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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 August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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