Advertising
Advertising

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…?”

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

    Trending in Featured

    1 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 2 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 3 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 4 How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life 5 What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

    Advertising

    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

    Advertising

    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

    Advertising

    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

    Advertising

    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

    Read Next