I Need a Brain File Cabinet

I so so want of these to put all my little treasures. Lost keys, weird European change (oh, I saved all the pre-Euro coins!), sewing supplies.*

Lately, my brain has felt like it’s on inspiration speed. So many ideas coming at me, all at once. When I was younger, I’d just ride the wave, worried that the muse wouldn’t strike twice. But since then, the tsumanis can be as much of a burden as the droughts. Every single idea being “a rare opportunity, the one that never knocks!” And I keep hearing that song in my head.

I’ve taken personality tests in the past just to get a grip on what tends to motivate me and how I organize (or don’t). On the popular MyersBriggs, I’m usually an INFP which explains my passion for ideals, intensity of feeling, love of learning new things, and a lot of my past jobs and education (and my not infrequent changing of jobs and education). It also, unfortunately, tells me I have trouble organizing, setting goals and sticking to them. I do like finishing things, the sense of satisfaction that comes with it, but if something very interesting and important and new comes up, it’s hard to concentrate.

The one thing I’m always wishing for more of is organization. I’m just not the personality type who comes up with brilliant organizational strategies although I love to death the kind who do. (Y’all are a gift, and you know who you are!) At this point in my life I’ve made peace with my creative impulsiveness, but I’m always searching for a better way to sort through all the ideas that come at me. For awhile I was trying to keep a visual logbook, sort of like this one.

I also get real pleasure out of following my mental rabbit trails until a few of them connect in some meaningful way. Lately I’ve taken to mind-mapping software.

I have two highly organized business-owner friends who’ve suggested I try it out. I downloaded MindNode because it has a Mac-friendly interface. (There are free ones, but they run on Java which I don’t like.) For example, I used it recently for a blog post idea. As I started writing, the post started turning into a tome (a frequent problem) and I needed to map out all the rabbit trails I was going on. Visually, my mind works more in circles than branches, but it’s been really helpful to use this so that I can 1. find the theme that ties all my ideas together, 2. happily follow the ideas to their extremes, 3. decide which branch is important–at this moment.

So for example, remember in my last post I was talking about re-doing my website? I had a theme all redesigned and almost ready to go and then some other ideas popped in my head. I tried them out and kept fiddling and fiddling. At no point during all this did I take notes on what I had done or why. Did I want a typographic-y theme that felt like an old book? and how old? Did I want a very clean look, kind of modernist and straightforward? I have a soft spot for designs with little clutter, with simple visual cues. Or did I want some feminine-y sort of retro vibe? I should’ve had my mind-mapping software when I started!

And as a sort of creative exercise this week, I did some serious spring cleaning of all my sewing stuff and my books and files in my home office. This was really good. I spent hours and hours going through papers and tossing. I fasted a bit from Pinterest and other distracting muses.

And I weeded, a lot. Weeding is good for the brain, too.

(See, Oona, I got dirty hands!)

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your ideas and how do you organize them, just the ideas?

*As a kid, I loved flipping through these for hours and was endlessly fascinated with the Dewey decimal system and book titles. I remember sitting in a farm country library circa 1998, researching for my grad degree. I was the only one in there with a laptop; it was just at the the beginning of the dot-com boom. There were two lone card catalogs left and I felt a little pang of sadness; I knew the weight of that type of organization, the beauty of its craftsmanship, would be gone in a matter of days, months. (I remember thinking, time to get one now on ebay before they are like $1000. Um, too late.) These things are a beast though, the smallest weighing at least 150 pounds.


  1. oonaballoona says:

    yo hands is TERRIBLE!!!

    i’m really interested in the path your mind takes. i’d love to read a post really mapping it out… i was clicking like mad on that screenshot, wishing it would embiggen…

    • Amy says:

      And just as I put it up, I thought ‘someone’s going to try to blow that up and see my brain!’ and then followed an even more neurotic, ‘what if someone has some kind of Jason Bourne spy machine that can reconstitute all the words and read them!’ I know, I should’ve never teased. 😉

  2. katherine says:

    This post really strikes a chord with me…I feel we are on the same planet, just not sure what the orbit is! I’ve never heard of mind-mapping software…have to look into it.

  3. Lavender says:

    This is really fascinating. I’ve never done the MyersBriggs, and I think it would be a good exercise for me. In some ways, I am so very organized, mainly in that I hate clutter (even though I have a little, then go nuts on it). I do feel overwhelmed by my ideas, trying to get every one that comes flooding at me, thinking it won’t return. I’m interested in this mind-mapping software, but then am hesitant on getting sucked into a distraction 🙂 My moleskines can be difficult to navigate over time, but I don’t want to lose the joy of writing on paper. Say what you will about Elizabeth Gilbert, but I really like her comments about the muse, and learning to control it (TED talk). Tom Waites, as well (I think a Radiolab episode). They are both really worth a listen.

