Thursday, October 10, 2019

How I Get My (Blog) Ideas


I was speaking with a buddy about the Persistence blog post I've been working on.

He gave me some great input, and asked how I come up with topics. I told him about online resources, including the HubSpot Blog Topic Generator, as well as my own approach.

Today I'm sharing what works for me. These are anecdotal steps you should use as a starting point, then revise as you experiment and figure out what works for you:
  1. Create a Writing Schedule & Location
  2. Warm Up Your Brain
  3. Ask Yourself Relevant Questions
  4. Nurture Your Ideas in an Idea Box
That's it. Good luck! Ba-bye!

Just kidding!

Below are the details.

Create a Writing Schedule & Location

This is no different than what any author does. You need to have a regular schedule that's non-negotiable and dedicated to this activity.

I suggest setting this at your optimal time of day. If you're a morning person, then it's in the morning. If not, it's whatever time you have the clearest head and most energy. If you're not sure what that is, checkout this Wikipedia article on Circadian Rhythm and this Huffpost article on discovering your peak energy hours.

I use a 90-minute block, once a week. This gives me enough time to write, while reserving the other days for my business. The block consists of two 40-minute writing sessions with a 10-minute break in between to grab coffee, or just walk around. Physically walking around helps me get perspective or even new ideas. So, I intentionally write in a place that's far from my coffee and forces me to walk a distance.

Do I always take the 10-minute break? No. If I'm in a groove and ideas are flowing, when I'm writing so fast and well that my fingers are cramping, then I just go with it. If I'm not, then I take the break and give my brain a chance to digest, then find its groove.

I do a couple of other things to stay on task during my time. First, I have a designated room, away from people. It’s a quiet area, with a cleared up desk, a window view of the outdoor trees and regularly blooming flowers, and a door that I can close to reduce interruptions. This is the place where I do my best work and also where I take all of my meetings. It's not my regular stand-up desk since I also can't seem to write well if I'm standing.

Next, I use a timer. I do this for any block of time, including meetings. It's a great habit that helps me concentrate on the activity at hand, respect other people's time (if I'm in a meeting), and create urgency for myself.

During this time, I know I'm not doing anything else: no emails, texts, browsing (unless I'm researching), or phone calls. I'm there for one thing and one thing only.

Does this guarantee no interruptions? Of course not. Life happens and you deal with it. Nevertheless, the steps help me think of and treat my block of time as priority, not just something I would do if I felt like it.

Warm Up Your Brain

My brain needs warm up, just like the rest of my body before a rigorous exercise. To warm up, I re-read and edit a blog post I’m working on, if there is one, or read my Idea Box and refer to the list of blog topics there. You’ll read about the Idea Box shortly.

If I’m starting a new post, I sometimes have to read the Idea Box topics a few times or do some additional online research to help me focus on what I'm about to do.

I've also used this time to see the stats on my blog, mainly to figure out which articles are getting read the most, refer back to them and see if I need to make any edits.

I'm a late adopter of this idea, but I've come to realize that writing blogs is not a fire-and-forget activity. You need to constantly edit, revise and update even blogs you wrote years ago. Given I have some older posts that come up on searches from time to time, and how my writing has changed over the years, there's plenty of work I can do here.

Once I’ve gone through my Idea Box, picked something, I just start writing for the remainder of the allocated time. One thing I have to be careful of is going off too many tangents when I’m warming. The point of the allotted time is to write or somehow further the details of what I want to write, in the same way that a physical warm up is preparation to workout. The physical workout is the central part of the activity. In that same way, writing is the central part of my blocked time.

So, I can’t just research. I have to at least bring back what I’m learning in each block of time and make some notes or actually write an article. This is where the two 40-minute blocks really help. Once my alarm for the first block goes off, if I’ve not been writing, I know I need to refocus and start jotting down details and start writing the article in my second 40-minute block.

So, the timer is really key to keeping me focused on writing.

Ask Yourself Relevant Questions

So, how do I come up with ideas?

I ask a lot of questions about what's going on at home, business, politics, with my skills, people I know, and, generally, anything that sparks my curiosity. Here's a sampling of some generic questions you can start with:
  1. What have I been working on and have some expertise about (for professional / business blogs) that I can share as Best Practices, ideas to pursue, stories with my readers?
  2. What book am I reading that’s worth recommending and why?
  3. What have I observed (about work, family, politics, my hobbies)? Observations are unique and represent how someone views the world. It’s helpful to someone who may see the world the same way or differently.
  4. What articles have I read online that seem related to one another or provide some insight that’s not explicitly stated in each article?
  5. What ideas from disparate practices seem to merge together (based on reading, interviewing, observing)? This requires being curious about a lot of unrelated things and using various resources to learn about them.
  6. What articles have I written that should be reviewed, revised, taken down, updated?
  7. What general pattern do I see in what I’ve already written that I can talk about (with links back to the original articles)?
  8. What meaningful, passionate, interesting, curious conversations have I had with friends, coworkers and family that would make for a good (anecdotal) story? This is how I came up with this article.
  9. What do I do every day (with family, at work, in the garden, on vacation, on my commute) that’s effective in addressing something outside of that subject? For example, how can getting rid of weeds in the garden help in business, or what can I learn form pets that I can use in my meetings.
  10. What lessons have I applied that have produced results? What results did I get? How is the process the same or different from what others do? How can it be abstracted to be used by others?
  11. What am I learning that’s worth recommending and why? This could be based on the books or blogs read that seem worthy of recommending.
  12. What do I want to learn that I can research and tell people about? How can my research help others?
I suggest you come up with your own questions, and ensure they all start with or contain What, How, and Why. These are all open-ended questions that require longer explanations, and they can become the seeds for your blog post titles. Questions that start with When, Is, Does have short answers and don't necessarily trigger any ideas.

Nurture Your Ideas in an Idea Box

This has been one of the best things I've done. I don't remember where or when I read about it, but the general idea (no pun) is to track your ideas in a virtual or actual "Idea Box". It's like the Suggestion Box you see at stores.

Once you come up with all of your questions, put them on paper, real or virtual. Some people create a special folder or notepad for this. I like to use a few things, depending on where the ideas occur to me:
  • A Paper Notepad: Yeah. I know. I still use some paper notepads. I have them laying around on my desk and by my bed, for those ideas that I need to immediately jot down before I forget them
  • Google Keep: to quickly jot down ideas when I'm away from my computer but have my phone
  • Google Docs: to keep track of all the questions / ideas I've come up with, and details for each that I want to pursue, as well as any notes on physical books I read. This is my de facto central repository and my actual Idea Box.
  • Pocket: for tagging and saving a soft copy of all articles that may be of interest.
  • Kindle / Nook apps’ notebook feature: for highlighting and taking notes on eBooks
Bottomline is that I use tools for various scenarios that help me quickly access them and jot down the ideas. In my case, the ideas are often triggered by something I may have read or seen, then somehow my brain connected it with something else that’s happening right then and there. I need to quickly get it down before I forget.

I just make sure that I transfer all of the notes from the various devices to a central location. This is my actual Idea Box. In my case, that’s a specific document in Google Docs that I bookmark and go back to for mining ideas, adding details and, eventually, using to write a blog...or to ignore them because they don’t sound as interesting as I first thought.
I hope you find the tools and ideas helpful and that they serve as a jumping point for you to come up with your own.

Good luck and happy writing! Feel free to contact me via the form on this page with any ideas or list of tools of your own. I’m always eager to learn from others how I can do something better.