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You’re sitting at your desk, searching for hours on the Holy Internet something you need. You want to create a superb product, or you want to improve some technical skills you lack for your dream job. You want to build a great personal project.
But you miss something. This is something simple but difficult to grasp. Something everybody speaks about, but only the chosen ones know its true meaning. Something almost magical.
You miss an idea.
After reading bland ideas after bland ideas on The Great Internet, you finally give up: you’re not a creative person. You don’t have great ideas. The world is torture. There will be always war and death. Everything is lost.
Maybe I can help you.
We have, all of us, creative possibilities. We are all humans, we have more or less the same brain, and we can all come up with ideas. Forget about this nonsense of “I’m born like that” or “I’m not good in this”. You create artificial borders to your own possibilities. You put yourself in an imaginary jail.
Lurking on Internet to find new ideas might not be the best solution to build your own personal ideas.
So many questions! So many doubts! Here’s the good news: building a software means automating something. You can automate a lot of things in many different domains. That’s precisely why I think you can generate many different ideas, for many different domains.
To learn how, here’s what we’ll see in this article:
- What’s an idea?
- Ideas will pop up if you maintain a balance between space and inspiration.
- Dopamine is a powerful idea power
Follow me, dear reader. To be able to find great programming project ideas, we need first to go back to the basis. Sounds boring? It won’t take long. Then, we will dive into concrete ways to build a system to let your ideas blossom and mature.
What’s an idea?
Even if it looks like a silly question, you should consider it. Can you define what’s an idea?
Let’s look at the definition in a thing from the old ages called “dictionary.” From the Oxford one:
“A thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action”
Now, that’s interesting. We could think that an idea is a pure construct of our minds. It’s only a mere thought, right? However, the definition suggests that it’s a special thought which takes “a possible course of action.”
We have a tendency to forget that an idea needs to be something we’re able to put into practice. It’s a thought which is actionable. In fact, can we say that an idea has value without any action? Is it what separates ideas and thought?
Let’s keep that in mind and add a level of complexity: most of us don’t only want ideas — we want a good one. What is that? Is it a big idea? A crazy one? The one with the biggest possible action?
A successful idea?
I think we’ll all agree that a good idea is an idea which fulfills our goals.
Of course, you will always have a feeling if this or that idea will indeed give you what you want. Don’t follow these feelings blindly.
Sometimes, ideas appear to us so good that we think it will automatically be appealing to everybody. Sometimes we think that an idea is the best, even if it doesn’t help us to achieve what we want.
On the contrary, sometimes we convince ourselves that an idea is bad because we’re afraid of failures.
All of that is perfectly normal. We are all human, we all have illusions and doubts.
If you want to know if your idea is a good one, you need to be a bit more pragmatic and test it, challenge it as early as you can, to know if it brings you closer to your goals.
In a programming or side project context, it could be a simple landing page asking if somebody else is interested in your idea. If your goal is to build an app that makes you rich and famous, other people need to buy what you want to sell. It could be an MVP or even a simple prototype.
Now that we all agree on what an idea and a good one is, let’s continue our journey.
Create space in your life
Let’s look at this simple but difficult question: how do ideas pop up in your head? You first need to let space in your mind to allow them to come to you.
What do I mean by space?
Since ideas are simple thoughts at first, something which “pop up” in your conscious mind, something you formulate with your language in your head, you need to allow your mind to speak to you.
Let’s say that you always listen to music, sing along, switch on the radio, Netflix, or Youtube, to have some background noises. Maybe you’re never alone and you always meet and speak to a lot of people.
All these external stimuli will monopolize your mind. You won’t have space for ideas to pop up.
Obviously, these strong stimuli can inspire you, but they can as well block any new idea if they never stop.
Let’s take another example: your phone. Applications are made for you to be addicted to them, for you to spend your time scrolling them indefinitely. You could think: “Right, but it’s so inspiring!” Is it?
It’s mainly the same content you will find on applications like Instagram, Twitter, and whatnot. Is it great content? Is it content that generates great ideas? Ideas are the result of our life, and if our life is spending our time on social media, our ideas will reflect that.
You need an external stimulus that is really interesting for you, to get inspired and having ideas you consider “good.” You need as well to be alone with your thoughts to create space in your mind for your ideas to express themselves.
You need to create a balance between inspiration and space.
Inspiration and ideas diversity
Being inspired means having feelings or new thoughts when an external stimulus comes to you. These feelings will generate ideas of any sort. The more diverse your inspiration will be, the more diverse your ideas will be. You need as well to be receptive to them when they come to you.
