The Valuable Dev

Programming Side Project Ideas: How To Generate Them

oh! great internet! give us good project programming ideas

You’re sitting at your desk, searching for hours on the Holy Internet for something you need. You want to create a superb product and be rich, or you just want to improve some technical skills you lack for your dream job.

You want to build a great programming project.

But you miss something. This is something so simple but so difficult sometimes to grasp. Something everybody speaks about but only a group of initiate really knows what its true meaning. Something almost magical.

You miss an idea.

At the end, after reading bland ideas after bland ideas on The Great Internet, you finally give up: you’re not a creative person. You don’t have great ideas. The world is a torture. There will be always war and death. Everything is lost.

Let me help you, dear reader.

First of all, repeat after me: we have, all of us, creative possibilities. We have the same brain and this brain can create ideas. Forget about this nonsense of “I’m born like that” or “I’m not good in this”. You just create limits to your own possibilities. You put yourself in a jail without doing anything wrong.

Lurking on Internet searching new ideas might not be the best solution to build your own personal ideas.

I know how we are, us, developers. We are creative people. We like to build stuff. Sometimes though, we have no idea what exactly, or a vague idea which doesn’t go anywhere.

So many questions! So many doubts! There’s a good new though: building a software means automating something. You can automate a lot of things in many different domains. That’s precisely why I think you should generate a lot of different ideas from and for a lot of different things.

The possibilities are infinite!

Follow me, dear reader. To be able to find great programming project ideas, we need first to go back to the basis. Sounds boring? It won’t be long. Then we will dive into concrete ways to build a system to let your ideas blossom and mature.

What’s an idea?

Even if it looks like a silly question, consider it. Can you define clearly what’s an idea?

Let’s look at the definition in a thing from the old ages we call “dictionary”. From the Oxford one :

“A thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action”

Now that’s interesting. We could think that an idea is a pure construct of our mind. It’s only a mere thought, right? However, the definition suggest that it’s a special thought which takes “a possible course of action”.

We have tendency to forget that an idea needs to be something we’re able to do. It’s a thought which is actionable. In fact, can we say that an idea has any value without any action? Is it what separate idea and thought?

Let’s keep that in mind and add a level of complexity: most of us don’t only want ideas, we want good one. What is that? Is it a big idea? A crazy one? The one with the biggest possible action?

A successful idea?

I think we’ll all agree that a good idea is an idea which fulfill our goals.

Of course, you will always have a feeling if this or that idea will indeed give you what you want. Don’t follow these feelings blindly.

Sometimes, ideas appear to us so good that we think it will automatically be appealing to everybody. Sometimes we think that an idea is the best, even if it doesn’t help us to achieve what we want.

On the contrary, sometimes we convince ourselves that an idea is bad because we’re afraid of failures.

All of that is perfectly normal. We are all human, we all have illusions and doubts.

If you want to know if your idea is a good one, you need to be a bit more pragmatic and test it, challenge it as early as you can, to know if it brings you closer to your goals.

In a programming or side project context, it could be a simple landing page asking if somebody else is interested by your idea. If your goal is to build an app which makes you rich and famous, other people need to buy what you want to sell. It could be an MVP or even a simple prototype.

Now that we all agree of what an idea and a good one is, let’s continue our journey.

Create space in your life

Let’s look at this simple but difficult question: how ideas pop up in your head?

You first need to let space in your mind to allow them to come to you.

What do I mean by space?

create space in your life for good programming project ideas

Since ideas are simple thoughts at first, something which “pop up” in your conscious mind, something you formulate with your language in your head, you need to allow your mind to speak to you.

Let say you always listen to music, sing along, switch on the radio or the TV to have some background noises. Maybe you’re never alone and you always meet and speak to a lot of people.

All these external stimulus will monopolize your mind.
You won’t have space for ideas to “pop up”.

Obviously, these strong stimulus can inspire you, but they can as well block any new idea if they never stop.

A good example: your phone. Applications are made for you to stick to them, for you to spend your time scrolling them indefinitely. You could think: “yeah but it’s so inspiring”. However, it’s mainly the same content you will find on application like Instagram, Twitter and whatnot. Is it great content? Is it content which generate great ideas? Keep in mind: insipid content creates bland ideas.

I would argue that you need external stimulus which are really interesting for you, to get inspired and therefore having good ideas. You need as well to be alone with your thoughts to create space in your mind for your ideas to express themselves.

You need, like a lot of things, to create a balance between inspiration and space.

Inspiration and idea diversity

Being inspired means having feelings or new thoughts when an external stimulus comes to you. These feelings will generate ideas of any sort. More diverse your inspiration will be and more receptive to them you will be, more ideas will come to you.

