Helping Creative People Create

How to Grow Your Ideas With a Project Incubator

by glen

how to setup a project incubatorI can still remember my first experience with an incubator as a child. Our elementary school had an incubator where we artificially heated chicken eggs until they eventually hatched, in our very own classroom. Every day we’d all be sure to gather round the incubator and check the progress of the eggs. And when the day finally arrived when the baby chicks finally poked their beaks through, my classmates and I all felt a feeling of accomplishment. We’d been there from day one.

Imagine our joy when my brother and I had the privilege of taking two of the chicks home to raise on our own! (Never mind that later in the week we accidentally “sent them to heaven” playing basketball in our driveway… that’s for another post and a good session of therapy.)

The concept of a having an idea “incubator” is the same as the real ones used in 3rd grade classrooms. A place where you can toss your ideas, give ’em some heat for a few months and let them grow. Here’s how to set up a project incubator, with all the steps needed to make sure your ideas eventually hatch.


A project incubator is a really just a place to quickly store all of your ideas. I like to use a system with Google Docs where I create a folder specifically for ideas. Then, for every idea that pops into my noggin, I plunk it in that folder. Over time, I’ll sort the ideas into different folders and add to each file as an idea develops.

GTD‘ers may see this as merely the capture stage of the GTD process. Make sure you get a system where you’re able to capture every idea, at every time. You’ll be glad you did. We all know ideas never come at opportune times.

Pruning projects

While watching chicks hatch out of a shell in a classroom of 3rd graders is a pretty cool experience, there’s always a downside to watching nature unfold. There’s always a few eggs that don’t hatch. It’s a fact of life.

Pruning the project incubator is an especially important aspect of developing ideas. Ideas change over time, and some even turn out to be duds. But that’s OK because you won’t have time to develop all of your ideas anyway. Just be open and honest with yourself about them. Do you really think this will work? Will you really have time to work on it? You’ll quickly find that many of your ideas just won’t be feasible to pursue, which will in turn help you quickly focus on the best ideas to work on.

Review, review, review

Pick a time to review your ideas on a regular. If you need a reminder, use a calender like GCal or 30 Boxes to send you an email when it’s that time again. I like to review every week or so, but to each his own. The important thing is to regularly think about your ideas. This helps the idea grow and evolve into something that you can actually create.

Work on one idea every day

The best time to work an idea is right when you have it. Adrenaline is great for getting a project going. But it’s even better to pace yourself and work on one idea a little bit every day. This could be just researching, or beginning to plan the idea. Small steps ensure that you won’t get burned out on the idea, and you’ll be able to monitor your progress. Just like the chicks didn’t hatch overnight, your idea probably won’t be polished off for a while. (And will most likely take longer than you expect.) But take heart creative one, for with a steady pace, you’ll soon see the fruits of your labor.

Photo by Cowgirl Jules

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Hynes February 4, 2008 at 1:19 pm

This is exactly what I needed… I don’t know why the idea to have a project incubator section never occured to me. I’m always coming up with ideas which then fall by the wayside as I eventually forget them.


chicken Incubator ideas July 1, 2009 at 12:44 am

Same here, Incubating ideas like chicks is a good analogy.
It's kinda funny that I stubled upon this site because I Just finishing a book called “Getting Things Done” by David Allen who explains how to capture ideas and review them in much the same way.


Christian Decker February 4, 2008 at 4:33 pm

Thanks for this great tip, I’ll definitely give it a try. I agree completely: not all ideas turn out to be that great when revisiting them later.


glen February 5, 2008 at 11:48 am

@Christian: Yeah, I find myself tossing over 50-70% of my ideas, for reasons like “not feasible”, “not enough time” and most importantly… “wow. what was I thinking?!”



bill February 8, 2008 at 7:43 pm

This is a very timely post in that I just posted on the collection buckets that I am currently use:

Thanks for your post – I just collected it in my google notebook :-)


Alan Yoshioka February 8, 2008 at 8:49 pm

Great post … led me to a concept using a mind map to incubate … thanks for the idea …


John Null February 9, 2008 at 5:30 am

I use evernote for this, it is awesome.


