This morning I released “an inch-long universal text encoder”. You may wish to play with it for a minute or two before reading this post any further.

Yes, I present the encoder as a joke, even though it does exactly what it says it does. That webpage contains no falsehoods; it merely leans on some rather impractical assumptions. As its notes say, the idea comes from something I read somewhere as a kid. Earlier this year the notion reasserted itself as an unbidden shower-time idea, along with the realization that I could turn the original thought experiment, which predates the personal computer, into a real (if silly) web-based tool without a terrible amount of effort.

The idea probably struck me while in the middle of some other work I couldn’t put off (as a self-employed non-commuter, I tend to take my showers midday), so I noted it in the sprawling page titled “project ideas” in the one, do-everything VoodooPad document that’s acted as my general-purpose digital notebook since 2004, and then returned to more practical affairs. There the idea sat for months until late yesterday morning, catching a Saturday breather amid a weeks-long stretch of unusually intense consulting work. I felt grouchy and restless, and I suspected that a lack of any personal, creative projects (outside of these blog entries) contributed to this. With my current crush of client work, though, I couldn’t afford to sink my attention into anything very large. Thus did I open that VoodooPad page back up, wondering if it held anything fun I could knock out in one day’s time. It did! And boy do I feel a lot happier now.

(Full credit here to Matt Morse, who generously spent a couple of Saturday-night hours helping me think this thing through — even though it delayed his preparation for a talk on representation theory, which, he tells me, made for a funny topical coincidence.)

I strongly encourage the use of a single, simple project-idea repository for anyone like myself who likes working on little projects like this, and possesses a brain that bubbles up half-baked notions for new ones while engaged in a mindlessly relaxing activity like showering or walking. My VoodooPad-based solution works for me, along with using my iPhone’s built-in (and Siri-compatible) Notes and Voice Memos apps to capture ideas that visit while away from my Mac. (I paste or transcribe them into my VoodooPad document once back in my office.) I have friends who swear by Evernote, which I have tried but ultimately found a bit too heavy. Merlin Mann has famously advocated using manually organized plain textfiles, which I see as similar to my own use of VoodooPad; I just choose to let the application worry about how the text gets filed, instead of inventing my own system.

The core idea here has less to do with organizing your project ideas than with capturing them at all before they float off. They will float away if you naively try to “just remember” them. Human brains, I suspect, lack optimization for long-term storage of stuff that lacks immediately obvious practical benefit. I find it very important to record creative mental blips like these in some permanent, retrievable, external-to-skull-based medium before one’s involuntary mental garbage collectors next sweep through. This concept represents my most important takeaway from the Getting Things Done school of thought, and I find that it works well both for my day-to-day work (for which I rely on other tools, such as OmniFocus) and for rainy-day ideas like this.

By allowing this simple system to free me from the burden of having to remember my past ideas — I honestly had no expectations of what I’d find in my “project ideas” page, when I opened it up yesterday — I actually have a chance of making one into reality every now and again.

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