How to capture an idea before you lose it

June 26th, 2014

Have you ever heard the old saying, “He’s forgotten more about that than you’ll ever learn”? I sometimes feel that way about ideas. I have been given, and lost track of, more ideas than the average person has a right to receive in a lifetime. Ideas don’t respect my schedule. The way it usually goes is where I’ll be milling around with whatever mundane thing I am doing and then, bam, an idea appears like Ray Liotta walking out of the corn in "Field of Dreams."

I used to let good ideas walk all the time.

Grand entrances by good ideas are such a normal thing and I used to have no appreciation of their value.

Sometimes I’d write the idea down on a post it or torn-off scrap of paper. Sometimes I’d tell someone about it. Sometimes I’d think, oh that’s good idea, I need to write it down. In any case, most of the time I lost it. I shudder at the amount of potentially great stuff I have let walk.

It’s only been in the last 3 years, since around the time I turned 40, that I have gotten serious about the discipline of capturing good ideas.

The reason I have made a decision to get better about it is I’ve come to realize that many good ideas don’t at first seem to be all that good. They seem old, or at best slight variations on old ideas. So part of it has been understanding where to spot a good idea, and how to separate a good idea from a mediocre idea. And how to not immediately evaluate your idea, which is a form of self-inhibition.

The bottom line is, if you don’t write everything down, how will you know later if your idea was any good? The only way to make sure you don’t miss something is to try to record everything.

I’m still only okay at capturing everything. I bounce around between the following four methods too much, and sometimes fall into old habits. Caveats aside, here’s how I capture ideas:

1. The microphone on my smartphone keyboard

I use this on the afternoon commute, when my mind is still in fifth gear. If something hits me, I’ll speak into the keyboard microphone on an note taking app, like this: “Write a post on capturing creative ideas period name four top tips period.” The microphone converts the spoken punctuation, resulting in complete sentences and a workable first draft.

Tip: If you’re in a hurry, at least dictate two sentences about the idea as soon it appears so you can build on it later. 

2. My journal

I carry a journal most places I go, and take notes as able. The reason I carry it is that I would otherwise end up with post it notes and piles of scrap paper. The journal keeps it all in one place. (Learning to use it for good ideas, not the clutter of task management, takes some work.)

I see journaling as a next evolution from audio recording. It is good for doing a quick deep dive on a topic. If my mind has been rumbling over an idea for a while, and I have ten minutes to spare, I may locate a corner and pen a few thoughts, not as bullets or as a complete draft, but a set of sentences that yield usable phrases on a new vein to explore.

Tip: Carry your journal religiously. It only works if you have it with you. It’s a habit you must form over time.

3. Evernote

When I start collecting a series of ideas on the same topic, in my journal or my phone or through bookmarked sites, I gather them together under a topic heading in an organizational app called Evernote.

For example, I recently realized that I’d been brewing on the same topic for several days, and that whenever I talked to people about it, they responded enthusiastically. Since I may have a book topic, I created a notebook in Evernote, and made a list of individual ideas in Evernote for each separate thought I’d had on the topic. I made seven entries right away, and added two more later that day.

Later, I can go back and mull over the relationships of these ideas, and look for connections and a possible outline.

Tip: Don’t write in Evernote, which is limited. Use it like a card holder for an emerging idea.

4. Professional software

When I’m ready to create full drafts I finally move to the professional level software. This would be like Word or Pages for a writer, Autocad for an engineer, or Illustrator for a designer. This seems a no-brainer to say, but take the time to learn the shortcuts. For writers, that means learning Styles, which affords a quick way to creating headings which you can then index and compress for review.

Tip: Think of the mic app and the journal as stage one, raw ideas; organizational software as stage two, groupings; and your pro app as stage three, the first draft.

How do you capture your ideas?

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