The art and science of capturing and caring for your free-range ideas

When you work for yourself, ideas are the life blood of your business. We need to keep on learning, keep on growing, and keep on aligning our work with the life we want for ourselves. A steady flow of ideas and inspiration allows all of that to happen.

We all find ourselves with inspiration and ideas popping up in weird or inconvenient places. At the grocery store, you might see a particular color combination that makes you think, “Hm. That is really vibrant…I wonder what my website would look like if I shifted from blues and grays to that…”   You might be on an online workshop and suddenly have a brilliant idea about a new thing to offer your own people. Or suddenly, on a walk, you get a blinding inspiration about a solution to a stuckness you’ve been suffering.

The tragic thing would be to just think, “That is SO amazingly great! There’s no way I’ll forget it” and not bother to capture it in some way.

What can happen if you don’t graciously capture ideas and give them a job?

Here’s the right-brain version, from Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic):

“When an idea thinks it has found somebody—say, you—who might be able to bring it into the world, (it) will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re so consumed by your own dramas, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration.

You might miss the signal because you’re watching TV, or shopping, or brooding over how angry you are at somebody, or pondering your failures and mistakes, or just generally really busy. The idea will try to wave you down (perhaps for a few moments . . . perhaps even for a few years), but when it finally realizes that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else.”

And here’s the left-brain version, from no-nonsense David Allen (author of the groundbreaking book Getting Things Done), who talks about the brain’s logic in these terms:

“Look, I’m only going to give you as many ideas as you can effectively use. If you’re not using them or collecting them in some trusted way, I won’t give you that many. But if you are actually doing something with them, then here, have a bunch!”

Welcome in ideas and treat them well, and they’ll keep coming. There are many possible aspects to idea care—capturing, ways to organize and store them, scheduling ‘idea dates’ to return to them, etc.—and I cover a lot of them in Week 4 of my fun workshop Organize Your Digital ‘Stuff’ Once and For All, starting up again in January 2020. But in the meantime, I wanted to share the tools I use to capture ideas.

I recommend having having two capture tools at your disposal all the time: A digital one and a manual one (your preference)

Why two?

An analog or manual way to capture ideas is handy and portable and doesn’t require electricity or a wireless signal OR the need to have your mobile device around, bleating at you 24/7. Remember a pen.

A digital way to capture them frees you from having to retype them, will probably have dictation abilities, outsmarts your (ahem) illegible handwriting, and often syncs across devices so you can reach your idea from multiple places (such as your mobile device AND Google Drive AND your laptop computer).

Whatever it is, make sure something is available to you all the time. Ideas don’t follow the rules – they show up whenever they feel like it.

Popular Tools: Analog/Manual

Manual tools are my favorite capture methods. Many people find that, when note-taking digitally, they’re engaging their logical/rational brain rather than their creative brain. If you’re like that, consider something analog:

● Your hand or arm, in a pinch
● A Moleskine or similar journal/planner with a pocket with or without
● A Bullet Journal
● A Passion Planner
● A Panda Planner (even though it’s not perfect for capturing ideas, I still think it looks groovy…there’s even an entrepreneur version)
● Grid paper or legal pads and nice pens. You deserve nice pens.
● A little portable whiteboard
● My favorite, the giant Post-It® pads 🙂
● Magic Whiteboard wall-clinging film (expensive but a roll lasts me for years)
● Brightly colored Post-It notes

(NOTE: With all manual methods, it’s important to have a system for transferring it to a mode where it can be permanently captured, be electronically searchable, and will have a chance at being implemented.)

I try never to let the week end without doing something more permanent with my paper notes. Even leaving them in a notebook may require you to go back and turn lots of pages to find them…and if it’s hard to re-find an idea, its chances of thriving are slimmer.

Favorite Tools: Simple Digital Capture

Emailing Yourself:

Don’t discount the simplest of solutions: Sending yourself an email. Most email apps on mobile devices allow voice dictation, making this a quick-and-easy thing even if you don’t have any of the following.

Talk to Yourself (Voice Capture):

Record yourself talking through your idea/thoughts and either transcribe it yourself, or if it’s long, having a Fiverr contractor transcribe it for you for as little as $5.

