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Back to Basics: Capture Your Ideas

Back to Basics: Capture Your Ideas

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…?”

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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!

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on March 13, 2019

    How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

    How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

    Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

    You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. I personally see a rut as a productivity vacuum. It might very well be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. While I’m normally productive, I get into occasional ruts (especially when I’ve been working back-to-back without rest). During those times, I can spend an entire day in front of the computer and get nothing done. It can be quite frustrating.

    Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, a student or other work, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

    1. Work on the small tasks.

    When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks which have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

    Whenever I finish doing that, I generate a positive momentum which I bring forward to my work.

    2. Take a break from your work desk.

    Get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, go out and get a snack.

    Your mind is too bogged down and needs some airing. Sometimes I get new ideas right after I walk away from my computer.

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    3. Upgrade yourself

    Take the down time to upgrade yourself. Go to a seminar. Read up on new materials (#7). Pick up a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

    The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college. How’s that for inspiration?

    4. Talk to a friend.

    Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while.

    Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

    5. Forget about trying to be perfect.

    If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies.

    Just start small. Do what you can, at your own pace. Let yourself make mistakes.

    Soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come. And then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

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    6. Paint a vision to work towards.

    If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

    Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the end vision in mind?

    Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action.

    7. Read a book (or blog).

    The things we read are like food to our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great materials.

    Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. Stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs, such as Lifehack.org, DumbLittleMan, Seth Godin’s Blog, Tim Ferris’ Blog, Zen Habits or The Personal Excellence Blog.

    Check out the best selling books; those are generally packed with great wisdom.

    8. Have a quick nap.

    If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep.

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    9. Remember why you are doing this.

    Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

    What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall why you are doing this. Then reconnect with your muse.

    10. Find some competition.

    Nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

    Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, networking conventions.. you get the drill.

    11. Go exercise.

    Since you are not making headway at work, might as well spend the time shaping yourself up.

    Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, whichever exercise you prefer.

    As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

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    Here’re 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It).

    12. Take a good break.

    Ruts are usually signs that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

    Beyond the quick tips above, arrange for a 1-day or 2-days of break from your work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax and do your favorite activities. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

    Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest. My best ideas and inspiration always hit me whenever I’m away from my work.

    Take a look at this to learn the importance of rest: The Importance of Scheduling Downtime

    More Resources About Getting out of a Rut

    Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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