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Carry a Journal

Need a brainstorm technique that works well in a meeting or anywhere you go? Carry a journal – either real (like traditional pen and paper) or digital (mobile or tablet app).

I might walk out the front door without my house keys, but I never leave home without a pad of paper and a pen. It’s also my first answer if someone asks for one easy creative jolt in their life: carry a journal.

Journal writing is a common creative activity and brainstorm technique shared by everyone from Michelangelo to Thomas Edison to John Hughes. I began carrying one simply because I have the world’s worst memory. Quickly it became a habit. Not just to write down an idea, but more often, to draw an idea. To use to sell an idea to client. Other times to record notes. Sometimes a word to look up. A bed-side spot to scribble an idea that popped into my head before sleep, or during a dream. I now draw every PowerPoint slide before I get anywhere near a keyboard (see artwork below).

In other words, any time inspiration hits, keep a journal handy to record it, to amplify it, to solve a problem.

For some people, journal writing – akin to writing a diary – is their way to make sense of a event, task or problem. My friend Marilyn describes it as “a way to make sense of a challenge that my brain won’t let go of.” Dylan, an old co-worker from my Burson days living in San Francisco, uses it to express himself when words are limiting – or as he says exactly “when my friends can’t take me banging on about something.” Whether you write or draw or something in-between, it’s essentially the act of reflection – in my mind, another way to describe day-dreaming. You should drink eight glasses of water every day and every day you should schedule daydreaming into your day. Otherwise, when do you stop to actually think?

I can’t pin-point the exact statistic, but it’s been said that more than 75% of what a person thinks during the day has nothing to do with the task in front of them. Their intellect or imagination are focused on something else … and most of the time, that something else is a problem, a reflection of an experience, or something to accomplish. Particularly for people who are (more) introverted – that is, they get their energy from inside them, from their own thoughts – writing is a way to pull it out of their heads to examine it from a different perspective. For extroverts, journal writing often takes on the form of group story-telling: using words and scribbles to engage another party, to brainstorm.

A couple of things to think about, if keeping a journal is of interest to you.

Don’t critique what you put in the journal.  You aren’t writing a best seller, and it’s not meant to inspire anyone but you. Don’t worry about writing, spelling, grammar or your artwork.

Don’t worry about making sense.  Sometimes my writing is nothing more than free association. Mind maps which I begin may go nowhere. I may fill up a few pages of notes, random words and pictures … and then it sits for a few days, or more … and then suddenly something comes from it. It reminds me of a biography of Leonardo da Vinci i read recently, which recounted how LDV sat and wrote all of his thoughts as they came into his mind until he eventually moved beyond conscious thought to something psychologists call “super-consciousness.”

Be fancy or cheap.  When I lived in New York, thee journal to use was Moleskins, the pads made famous by Picasso. Now, I use $.99 pads from an office supply store. And you know what I’ve found out? They both work just fine. The key is to find something you’ll use consistently.

In the accompanying picture, I’ve photographed a few different journals I’ve used over the years. Experiment until you find something that’s comfortable. The same goes for the pen. A Mont Blanc pen might be the ticket for some people, but a good yellow pencil works fine too. I prefer two types: I have a huge set of Faber-Castell coloured pencils at home (I know a cheap place to buy them in Bondi Junction), and from daily toting around the CBD, I swear by Staedtler triplus fineliners.

Take it to bed with you.  Why let a perfectly good idea disappear just because there’s no scrap of paper on the night stand to write it down? Yes, my pad sits on my night stand every evening. It’s particularly great when I remember something at 3 am. No need to drag myself out of bed. Just a quick jot, and I’m back to sleep.

Flag key pages.  One thing I’m getting better at is going back when a journal is full and flagging key pages. Joy, a friend in Singapore, quickly reviews her journals when she gets to the last page, then makes a simple table of contents so she’s not searching through old books. Finally, date it if that’s relevant.

An added bonus.  Writing down anything helps the brain remember it.

Do you carry a journal?  What other ways do you spark your creativity?

You can read about other brainstorm techniques by visiting the category of Brainstorm Techniques, Games and Icebreakers.

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Carry a Journal