Shooglebox blog

There's one thing that marks out truly creative thinkers, and that's their boundless curiosity.

If you're looking for ways to boost your own or your team's creativity, the starting point is actually simple: Don't try to be more creative – be more curious.

Creative ideas spring from new combinations of existing elements – so the broader your knowledge and experiences the more likely you're going to have that Eureka moment.

But in these days of instant Google results, handy Wikipedia pages and algorithm-driven newsfeeds it's easy to confuse the desire and ability to find quick answers with true curiosity – that habitual inquisitiveness and drive to dig deeper into a topic than other people and disappear down rabbit-holes that yield unexpected discoveries.

There is such a thing as a creative process – and Shooglebox was designed primarily for people who use it; people who go down and up so many rabbit holes they need a better tool than the ones they've got to help them squirrel away and explore the things they find. 

So – if you're curious enough – here's how to get the best out of Shooglebox: 

Step 1. Create a box for the project you're working on

This is the repository for all the raw material you'll gather as you start to explore your project. Give it a name and cover photo – and maybe add a card or two with notes to remind yourself what you were thinking as you set off on the project.

Step 2. Create another box for all the random interesting things you come across day to day

Creative people are able to become fascinated by any topic under the sun, acquiring and hoarding all sorts of information. Writers used to keep commonplace books to store quotes, thoughts, facts and anything that might one day come in useful and be woven into their own work.

Step 3. Go out and find as much as you can

Dig deep into your subject, hunting for information, insights and the little details others skim past. Don't give up after 10 pages of Google search results. Go out into the real world. Chase down original sources and give yourself time to go off at tangents. Seek out opposing views about your subject. Create cards for everything you find, even things you're not sure will come in useful.

Step 4. Throw everything you find into the box unsorted

Resist the temptation to start sorting and structuring your material too early. You're still in the exploratory phase. You want to be surprised. Shooglebox lets you sort your cards into stacks within a box but don't do that at this stage. Really. The messier your box the better. It will yield far more surprises if you don't organise your cards into "folders". 

Step 5. Review and explore your cards on a big screen

You might be using the Shooglebox mobile app to quickly add things to your box – dictating notes converted to text, saving web links and social media posts, images, videos – but when you're ready to explore your cards it's best to find the biggest screen you can. This is when you can zoom in and out of a grid view of your cards – like sticking the contents of your box on a wall and standing back to take it all in. At this stage you're looking for connections or themes. Adding links between cards helps you come back to explore them later.

Step 6. Go out and find even more

Exploring your cards has helped you spot gaps in your knowledge and thrown up lots of new questions. Armed with these, you're off on the hunt again. Of course, most people will have given up by now and settled for an obvious answer or solution.

Step 7. Re-examine your box – give it a shoogle!

Look at all the information you've gathered for your project from as many angles as possible. It can help to give your box a little shake – or shoogle – to see if shuffling the order of your cards throws up something you missed before. Dipping back in to your commonplace box full of random stuff might also prompt a surprise thought. Really great ideas come when you make unexpected connections between something you're actively researching and something completely unrelated that's lodged itself in your brain in the past. As Steve Jobs said: "Creativity is just connecting things."

Step 8. Share your workings

You'll come up with your best ideas when you're not concentrating on the problem you're trying to solve. If you've put in all the groundwork above you're much more likely to have that Eureka moment when inspiration strikes. Once it does, you can use Shooglebox to create a more structured set of cards to share your output with others. You can share a read-only link to a stack of cards with non-Shooglebox users. Or you can share a box with other Shooglebox users and collaborate together to build on where you've got to. In these days of remote working under lockdown it can be hard to harness collective curiosity and come up with creative ideas. Shooglebox makes it easier.

When choreographer Twyla Tharp starts working on a new dance she gets out a big empty cardboard box and writes the project name on it.

The box will act as the repository for everything that goes into the making of the dance – notebooks, index cards, news clippings, CDs, videos of her working alone in her studio or dancers rehearsing, books, photographs and anything that has inspired her.

She describes how she uses her boxes in her book The Creative Habit, a really inspiring and practical guide for anyone interested in the creative process.

In Chapter 5 – Before you can think out of the box you have to start with a box – she says: "There are separate boxes for everything I've ever done. If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes.”

She describes the box as “the raw index of your preparation – the repository of your creative potential”.

It contains your inspirations without confining your creativity.

The actual act of creating happens out of the box – but the quality of the creative output is down to “how diligent and clever I’ve been in filling up my boxes”.

Getting started

A new box represents a commitment – “The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started work.