On Mac computers, try using the QuickTime app or iScream app or voice dictation on Microsoft Word

On Windows computers, try Voice Recorder – https://www.digitalcitizen.life/how-use-voice-recorder-windows-10-mobile

On mobile devices, the possibilities for dictation/text-to-speech apps are countless.  Try these suggestions for Android and iPhone respectively:

https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/best-android-dictation-apps/

https://www.ikream.com/2019/07/7-best-free-speech-text-transcription-apps-iphone-25610

Notepad Apps for Mobile Devices

Both iOS (Apple) and Android devices have some sort of notetaking app installed by default.  Look for Notes (Apple)  or Notepad (Android)  respectively.

If you’re curious about a certain note-taking option and want to see a comprehensive grid of options, what they’re compatible with, and what they do, check out this grid (I won’t paste it here…it’ll give us both brain damage):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_notetaking_software#Basic_features

Google Keep and Pocket

These are both little tools that help people save interesting articles, videos and more from the web for later consumption. Once saved to either one, links to the content are available on any device — phone, tablet or computer. They’re compatible with most devices and Mac/Windows.

While not technically idea capture tools, I include them here because I’ve used them to capture and annotate things on the web that I can then “riff” on or take to other creative places in my own mind.  More info:
https://keep.google.com and http://getpocket.com

Favorite Tools: More Capable Digital Capture

SimpleNote

Cost: Free
Available for: Almost every computer and mobile phone
Usefulness: Limited but good for basic notes
Best parts: Free. VERY minimalist, so almost zero learning curve.
Downsides:  Er, very minimalist. No text formatting tools, no security, no organization tools like notebooks to organize notes into.
Learn more: https://simplenote.com

Apple Notes

Cost: Free
Available for: Mac OS X and iOS (Apple) devices
Usefulness: Good
Best parts: Free. Good tools for formatting, organization, locking notes, drawing tools, synching with the cloud, and you can use Siri to tell it what to do  🙂
Learn more: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT205773

Evernote

Cost: Free for a basic version or $7.99/month for more features
Available for: Almost every computer and mobile phone
Usefulness: Excellent
Best parts: Notebooks to organize your notes, syncs to other devices, formatting, images, attachments, captures handwriting, audio recordings, reminders, more
Downsides: A bit of a learning curve because of all the features but there are good basic how-to videos online
Learn more: https://evernote.com

Microsoft OneNote

Cost: Free with OneDrive  (5GB of storage is free, then it costs)
Available for: Almost every computer and mobile phone
Usefulness: Excellent
Best parts: Notebooks to organize your notes, syncs to other devices, formatting, images, attachments, captures handwriting, audio recordings, reminders, more
Downsides: A bit of a learning curve because of all the features but there are good basic how-to videos online
Learn more: https://onenote.com

Want to compare Evernote and OneNote to see which is better for you? Here’s a comprehensive review

Special situations

At night, when camping, in a dark Alamo Drafthouse theater:

I still keep a notepad nearby, with a light-up pen. Because you never know what inspiration may come in those darker spaces…and flashing around your mobile phone during a movie is just inconsiderate.

Search “light-up pen” on Amazon.com or see these dual-color light ones

While driving:

I never try to capture anything while I’m driving a vehicle hurtling through space…even voice-to-text requires some divided concentration and I don’t recommend it. But I do keep my mobile phone handy (and my notebook) and look for the next possible opportunity to pull over and grab them.

On a hike or walk or stroll through the museum

I carry my mobile phone and use voice dictation while walking, if it’s that kind of walk. (There are also more mindful walks where I just leave it at home and carry my smallest notebook and pen.)

In the shower or tub (really!)

If you find you’re having great ideas there, don’t despair! Check out a waterproof whiteboard like this one or waterproof notepad & pencil  like this one


There is a whole system I teach in this segment of my workshop Organize Your Digital ‘Stuff’ Once and For All, and I think if you want to start 2020 fresh without all the digital clutter, it’s a fun way to do it.

But no matter what: Your ideas are so very, very important.

Begin taking more tender care of them, and you’ll be amazed at how your business grows.

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