Inspiration can come from many things:
- Speaking and, most important, listening to people.
- Going to a museum or a botanical garden.
- Looking around you and actively observing.
- Reading books, articles…
- Going for a movie.
- Listening to music.
- Meeting and speaking with people.
- Dancing in your underpants.
- Imitating the scream of a rabbit when he’s in love.
The common wisdom often whispers to us that to get inspiration, we need to read or watch something which is directly related to the ideas we want.
Let’s say you want to create software to improve some lacking development skills, but you have no idea what exactly. You might search on The Fantastic Internet what are the good software ideas out there. You might go to forums, speaking about software, or searching on Facebook for software related groups.
This is a mistake. Even if you can get inspiration from these places for sure, your ideas will feel fresher and newer if you try to get inspiration from the other different interests you have. This is really important for the actionable step of an idea: you will never achieve take action if an idea doesn’t interest you.
Remember what inspiration is? You need to be receptive to the things which surround you. To be receptive, you need to be interested in them.
You can find as well the Fairy of Idea Diversity when you go out of your routine. If you spend all your day on your computer, try to do something else from time to time. Routines and processes are great to get things done, but it doesn’t challenge your thoughts and generate new ideas.
It can be diversifying your activity, or simply working in another environment. Every change, even a small one, can be a real idea generator.
Dopamine and ideas
It has been proved that dopamine release helps to create ideas. Now, I got your attention. Science power!
How can you release this dopamine?
- Sport is the way. It doesn’t have to be 8 hours straight of crazy intense sport which destroys your body for half a month. Stretching, running, or even walking can work. Only ten minutes of sport each day can help a lot.
- Taking a warm shower. You know, the cliché about ideas in the shower. The explanation is finally revealed: dopamine.
- Getting enough sleep. You won’t have any good idea if your brain tries to stay alive from all the toxins you didn’t eliminate by sleeping. Guaranteed.
- Should I precise that drinking alcohol or taking drugs is not really advised to have good ideas? You can have a lot of bad ones, however. You know, the ones you regret later.
You might want to create space in these moments. For example, when I’m running or doing sport with music without lyrics, I find myself having more thoughts. You need to experiment, of course, to find what works for you.
Even without speaking about dopamine and all these scientific stuff (to a degree), the more awake and energized you will be, the more ideas will come to you.
Here’s a cool Latin sentence from Juvenal:
Mens sana in corpore sano.
If it’s in Latin, it’s true.
The birth of your own idea system
You can have ideas everywhere, and especially when you don’t seek them. As The Oatmeal is saying in his really cool comic:
Inspiration is more like food poisoning: it sprays out uncontrollably when you need it the least.
Each time you have an idea or an interesting thought, you need to be able to write it in your idea system. Yes, you need a system to write out your ideas.
David Allen, the author of Get Things Done wrote:
Your mind is a great place to have ideas, but a terrible place to manage them.
By writing your ideas somewhere, grouping them, connecting them, your idea flow will increase drastically.
First, your brain won’t have to keep up with this mental load of every single idea you have. Second, each time you will write an idea down, more thoughts and ideas will come back to you. Even better: review your idea system after a couple of days and BAM! More Ideas.
You will create the Virtuous Circle of Idea, you lucky idea powerhouse!
I would advise you to write every idea, even the ones you consider bad. A bunch of bad ideas can create a good one if you give it some time. Don’t be too judgemental. Little, silly, or apparently stupid ideas can be the foundation of your next project.
You need to categorize and organize them on a regular basis in your idea system.
Don’t hesitate to cut out some ideas as well. Bad ideas can generate good ideas, that’s true, but bad ideas you still find bad after days need to be relentlessly hunted and eliminated from the surface of Earth.
Don’t be sentimental and press this delete button. Ideas you generate are yours, that’s true, but they are not you. You don’t delete a part of yourself.
This is the principle of brainstorming: writing every thought you have, even bad ones, to refine and refine them, till you find the really good ideas; the ones you like, the ones which will bring value to your life.
In short, with this kind of system, my life is a massive brainstorming experiment where I write ideas on a regular basis. It’s a never-ending and deeply enjoyable process.
A real-life example of an idea system
Do you want to know how my idea system looks like? No? How dare you?
It’s pretty simple, really. First, I need to have constant access to my “idea bag.” It’s where I throw ideas when I have them.
Directly when I have them. Don’t wait too long before writing them somewhere! Your ideas are like little clouds, they can disappear from your conscious mind as fast as they appeared. There are exceptions to this rule: if you’re driving a car, hunting crocodiles, or purchased by some Yakuza, don’t do anything else than trying to survive.
