Do You Have a Way to Capture Ideas on the Run?

Murphy’s Law of Creativity states that your best ideas will occur at times and in places where it is most inconvenient for you to record them.

You know how it happens: You’re standing in the shower and while shampooing your hair you get a bolt of inspiration:

  • The solution to a problem that’s been plaguing you for days
  • The idea for the best blog post, article, or book that you’ll ever write
  • The entire structure of your next presentation or webinar
  • The seed of a profitable new product or service that you have to develop

I’ve got to write this down, you say to yourself. But after you dry off and get dressed, the phone rings. Or somebody engages you in conversation. Or life interrupts in some other inevitable way.

The challenge is that you’re swimming in ideas. They’re coming at you constantly from your reading, your conversations, the people you overhear in coffee shops, and your random moments of inspiration. Maybe one of those ideas could make money, make the world a better place, or do both.

Unfortunately, ideas are fragile and fleeting. They’re easily lost. They’re helpless babies. They need constant care and feeding.

How will you make sure that a sudden inspiration is recalled, developed, and shared? It’s lost forever unless you have a fail-safe system to record such gems and recall them when you need them.

If you’re an idea entrepreneur, then it’s especially important to capture ideas whenever they occur, even at the oddest times and weirdest places. Your business could hinge on an insight that’s easy to lose—unless you capture it now.

Some options to consider

  • Smart phone apps for taking notes, such as Notes on the iPhone, DraftsEvernote, or OneNote
  • Voice recorders for smart phones, such as Voice Memos on the iPhone
  • Plain text editors for smart phones. Brett Terpstra has a comprehensive list for iOS. My personal favorite is iA Writer.
  • Web sites that allow quick capture, such as Thinkery or ZenPen
  • Analog tools such as a Moleskin notebookHipster PDA, or a pad of paper small enough to fit in a pocket or purse (such as a waiter’s pad)

What to remember as you choose

As you choose a capture tool, keep three criteria in mind:

  • Convenience. Whatever tool you choose must be easy to use and fast. Don’t go for a tool that you feel you should use, even if it’s ultra cool. Go for the homely one that you actually will  use. What do you already have that could work for capturing ideas?
  • Simplicity. Remember that your tool for capturing ideas does not have to be the same tool that you use for organizing. Save the latter task for text editing or word processing software.
  • Ease of later use. Plain text editors have an advantage here, since you can copy and paste plain text into just about any application for editing at a later time. Voice memos have a disadvantage: any ideas you want to save still need to be transcribed.

Be willing to experiment until you find the perfect capture tool for you. This could take some time. And, it’s worth it.

The importance of following up

Once you develop a capturing habit, you’re faced with the delightful problem of deciding what to do with all the ideas that you’ve got. Fortunately, your basic options are simple, even if you capture dozens of ideas during the course of a day:

  • Delete it. Do this when you’re sure that you’ll never follow up on the idea.
  • Archive it. File it in a place with other information that you’ll refer to later, such as a list of your professional contacts.
  • Do it now. Act on the idea right away—especially if it’s something you can do in a couple minutes (like sending a short email or making a quick call).
  • Defer it. On a to-do list or calendar, write a reminder to act on the idea later.

Go through this algorithm once per week. At that time, check all of the places that captured ideas might show up—in boxes, voice mail, email, notebooks, notes apps, and the like.

P.S. There’s a name for the practice described in this post—ubiquitous capture. It’s the first step in the Getting Things Done (GTD) method. David Allen’s classic book on GTD has an entire chapter about capturing. Also useful is A Pattern Language for Productivity by Andre Kibbe. (See “Pattern #4: Collection.”)