Capture Your Ideas

Does this sound familiar? You’re slowly drifting off to sleep when you come up with a great line for the song or paper you’ve been working on all day. It’s such a great idea, in fact, that you just know you’ll remember it in the morning. Happy to have finally come up with the perfect line, you nod off, smiling and peaceful.

In the morning, of course, it’s gone. All that you remember is that there’s something you should remember.

Or you’re talking to a business associate on the phone, when you remember that tomorrow is your nephew’s/sister-in-law’s/best friend’s birthday and you need to stop and pick them up a card on your way home. Filing that thought away under “to do later” you finish your call, leave work, and drive home, all the time thinking “isn’t there something I was supposed to do today…?”

Ideas are cheap, memory is expensive

We humans are exceptionally good at thinking up stuff. Sit down for two minutes with a pad of paper and try to come up with all the things you can make out of an orange, and you’ll see – after the first couple easy ones, you’ll start thinking up all sorts of crazy stuff (somebody actually thought up the idea of sticking cloves in an orange and hanging it on a Christmas tree, after all).

But we’re not very good at remembering all those ideas. Psychologists say we can hold from 5 to 9 thoughts in our immediate memory at any given time, meaning that, on average, the last 7 things you’ve thought are all you get. Add #8 to the list, and something falls out.

Our long-term memory is much better, but the process of moving items from short-term to long-term memory is quite complex and isn’t really “on-demand” – as anyone who has struggled to master organic chemistry can attest.

So, we have lots and lots of ideas and only a limited memory to hold them in before we lose them.

Capture everything

The solution is to develop the habit of capturing everything important that crosses your mind, when it crosses your mind. Ideally, you would settle on a single point of capture, something that you can keep with you all the time and always rely on.

Many people prefer a high-quality pocket notebook for this, a Moleskine or one of the increasingly available (and cheaper) knock-offs. These notebooks have rigid covers, often vinyl- or even leather-covered, with a decent-quality paper (so ink doesn’t bleed through easily) and a pocket in the back (which I have never used, but it’s nice to know it’s there…). Most have an elastic band to hold them closed and a fabric bookmark bound in with the pages.

These features offer a number of benefits over the drug-store standard 69-cent spiral notebook:

  • They’re pretty rugged, which means they stand up well to back pocket carrying and purse clutter.
  • Pages don’t easily rip out.
  • Their rigidity makes them easy to write on in your hand or on your lap.
  • They look professional, making it more likely you’ll take it out and use it in working environments.
  • There are no wires to catch on anything.
  • The bookmark helps you easily find a new blank page to write on.
  • People seem to enjoy using them.

But you don’t have to spend $7-10 US on a notebook; plenty of people manage just fine with the already-mentioned wire-bound pocket notebook. Or you can use a stack of index cards, bound with a binder clip (the famous hipster pda). Or a pad of post-its, or a composition book, or a journal, or your dayplanner, or anything else as long as a) it’s easy and comfortable for you to use, and b) you’ll keep it with you everywhere.

There are digital solutions, too. If you’re very comfortable with your cell phone, you might Jott everything to yourself – leave a voicemail that will be transcribed and forwarded to your email inbox (or to Evernote if you’re using it). Or leave a message on your home answering machine. Or email notes to yourself, or SMS them. Again, the only criteria is that you’ll actually use whatever system you set up, regardless of circumstances.

OK, it’s captured. Now what?

Your capture device is a kind of inbox, so treat it as an inbox – that is, get in the habit of reviewing and processing everything on a regular basis (probably at the same time you process your desk-bound inbox). The ideas you capture do no more good locked away in your notebook than they do forgotten in the flow of a conversation or in the aftermath of a good night’s sleep.

Remember that the space you use for capture is not long-term reference storage. While you might jot down a couple of things you know you’ll need later in the day, you still need to have a trustworthy system for archiving and using the information you collect over the course of the day.

So process the phone numbers, addresses, names, and URLs you collect into your PIM (personal information manager, e.g. Outlook, Palm Desktop, Lotus Notes). Add the tasks you remembered or thought up over the course of the day to your todo list. Ideas for projects you’re working on can go into your project files.

The random ideas you have and want to hold onto present a special problem. I add these to my todo list, under the category “Think About” and keep them sorted to the bottom. (I use Toodledo; since my most common way of sorting my list is by date, I just don’t put dates on Think About items which keeps them safely out of my way in day-to-day use.) Every now and again – during a weekly review, for instance – I’ll check out the Think About items and see if there’s anything I’m ready to act on.

Trust the system

Get into the habit of always capturing and processing ideas as they occur to you. If you can’t trust yourself to do this, you’ll always worry that there’s something escaping your mind. If you’re not capturing and processing your thoughts, then there probably is something escaping your mind – lots of somethings, marching like lemmings over the cliff and into eternity! By getting used to using your system, you’ll find a lot of that stress is released, and you can focus on stressing out about more important stuff, like does Bob in marketing like you or like like you?

I’m curious about what other people use to capture their ideas – and how they handle the random “neat thought” problem. Let me and the rest of Lifehack’s readers know in the comments!

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