© Sylvia Henderson. All rights reserved.
“I have so many ideas churning in my head. How do I begin to sort them out and pick the ‘right one’ on which to focus my resources?” If you routinely generate multiple ideas, do you find yourself asking a similar question? I know I do. Sometimes my mind is so full of ideas that I have trouble seeing the forest (big picture) because of the trees (small details). This is where critical thinking and decision-making skills come into practice. These skills help you sort through large quantities of information to identify key points. Such skills are critical for you to be successful at giving reports, writing, and communicating whether in school, professionally, or otherwise; in print, electronically, or verbally.
A key practice for you to develop and enhance in order to effectively make decisions is to ask questions. Questions—and the resulting answers—help you to put information into categories and to make sense of data. Questions help you clarify concepts, eliminate redundancy, and get your creative mind unstuck. Questions bring new ideas and add perspective to existing ones. Questions help you to make informed decisions based on the answers you receive.
Let’s start with the question I present at the beginning of this article—how to sort ideas to pick the one on which to focus. First of all, make sure you write everything in your head down on paper. Yes, on paper. I know—you are electronically savvy and prefer to put notes into your portable device. Indulge me here because writing notes on physical cards, or Post-It™-type sheets, or in a notebook with removable pages provides a visual guide and tactile tool to refer to and use in the sorting process.
Write everything down that is working itself around in your head. No detail is too small. Put a single point on a card or note paper. Keep small note pads at your night table, in your bathroom, in your briefcase, and in your purse. Gather your note sheets and put them into an envelope so that you don’t lose them. Make a regular appointment with yourself, daily or weekly. At your scheduled time, spread all your note sheets onto a table or find floor space devoid of cats and dogs and children. Physically step back and review all of your notes. What do you see?
As you look over your notes, pick one and ask, “Is there anything else I can think of that relates to this point?” For example, if a note card reads, “Research the procedure for reserving a conference room”, ask yourself this question. It may prompt you to think of additional items such as “Check on security restrictions”, “microphone connection?”, and “available wi-fi”. Look at your spread-out notes to see if you already have these points written down. Write these additional thoughts onto note cards if you do not.
Group together the note cards with related thoughts. This is the beginning of organizing your thoughts. Look over your spread to find other related notes and group more of them together. You will start to develop several distinct clusters (or piles) of notes. Keep at it until you gather all your scattered note cards into clusters. Don’t worry about naming or giving formal substance to your clusters. Just group related notes together. Examine each of your clusters and ask, “Is there anything else to add to this cluster?” Add those notes accordingly.
Next, paper-clip (or otherwise keep together) your clusters and start moving them around. For example, physically take the cluster to your far left and move it to the center of your spread. Take the cluster to your far right and move it to the top of your spread. Keep re-arranging your clusters. This may seem like a foolish and superfluous exercise, yet there is a constructive reason for doing this. You create a different visual perspective when you rearrange your clusters. You view your notes differently with this altered perspective. In so doing, you see different patterns that yield additional thoughts or bind relationships you did not see before.
This is a good point at which to call on another set of eyes—someone else whose perspective you respect—to look over your spread. Ask that person (or ask yourself if you cannot readily find such help):
Re-arrange, combine, and make additional notes from your responses.
Together (yes, it helps to take this next step with one or more people with whom to discuss the questions and responses), take a cluster of notes and ask for each cluster:
As a group you are more likely to ask each other additional questions that help you clarify and identify the idea on which to focus your energy and resources. You may end up with questions for which you do not yet have answers. These become additional points for you to clarify.
By the time you finish this question—answer—write notes—re-arrange—categorize process, one or two ideas or topics will rise to the surface as the ones on which you will now focus. The rest you can file “for later”, which you can do without worrying about forgetting details because you have your clusters of notes. Be cautious about eliminating any of your ideas. Save your notes (either by transcribing them into electronic records or literally filing them in envelopes in a drawer or cabinet). Some “million dollar ideas” and truly passionate endeavors germinate for years in people’s file cabinets or on their computers before they are figuratively (and sometimes, literally) dusted off, re-examined (with questions), and finally implemented.
Apply questioning techniques to your thoughts and ideas. They are components of critical thinking skills that help you make more effective decisions—in school, professionally, and in life.
 This is exactly how Hey, That’s My Idea! developed. I had disparate notes and an initial outline for this book on my computer for eight years before I moved forward to write and publish it. I created the title, altered a clip-art graphic, designed a crude cover, reserved a domain name, registered the title and secured an ISBN number with the Books-In-Print library service, and developed a workshop around the topic. I even listed the workshop in a local college catalog. The workshop received zero registrations, I got discouraged, and I put the idea of the book into my “one day” mental file folder. Finally “one day” came eight years later and the rest is literary herstory. (Sylvia Henderson, author)