Inspiration can come from many things:

  • Speaking and, most important, listening to people
  • Going to the museum or a botanical garden
  • Looking around you and actively observing
  • Reading books, articles…
  • Going for a movie
  • Listening to music
  • Meeting and speaking with people
  • Dancing in your underpants
  • Imitating the scream of a rabbit when he’s in love

People have a tendency to think that to get inspired, they need to read or watch something which is directly related to the kind of idea they want.

Let say you want to create a software to improve some lacking development skills but you have no idea what exactly. You might search on Internet what are the good software ideas out there. You might go to forums, speaking about software or searching on Facebook for software related groups.

This is a mistake: even if you can get inspiration from these places for sure, your ideas will feel fresher and newer if you try to get inspiration from a lot of different interests you have. You’re merely interested by turtles? Just ask people who are passionate by them what software they would like to use. Maybe to classify the twenty turtles they have at home.

This is really important for the actionable step of an idea: you will never achieve anything if your idea doesn’t interest you.

Remember what inspiration is? You need to be receptive to the things which surround you. To be receptive, you need to be a minimum interested by them.

Idea diversity can be as well created when you go out of your routine: if you spend all your day on your computer, try to do something else. Routine and processes are great to get things done (since you’re so used to do them that way) but it doesn’t challenge your thoughts and generate new ideas.

It can be diversifying your activity or simply working in another environment. Every change, even a small one, can be a real idea generator.

A good idea can be something pretty unique. It’s hard nowadays to find ideas nobody really had. Diversifying your inspirational sources is a good beginning to have these rare and precious good ideas.

Dopamine and ideas

It has been proved that dopamine release helps to create ideas. Now, I get your attention. Science power!

How can you release this dopamine?

  • Sport is the way. It doesn’t have to be 8 hours straight of crazy intensity sport which destroy your body for half a month. Stretching, running or even walking can work. Ten minutes of sport each day can bring a lot.
  • Taking a warm shower. You know, the cliché about ideas in the shower. The explanation is finally revealed: dopamine.
  • Getting enough sleep. You won’t have any good idea if your brain try to stay alive from all the toxins you didn’t eliminate by sleeping. Guaranteed.
  • Should I precise that drinking alcohol or taking drugs is not really advised to have good ideas? You can have a lot of bad ones, though. You know, the ones you regret later.

You might want to create space in these moments. For example, when I’m running or doing sport with music without lyrics, I find myself having more thoughts. You need to experiment of course, to see if it works for you as well.

Even without speaking about dopamine and all these scientific stuff (to a degree), more awake and energized you will be, more ideas will come to you.

Here’s a cool latin sentence from Juvenal:

Mens sana in corpore sano.

If it’s in latin, it’s true.

The Birth of your Own Idea System

You can have ideas everywhere, and especially when you don’t seek them. As The Oatmeal is saying in his really cool comic :

Inspiration is more like food poisoning: it sprays out uncontrollably when you need it the least.

Each time you have an idea or an interesting thought, you need to be able to write it in your idea system. Yes, you need a system to write out your ideas.

David Allen, the author of Get Things Done (I would recommend) wrote:

Your mind is a great place to have ideas, but a terrible place to manage them.

By writing your ideas somewhere, grouping them, connecting them, your idea flow will increase drastically.

First, your brain won’t have to keep up with this mental load of every single idea you have. Second, each time you will write an idea down, more thoughts and ideas will come back to you. Even better: review your idea system after a couple of days and bam! Ideas.

You will create the Virtuous Circle of Idea, you lucky reader.

I would advise you to write every ideas, even the one you consider bad. A bunch of bad ideas can create a good one with some time. Don’t be too judgemental. Little, silly or apparently stupid ideas can be the foundation of your next project.

You need to categorize and organize them on a regular basis in your idea system.

Don’t hesitate to cut out some ideas as well. Bad ideas can generate good ideas, that’s true, but bad ideas you still find bad after three months need to be relentlessly hunted and eliminated from the surface of Earth.

Don’t be sentimental and press this delete button. Ideas you generate are yours, that’s true, but they are not you. You don’t delete a part of yourself.

This is the principle of brainstorming: writing every thoughts you have, even bad ones, to refine and refine them till you find the real good ideas: the ones you like and which will bring value to your new shiny programming project.

In short, with this kind of system, my life is a massive brainstorming where I write ideas on a regular basis. It’s a never ending process I definitely enjoy a lot.

A Real Life Example of an Idea System

You want to know how my idea system looks like? No? How dare you?

It’s pretty simple, really. First, I need to have constantly access to my “idea bag”. It’s where I throw ideas when I have them.

