag by topic too, like "mad science", "writing", "hook", "character".
Again, the techniques to use here are largely up to you. Unlike recording, which requires immediate action, this can be done at your leisure. Just don't lose anything, because the last step is:
Step Three: Mine them thar' ideas!
Keep the organizing and acting steps separate. Periodically, check your "actionable" ideas, see if there's anything you want to tackle. When you're working on a creative project and are stumped, head back to your mine and see if there's anything in there that works for you. Use it for inspiration. Use it as a todo list. Use it as a personal reference.
My experience, after having done this for a few weeks, is that you're in for some surprises. You'll have more ideas than you think you will, even through those dry spells (in the past month, I've logged 206 notes, for an average of 6.9/day- not Manfred Macx territory, but not too bad). You'll have more bad ideas than you'll ever expect, (one of mine was a portable bidet, another was that a late night talk show hosted by William Shatner would be awesome, and an idea for a movie starring Eminem and Steve Guttenberg called, "What Mathers?"), but you'll also have a bunch that make you go, "Hey, that's pretty clever."
The final goal, of course, is to act on some of these ideas. Or hand them off to someone who can. Add a little creativity to the world, and turn ideas into end products.