A couple of years ago, I chatted with productivity author David Allen on the podcast. One of the nuggets of wisdom he shared during our conversation was that our heads are for having ideas, not holding them.
David was talking about our limited mental bandwidth. The more it’s cluttered with reminders and things to follow-up on, the less attentional space we have to focus on our most meaningful work. It takes a surprising amount of time and energy to remember all these disparate thoughts, and it’s never worthwhile forgetting them only to remember them again later.
The more ideas you can get out of your head, capture, and organize, the better.
There are all sorts of ideas to keep tabs on. Some involve strokes of brilliance, others are the laundry list of tasks you need to get done or a reminder that may tug on your attention throughout the day.
There are countless things you might want to get out of your head:
- Stuff you’re waiting on. These are items you’re waiting for from other people—things you need to check up on later. I’ve scheduled a recurring weekly task in my calendar so I remember to check this list a few times a week and follow up with people accordingly.
- Ideas you want to look into more deeply. You encounter so much information in a day, and chances are you’ll want to explore more on these topics—just not when you’re in the middle of some other task. Log them and leave them for later.
- Distractions and reminders. If you’re anything like me, your mind is an ongoing to-do list of reminders and distractions. Capturing and organizing these mental tidbits helps set them aside in the moment.
- Actual ideas and insights. If you don’t capture an idea, you can’t act on it. With so many of us doing knowledge work for a living, the insights we generate are worth their weight in gold. If your job involves a lot of juggling tasks, connecting with people, and generating new ideas, capturing what’s on your mind becomes a way to do better work.
There’s no shortage of tools you can use to capture these ideas. And like most productivity tactics, there’s no one right answer for everyone. But what is typically consistent is that whether it’s in the shower, out for a long walk, or jolted awake from a night’s sleep, we’re rarely in a convenient place when an idea pops into mind.
Some idea-capturing tools:
- AquaNotes. Research has found that ideas commonly come to us when our mind wanders or we’re doing something routine. AquaNotes are water-proof notepads you can hang in the shower. They’re one of my favorite productivity products, period.
- Notes app on your device. Most devices come with a notepad app. I personally use Simplenote, so my ideas sync across every device I own. These apps are a great way to make sure you’re tracking all your ideas and have them at your fingertips when it’s time to action them.
- Physical notepad. Kick it old school! I always keep a physical notepad on my desk so I can scribble down thoughts and distractions, and get back to work.
- Task manager. Task managers are basically repositories to keep your thoughts organized. My favorite task manager is Things, though it’s only available for Apple devices.
- Voice recorder app. Sometimes ideas flow more freely when we speak them versus writing them down. Most devices come with a built-in voice recorder tool.
- Email or message an idea to yourself. This is another option if you’re close to your device. If you prefer not having your primary email account on your phone, try creating a dedicated inbox for sending these messages.
I’ve found it’s helpful to ritualize the act of both capturing and organizing my ideas. I do this all at once every Sunday night when I’m planning out my week—but what works for you might be different. This one’s a real choose your own adventure, and it’s all about experimenting until you find what’s right for you. Happy idea capturing!
P.S. – there are also lots of productivity benefits to meditation. That’s the topic of my latest project: an Audible Original book called How to Train Your Mind. It’s free with an Audible subscription in the US. Check it out!