Directly when I have them. Don’t wait to write them somewhere! Your ideas are like little birds, they can disappear from your conscious mind as fast as they appeared. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: if you’re driving a car, hunting crocodiles or purchased by some Yakuza.

Since I own an Android phone which follows me wherever I go (without any social media on it, you should try it’s liberating), I use Google Keep to write any idea I have. Good or bad.

Why Google Keep?

  • It’s simple to use
  • I can access it on any computer, on my tablet or on my phone.

Every week, the Saturday morning to be precise, I empty my idea bag and I put them in my mind map for ideas.

When I do so, it’s a good occasion for me to quickly delete ideas or reorganize them. Often, I stumble upon ideas I totally forgot which inspire me again. I find new link between ideas. I discard the ideas which don’t make sense anymore.

As the famous visionary philanthropist marketing guru, Steve Job, said:

Creativity is just connecting things.

Here’s what my Mindmap looks like:

My mind map for programming project ideas Mind maps give me goosebumps

I do mind maps with the free software freemind and I sync them with my personal Nextcloud instance, on my server. I can then access them on any computer.

Unfortunately, you can’t read them well on tablets or phones, and you can’t modify them on these devices. If you’re interested in mind maps and want to read them everywhere, there are plenty of software for that.

This Idea Mind Map is only for general ideas or general programming project ideas, that is projects which are not really well defined yet. The good ideas take shape there: it’s most of the time the result of an accumulation and links of more than one idea.

When the programming project is well defined enough, I create a Trello board . After that, if I have any idea related to this new programming project, I write it directly into this board.

There is a last important component in my system, complementary with Google Keep: post-it. I have block of post-it in strategic places in my flat, in case I have an idea and I don’t have my phone with me. I write it and put it on my desk.

Since I don’t like to have post-it on my desk, I write it in my Idea Mind Map as soon as I can. A good way to push myself to keep my ideas in one place.

This whole system is simple and effective, and it has been very useful for me to get more and more ideas. Take this blog for example: before I had my Miraculous Idea System©, I could barely find ideas to write about. Each time I was going on my computer, I was waiting to be illuminated by the Angel of Ideas, The God of Creation, The Muse of Inspiration.

It didn’t work.

Now I have so many ideas for blog posts, I can write for years. I could say the same for programming projects.

The most important is: these are my ideas. Of course, it’s the result of a lot of stuff I saw and experienced, and I’m sure none of them are original. Still, they are the result of a personal process. Therefore, I’m way more motivated to take action on them.

Don’t forget: being interested is essential if you want to have the motivation to begin, go through and push live the programming projects of your dream!

Ideas and the others

get inspired by the others for greap project ideas

Parking your ideas in your little idea universe (whatever it is, a mind map, a simple notebook or a set of napkins) is very good to let them blossom, but there is another effective way to generate more ideas: speaking about them.

Writing your ideas make them real, they are not pure thoughts anymore. Speaking with people about your ideas will make them even more concrete. People can react on it, adding thoughts to your idea, transform them.

You don’t have to speak physically to people, even if I think it’s even more effective. You can use any platform where you can have constructive discussions on Internet. This can bring a lot of new elements to your ideas and people can help you link (or unlink) them for you to accomplish your goals.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid of negative feedback. You need all of that, or you will stick with ideas you’re the only one to judge them as “good”. If your goal is to bring people to your programming project, or, even better, if you want to create a revenue stream with your project, you need to know your audience and validate your ideas. Way before beginning your side project itself.

This kind of project always involve people, all the time.

Creating a revenue stream from side projects is a complex question which goes beyond the scope of this article. “Comment below” if somebody wants me to gabble about it in an article, one day.

Get inspired and grasp these killer ideas!

A lot of things in our world can benefit from a new piece of software.

That’s why you should not limit your ideas to some precise field or interest. We can build software for anybody who needs automation.

Let’s do a little debriefing: what did we learn together in this article?

  • Ideas are thoughts which are actionable. Ideas without actions won’t bring you much.
  • A good idea is an idea which brings you closer to your goal. Yep, you need to define what you want in life.
  • Be inspired by the things which really interest you, but plan some quiet moments for your brain to relax and let free your ideas in your conscious mind.
  • Create your own idea system where all your ideas will coexists in peace. Catch them quickly!
  • If some ideas feel useless after some time, delete them. Reorganise the others. Make sure you’re not overwhelmed each time you open your idea system.
  • Have fun!

And a lot of other stuff you might have missed. That’s fine, don’t worry, I’m not angry.

What I would like you to do is get this article as a basis and experiment for yourself. We are all different, you need to adapt and see what’s work for you.

Now, dear reader, go to the world and get inspiration from everything you like and everything you didn’t know you liked till you did it. The goal is to create more ideas and build more things for more happiness!

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