5 Strategies For Creating An Idea File That Works

Even the most well-intentioned attempts at organizing inspiration can end up scattered and messy. Here’s how to get ideas down, usefully.

5 Strategies For Creating An Idea File That Works
[Image: Flickr user Paris on Ponce & Le Maison Rouge]

Like anyone working in a creative field, I need to come up with lots of ideas.


A few years ago, I decided to create an “Idea File.” I ripped out magazine and newspaper clippings and kept them in a folder. Then I misplaced the folder in a move. When I found it a year later, I assumed great ideas must be lurking within. Unfortunately, while the file yielded some good ideas for backyard landscaping, I found nothing usable from a professional perspective.

Where did I go wrong? It turns out a good idea file needs a little more cultivation:

Be (somewhat) relevant.

One problem: As an idea file newbie, I was clipping things I found visually cool, like garden arrangements. But I don’t design gardens, or anything visual. I write stories.

While you want to cast a wide net, and you want to add fodder frequently, know yourself and know what you’re looking for. Sarah Foelske, a designer who has used an idea file through 15 years in advertising and related fields, often designs logos, so she tells me she’s always clipping examples of cool typography. An article on people’s morning habits is less likely to make the cut. Other idea file devotees even start a specific one for each project. While random mash-ups are awesome when they work, your odds of success go way down.

Use technology.

Foelske began her career using binders for paper clippings, packages, brochures, printed pictures, and the like. She still has those, but most of her stuff is now digital, and in fact is on Pinterest.

Why? “I can access it from anywhere and it’s easy to dive into. I don’t have to carry a binder or hard drive around with me,” she says. For more text-oriented clipping, try Evernote, which lets you tag items for later searching. My garden photos could be labeled “pretty,” but I’d create a different category (with profiles, statistics, etc.) for stuff to write about.


Make it a habit.

Your brain has to learn how to use an idea file. My once-a-year glance wasn’t going to cut it. Foelske reviews her files at the start of every project. She also reviews them when she’s stuck. “There’s usually a time in projects when it’s like, okay, the original idea was great as an idea but as you put it into practice you find that things aren’t working,” she says. She builds at least an hour into her schedule at that point to see what she’s got. All together, this gets her into her files at least once a week.

Edit regularly.

Idea fodder needs to stay fresh. If you’ve looked at that same picture of a clock weekly for several months, you’ll stop enjoying trips to your file.

Foelske purges every six months to a year, which makes her idea file excursions “my favorite part of a project,” she says. “It’s like dessert.” Regular editing also makes sure your idea file matches your current needs, if you often transition from one kind of project to another.


One upside of Pinterest is being able to easily share fodder with others, but even physical binders can be shown to creative friends. Then they tell you “look at this cool thing I’ve found,” Foelske says.

“Collaboration keeps it fresh and inspiring.” Even if you can’t do anything with a picture, maybe someone else can, or she can suggest the missing component that pulls your perfect idea together.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at