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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!

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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