"The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don't know where I'm going yet.

The first thing into the box are some cards summarising the project goals – to remind her what she was thinking at the beginning “if and when I lose my way”.

Over time the box fills up with research material, background information, and little ideas and inspirational things as she comes across them.

Most important: “The box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn't write it down and put it in a safe place. I don't worry about that because I know where to find it. It's all in the box.”

She says the box can seem a haphazard tool when you’re filling it with half-baked inspirations – but “learn to respect your box’s strange and disorderly ways”.

Getting stuck

Sometimes you’ll find you get stuck in the research stage. You have lots of material, but just can't move on to the writing or creation phase. Her advice is to stop and get out of this box.

“Put it away for another day and start a new box. But do so with the faith that nothing is lost, that you haven't put in all this effort for naught. Everything you've done is in the box. You can always come back to it.”

Looking back

Don’t underestimate the value of your box when the project is finished.

“That's when you can look back and see the directions you didn't take, the ideas that intrigued you but didn't fit this time around … and might be the start of your next box.”

One of the ways you can use Shooglebox is for squirrelling away all the interesting words of wisdom, quotations and other things you come across in your life – something writers and thinkers used to call commonplacing.

They used a blank commonplace book to capture quotes, facts, sayings, passages from books they were reading and things they'd seen or heard, as well as their own thoughts and ideas.

Entries were grouped under multiple commonplace headings so it was easy to explore and retrieve material to use in their own writing or arguments.

Shakespeare would have been taught the commonplacing method at school and would have used it to gather and draw on a wealth of old stories, proverbs and sayings that fed in to the creation of his plays and sonnets.

The method emerged in the 16th century at a time when, just like today, people were complaining of "information overload" – at that time, brought on by the explosion in book publishing.

The commonplace book acted as an external memory – more reliable than your own.

But the concept of using existing words and wisdom as inspiration for new thoughts dates even further back – to the ancient Greeks and beyond. Writing in 1620, Francis Bacon said: “The ancients followed the same course as ourselves … they, too, when commencing their meditations, laid up instances and particulars and digested them under topics and titles in their commonplace books.”

Commonplacing was the technique that helped Shakespeare and his contemporaries become so inventive and prolific in their output of plays to meet the demand of the audiences flocking to the Elizabethan playhouses.

In an essay on commonplacing, Walter J. Ong said: “Shakespeare did not ‘create’ from nothing. He did not want to, nor did he even consider the possibility. (There is no such possibility.)

“He wanted to rework the old wisdom in an always fresh and meaningful way.

“Shakespeare is perhaps our most quotable author in English, or at least the most quoted. It is, or should be, a commonplace that the reason he is quotable is that his text consists so much of quotations – not grossly appropriated, but nuanced, woven into the texture of his work …”

Many writers in the following centuries continued to rely on commonplace books. Jonathan Swift said:

"A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, as 'great wits have short memories'. A book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory. There you enter not only your own original thoughts (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but of other men."

Commonplacing techniques were taught at universities and manuals were published with advice on the best ways to keep and index your commonplace book.

Readers would highlight words or passages of interest as they went through a book, scribbling notes in the margins, then go back and identify the most interesting and useful extracts to be copied out by hand into their commonplace book. They would regularly go back through the index of their notebooks, and the notes themselves, looking for themes or connections they'd not noticed before.

The commonplace book of the 16th and 17th centuries was not portable – you couldn't juggle a big book, pen and inkstand on the move.

So how did you capture the things you saw or heard when out and about?

The answer was small erasable notebooks known as writing tables. These pocket-sized books came with a metal stylus and had rigid pages that had been treated so you could write on them then rub them clean with a damp cloth. When you got home you'd copy out content from your portable tables into your bigger commonplace book before wiping the pages clean.

Shakespeare refers to commonplace books and writing tables in several of his plays – including Hamlet, where the prince gets out his erasable pocket book to capture his thoughts after encountering the ghost of his father.

Hamlet makes a note in his portable 'writing tables' – Richard Burton in the title role on Broadway in 1964

With the invention of the fountain pen, it became easier to take notes on the move – and today we can instantly capture everything we see, hear and read on our mobile phones.

But we can still learn from the way the great writers of the past used their commonplace books.

Their value wasn't just as a second external memory – a repository for all the information you amassed. They allowed you to switch between order and disorder – digesting the contents, analysing themes, making links and connections, and using your judgment and imagination to create something new from what you rediscovered there.

Ann M. Blair's book Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age is an excellent exploration of the subject.

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