Better Answers & How I Learned to Defrag My Brain

Warning: this post ends with a homework assignment.

Steven Johnson is one of my favorite authors. I wish I could remember who introduced me to him so I could thank them. The first book of his I read was The Invention of Air, and his most recent Where Good Ideas Come From.

 Where Good Ideas Come From in 4 minutes

Recently, Steven started a series called “The Writers Room”. Truth be told, his last post is nearly a month old but has moved me so hard for the last month that I wanted to share.

 Enter the Spark File

The Spark File, Steven describes, is a process/tool that he uses to collect “half-baked ideas” and then revisit them. For 8 years, he’s maintained a single document with notes & ideas with zero organization or taxonomy, simply a chronology of thoughts. He calls this document his Spark File.

Once a month, he revisits the ENTIRE Spark File from top to bottom, revisiting old ideas and potentially combing them with newer ideas.

I’ve adopted this process for the last 30 days and it’s had a remarkable effect. The most astounding part is how often I find myself writing the same thing in different ways. I’ve taken that pattern as a clue to explore a concept further, and see if it merits more investigation.

 Your Crippling Compulsion, and the Solution

I was sharing this process with one of my co-conspirators, Tony Bacigalupo, while working with him last week and he said “this process is amazing, it sounds like a defragmentation for your brain”.

And it is.

This is particularly important because, as Tony pointed out, we don’t have ideas all at once and we certainly don’t have them in any particular order. Perhaps more importantly, we tend to either have a compulsion to act on our ideas immediately, or not at all.

This compulsion is blocking your greatest work

By using a Spark File, I’m able to “act” on an idea simply by writing it down at the bottom of the document. Compulsion fulfilled. But unlike the process without Spark File assistance, the idea’s destiny isn’t written yet. It has the potential to become something greater than an idea, and I’d argue something greater than most 99.9% of all execution.

Any of your half-baked ideas can contribute to the development of better answers.

 Where Better Answers Come From

Once a month (or any time I wish), I revisit my Spark File notes and look for patterns and clues. I can find inspiration and most importantly, I can find answers, sometimes answers to questions I didn’t even know how to ask while I was jotting down my half-baked ideas.

I’ve found that the inspiration & answers I’m gleaning from my Spark File are tending to be more complete, overall deeper and more thorough than if I sit down to work on a single idea “in the moment” that I’m having that idea.

 Reaping the Benefits

This has been especially useful while developing material for my new now in session course on Mastering Community Building. Download this free warm-up lesson now to find out more about it.

You can defrag your brain too.


Your homework, should you choose to accept it:

Note: I’m using ByWord on my iPhone and iPad because it supports Markdown & syncs with Dropbox (referral link included), so I can easily edit and review from anywhere. Steven likes Google Docs, which is great so long as you’re connected to internet. ByWord lets me do Spark File work offline.


What a day. Solid discussion over on HackerNews.

Update 2:

Steven Johnson tweets link to post with a vote of confidence.

Achievement unlocked.

Update 3:

Tim O'Reilly retweets Johnson with the comment, “Excellent!”.

Combo points.

Update 4:

Hello LifeHacker.


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