Since I own an Android phone which follows me wherever I go (without any social media on it, you should try, it’s liberating), I use Google Keep to write any idea I have. Good or bad.
Why Google Keep?
- It’s simple to use
- I can access it on any computer, on my tablet, or on my phone.
Every week, the Saturday morning to be precise, I empty my idea bag and I put them in my mind map for ideas.
When I do so, it’s a good occasion for me to quickly delete ideas, or to reorganize them. Often, I find a new link between ideas.
As the famous
visionary philanthropist marketing guru, Steve Jobs, said:
Creativity is just connecting things.
Here’s what my mindmap looks like:
I write mindmaps with the free software Freemind, and I sync them with my personal Nextcloud instance, on my server. I can then access them on any computer.
Unfortunately, you can’t read them well on tablets or phones, and you can’t modify them on these devices. If you’re interested in mindmaps and if you want to read them everywhere, there is plenty of software for that.
Over time, the ideas I link in my mindmap begin to take the shape of the project: software, books, courses, and so on.
When the programming project is well defined enough, I create a Trello board. When I have any idea related to this new project, I write it directly into this board.
There is a last important component in my system, complementary with Google Keep: post-it. I have a block of post-it in strategic places in my flat, in case I have an idea and I don’t have my phone with me. I write it and put it on my desk.
Since I don’t like to have a post-it on my desk, I write them in my Idea Mindmap as soon as I can. It’s a good way to oblige myself to keep my ideas in one place.
This whole system is simple and effective, and it has been very useful for me to grow my idea bag. Take this blog for example: before I had my Miraculous Idea System ©, I could barely find subjects to write about. Each time I was going on my computer, I was waiting to be illuminated by the Angel of Ideas, The God of Creation, The Muse of Inspiration.
It didn’t work.
Now I have so many ideas for blog posts, I can write for years. I could say the same for side projects, for books, and for many other projects. It’s great!
The most important is: these are my ideas. They are the result of a lot of stuff I saw and experienced, and I’m sure none of them are original. Still, they are the end of a personal process. Therefore, I’m way more motivated to execute them. To take action.
Being interested is essential if you want to have the motivation to begin, go through, and push live the programming projects of your dreams!
Ideas and the others
Parking your ideas in your little idea universe (whatever it is: a mindmap, a simple notebook, or a set of napkins) is very good to let them blossom, but there is another effective way to generate more ideas: speaking about them.
Writing your ideas makes them real. They are not pure thoughts anymore. Speaking with people about your ideas will make them even more concrete. People can react to them, adding thoughts to your ideas, transform them.
You don’t have to speak physically to people, even if I think it’s even more effective. You can use any platform where you can have constructive discussions on the Internet. This can bring a lot of new components to your ideas, and people can help you link (or unlink) them for you to accomplish your goals.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid of negative feedback. You need all of that, or you will stick with ideas you’re the only one to find “good.” If your goal is to bring people to your programming project, or, even better, if you want to create a revenue stream with your project, you need to know your audience and validate your ideas. Even before beginning to build your side project itself.
This kind of project always involves people. All the time. Because they will use what you build.
Creating a revenue stream from side projects is a complex question that goes beyond the scope of this article. “Comment below” if somebody wants me to gabble about it in an article, one day.
Get inspired and grasp these killer ideas!
Many things can benefit from a new piece of software. That’s why you should not limit your ideas to some precise field or interest. We can build software for anybody who needs some automation.
Let’s do a little debriefing: what did we learn together in this article?
- Ideas are thoughts that are actionable. Ideas without actions won’t bring you much.
- A good idea is an idea which brings you closer to your goal. Yep, you need to define what you want in life.
- Be inspired by the things which really interest you, but plan some quiet moments for your brain to relax and let your ideas speak to you.
- Create your own idea system where all your ideas will coexist in peace. Catch them quickly!
- If some ideas feel useless after some time, delete them. Reorganize the others. Make sure you’re not overwhelmed each time you open your idea system.
What I would like you to do is to get this article as an inspiration, and experiment for yourself. We are all different, you need to adapt and see what works for you.
Now, it’s time to go to the world and get inspiration from everything you like, and everything you didn’t know you liked before you tried them. The goal is to create more ideas, to build more valuable goods, and to have fun!
This article was written by Matthieu Cneude and was originally published on The Valuable Dev, a blog focusing on the important and timeless concepts in software development. You can read the piece here.
Published September 22, 2020 — 14:00 UTC