GP February 9, 2008 at 8:43 am

I agree google notebook or google docs is a great place to park ideas. Even an @Ideas list within your current GTD contexts has worked well for me – at least then its all in one system (granted you need to flush it out somewhere else).


BP February 11, 2008 at 8:59 am

I would be interested to know if anyone has a structured method of recording your ideas within the Google Doc. (as Glen suggests) OR does the doc just serve as a brain dump to be formally organized at a later stage.


gef February 11, 2008 at 11:08 am

This project incubator concept is really interesting and I find that it is really important and that there is no software that fills that gap. This in between data collection that keep the information structured enough for later retrieval, but that is simple enough for anyone to work with…

What I am trying to find or create is a system that can be as simple to use as Free Mind, where you can map you idea and project, but with something easy to share and edit as a wiki. I am working with Tiki Wiki, but again there is a gap between the technological capabilities of the staff, and the usefulness of the wiki…

Anyway thanks for the article, it would be a very nice startup for the next killer web app ;)


Sean Murphy February 15, 2008 at 9:46 pm

I would think a wiki (say EditMe, PBWiki, CentralDesktop) would give you more flexibility to link between ideas and would be more easier to refactor. You could still have one idea on a page but it would be more straightforward to cross-link and re-factor. The basic suggestion is certainly excellent, at the moment I keep mine in a single large “ideas” file. This post has prompted me to reconsider.


Andy Murdoch February 19, 2008 at 9:10 am

Great post – I’ve been doing something similar for years now but your post has inspired me to be a bit less ad hoc.

I’ve been using GMail drafts to save my ideas (for projects, blog posts, etc). Then as part of my GTD reviews, I’ll file them, update them or discard them as I see fit. This worked well but I’ll be tying them to my GTD process more closely in future.


FoxyOrb February 19, 2008 at 9:11 am

I am against putting personal information on the web “somewhere”. Use a simple but powerfull application like Curio from zengobi to incubate and survey your projects. You will not regret it.


Sourav February 20, 2008 at 7:09 am

Amazing….such great words…..I think I have learned a lot today….




Ivan February 27, 2008 at 10:32 am

I just like to jot my ideas down on my GTD notebook. But this is just as good…depends on each person’s preference I guess.


online fx trading July 15, 2008 at 3:07 am

Read some post this months and your sure was one of the better ones that i have read !
keep it up


steentonylep August 2, 2008 at 4:06 pm

Very nice!!


sms September 15, 2008 at 12:22 am

I’ve been doing something similar for years now but your post has inspired me to be a bit less


sms September 15, 2008 at 12:24 am

Very useful article, keep it up.


Blackhead remover September 18, 2008 at 12:14 am

I find that an audio recording system for idea/note capture works wonders on GTD. I can replay them on the go and save to computer to backup. The audio is automatically transcribed and added to a database. I categorize and view the projects in an HTML page where I can organize and expand on them. I am looking for a program to transcribe better. Im currently using the built-in Microsoft window text to speech


High Blood Pressure symptoms September 18, 2008 at 12:15 am

What about a private word press blog? (You can set one up and make the privacy setting “I would like my blog to be visible only to users I choose” and just don’t put anyone in the list.) I just started one like this for my ideas.


Audible July 2, 2009 at 6:01 am

I also had an incubator at my class. I just saw an audiobook about such life experiments.


Audible July 2, 2009 at 10:01 am

I also had an incubator at my class. I just saw an audiobook about such life experiments.


Iffi March 5, 2010 at 5:45 pm

great article….appreciate


Canada Goose September 7, 2010 at 3:59 am

I have read a number of posts of yours, but this is the one that I like the most. So expecting some more ideas from your side. Thanks !


Ryan Bolin January 4, 2011 at 12:27 am

Thanks for this great tip, I’ll definitely give it a try.
My website:
I’ll use the Ideas.


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