    Card catalogs are very swoon-worthy. Especially if they come with that library smell intact.

    • Amy says:

      That Elizabeth Gilbert talk really struck a chord with me, too. She’s hilarious! I’ll have to find the Tom Waits one… I’d love to see how he deals with the muse.

      I have so very many half-finished notebooks and I always carry at least one with me (usually a moleskine type), whether it’s to job ideas, or the first line of a poem, or “Oh, hey don’t forget to get lightbulbs!” sort of thing. After a week I go through the randomness and make sure I didn’t forget important things. Some of them I can’t even read (handwriting is terrible when I’m really thinking…).

  4. I’m a terrible organizer. I seem to only be able to focus on keeping one section of my apartment organized at a time, meanwhile the other parts seem to explode into crazy messes. I like to think of it as my creativity blooming, but really, all the clutter gets in the way of actually getting work done sometimes. I love this idea of mind mapping software. I can see so many uses for it. Right now, I keep my ideas organized in a couple of ways. I keep lists on my computer of ideas I want to explore. I also have a big muslin-covered pin board in front of my desk covered with scribbled ideas and pictures (kind of like a mind map in a way). But I like this digital idea of mapping my thoughts, partially because it is so visual and also because I’d always know where to find it (I lose notepads too easily!). Also, I saved all my pre-Euro coins, too, with the vague idea of tiling a bathroom with them at some point. For now, they just reside in the clutter:)

    • Amy says:

      Yes! I just made a muslin-covered pin board, too, to put up stuff in my office. I really need visuals, both on my computer and in my face. I like your thought about creativity blooming… My husband thrives on the bloomingness. (His office is wall to wall, floor to floor pictures, old cameras, notebooks, crazy STUFF.)

      The mind-mapping has been total fun. I don’t have to edit, just scribble and keep adding branches. I might even try it to sort through my budget. (Me and Excel don’t get along visually.)

  5. Sallie says:

    I’m not terribly organized either – I always set out with good intentions – I ALWAYS buy a planner – every year – and usually it’s dutifully filled out for about two months and then it just peters out! Same goes with filing systems, shoe organizers, sewing drawers…

    I do like to make lists though, and that seems to be somewhat effective at keeping the crazy at bay…

    I think the hard thing to accept when you’re in that muse mode and you’re constantly being flooded with ideas is that not all those ideas are good ideas. I think rather than learning how to organize, I’ve tried to learn how to edit. Also, if an idea is really a good one it won’t go away. It’ll linger around and if it lingers long enough try and prioritize it.

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who is danger of writing a tome for each of my blog posts!

  6. Amy says:

    You are so right about not all ideas being good ideas. When I feel so inspired left and right, I know that some of the ideas are just branching off of something else that’s more important. At that point I just have to put the project down (sewing, writing, design, whatever) and come back to it later when I feel clearer.

    I do the same exact thing with planners!

    Hehe, no you’re not alone–almost all of my posts start to become the blog tome. I write email tomes, too. It’s so hard to be someone who thinks in novel form in the ages of tweets! But as soon as I get hard on myself about this, I realize I actually like reading other blogs with long posts. I don’t get restless.

  7. Amy says:

    INFJ here.

    My boss snagged two of those old library card holders simply because no one else was willing to haul them away. We use them to store all kinds of little secret things.

    I’m also in the mood for a spring cleaning. I’ve been trying out a twenty-minutes-a-day thing. I set an egg timer (in the shape of a cat, of course) for twenty minutes after dinner and get to some crazy task that I would normally put off because it feels like it should take forever. When twenty minutes are up, I simply clean up whatever it is and call it a day. It’s been a surprisingly wonderful way to stay on top of things.

    • Amy says:

      Amy, that’s a great idea! I really like that… setting a timer to do those mundane tasks. We really need little techniques like that because we’ve been managing house renovations for about 6 months and have lots of stuff still in boxes. We tend to get to it in big chunks but a little bit at a time would feel satisfying! (I need a little more of that “J”!)

  8. Emily Pearce says:

    What a great post.I feel like I live on this planet, too. Organization is a real struggle, and I’m constantly torn from one project to the next (writing, sewing, cooking) and dreaming of others. There’s got to be a better way to harness that, I think, though I wouldn’t really want to BE different than I am. I can’t wait to check out this mind-mapping software. I’d never heard of it and it sounds like it could be useful. So sad that I didn’t snag my librarian-mother’s card catalog when she got rid of it. I spent so many afternoons with it——the organization was easy to keep there, but the structure didn’t rub off on me.

  9. maddie says:

    I feel overwhelmed with ideas all the time, especially because of the internet. Blogs, Facebook, and the internet give us the urge to create all the time and are always giving us new ideas. Sometimes, we need to disconnect and just stay with our idea and be happy and exciting about.

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