‘An idea lasts only seven seconds - you have to be quick to write it down.’

A good friend of mine dropped that into a conversation recently, and it rattled the cage of my inner skeptic. I dunno, maybe it was because of the similarity to the myth about goldfish? You know, the one where they only have a three second memory? I guess, at least our memory myths outperform those of a goldfish.

But he wasn’t talking about memory in general, rather something way more specific. Ideas, creative thought, that sort of spontaneous stuff that launches itself into your stream of conscious thought. Often these ideas come way out of left field, appearing to come from nowhere.

I do write most of this stuff down, and ever since I read Getting Things Done I have heaps of lists, including separate lists for project ideas and blog posts. Mostly so I can get these fresh ideas out of my head and create some space to concentrate on whatever I’m working on at the time. It’s usually just a few words or a sentence so that I can move on and get back to work.

But sometimes I can’t write them down, at least not straight away. Maybe I’m talking with someone, or maybe I’m in the shower or going for a run or something. Usually I will make some sort of mental note, to write that one down when I get back. Flash forward twenty minutes, an hour or maybe the end of the evening when I’m trying to fall asleep:

‘Oh! I have to write that idea down.’

My brain then immediately returns a 404 error, idea not found. What was that idea? I remember it being good and wanting to make note of it. Instinctively I first try to focus intently on what the idea itself was, but it was ‘spontaneous’, it seemed to come out of nowhere. So I end up getting pretty frustrated because I’m trying to force a ‘spontaneous’ thought back into my mind. But without any clues for chasing that sucker down as it floats around in my noggin.

It’s at this point I usually take a step back, and focus on where I was when I had the idea. That’s right, I was walking down Cannon Street in Gordonvale. The clouds had parted, the sun was warm and had a fair amount of bite to it. I was talking to my friend and worried I was going to get sunburnt. Sunburn is the worst. Ohhhh, that’s right. I wanted to write an article about ideas and how long they last.

I don’t really see ideas as any different from more mundane thoughts. They are still heavily contextual - where you were, what else you had on your mind, how you were feeling, what you had for breakfast. In many ways a spontaneous idea is the culmination of every experience you have had. But for whatever reason, right at that moment walking down Cannon Street worrying about sunburn, my subconscious yelled out: Oi! Write an article about ideas, where you think they come from and your technique for remembering them later in the day.