“The real need is to capture and utilize more of the creative thinking we do. If you have systems and habits ready to leverage your ideas, your productivity can expand exponentially.” – David Allen
As creatives, we don’t need to sit down at a table with the intent of dreaming up ideas out of thin air. We get them zapped to us from the aether. Everything that crosses our field of vision, or that we hear, bombards us with ideas. Constantly, randomly, and at the most inconvenient times. They are brilliant (sometimes), fleeting, and quickly forgotten. We need to drop what we are doing and capture them in some way or they are gone. The key is having a capture system that is easy, always with us, trusted, a habit, and easy to retrieve. Finding the best method that works for you is, sadly, mostly trial and error. I have arty friends who are 100% digital and arty friends who don’t even own a computer or cell phone. Obviously the same system won’t work for both.
Let’s Digress; Sketchbook Verses Notebook
For years I carried a blank book with me, everywhere. Sometimes they were lined and sometimes they were not but I thought of it as my sketchbook. I used it to jot down ideas I wanted to remember, things to do, stuff to look up, scribbles of things to try. I even glued in pictures from magazines and catalogs. Everything from weave structures to color combinations to jewelry techniques to story ideas. It was mostly written words but some scribbled pictures as well. It was not pretty but, if I wanted to remember it, that is where it went. Because it was a physical book that I had to find an empty page in on a regular basis, reviews were somewhat automatic. But things mostly got seen again (and remembered at a later time) by accident. I still have a couple and they are fun (funny) to look through but finding something I vaguely remember is impossible.
Then, two things happened; the digital age and the sketchbook-as-finished-art trend. Suddenly, about the same time as digital notebooks became widely available, the Internet was full of posts about sketchbooks and journals that were stunning works of art in themselves. The message (probably not intended) that I got was – how can I consider myself an artist if my sketchbook looks like a train wreck? I quit carrying it, afraid someone would see how ugly it was and judge me. I started exploring digital notebooks that were not nearly as easy or convenient but that no one else would ever see. The biggest problem? I got out of the sketchbook habit. My idea capturing system fell apart.
The Four Ways to Capture Ideas:
- text; hand-written or typed
- sketches; hand-drawn or digital
- Website links
- voice recordings
My search for a more technological alternative became a nightmare. The tech wasn’t where I needed it to be yet. Creatives use all four methods to capture thoughts. I couldn’t do it all with one device. I had too many apps. Too many ways to collect ideas. Too many places to store thoughts and other information. Some stuff was in Bento, some in a spreadsheet, some in folders full of Word Docs and Pages files, some in bookmarks, on Pinterest, SpringPad… You get the idea. It was scattered, irretrievable and worse, no habits or system for review. But all these apps were still in their infancy, just like my system. Some of them have grown-up and work much better (Evernote!). My point is – pick one or two and use them. If a feature you need is missing, you can always switch later. The most important part is getting in the habit of doing it. I think it was Michelle Connolly of Get Organized Wizard who said
“No system is going to help you get productive unless you make yourself use it.”
It’s true. Just pick something, get comfortable with it, and use it. Hint: When choosing one, if there is an app that is wildly popular with millions of people and it’s been around for a long time, it probably will work just fine for you too. Just sayin’.
Tossing my sketchbook was stupid. Especially for the reasons I did. My insecure inner-child has been reprimanded. It was a system that evolved on it’s own and worked, to some degree. Thanks to Lynn Krawczyk and one of her articles in Quilting Arts Magazine (Issue #58, maybe?) and on her blog, I’ve started carrying my blank book again. I’ve quit calling it a sketchbook so I don’t have to feel queasy when an artist sees it. It’s clearly my “Notebook”, for taking notes. Ugly, wordy, incoherent thoughts and un-recognizable scribbles, for my eyes only.
But I’ve also learned the value of digital – organized! My notebook pages can be scanned and tagged and stored in Evernote for easy retrieval (and then torn out so none ever need see them but me). I have an app on my phone and iPad that makes it super easy to put quick notes into Evernote. For quick and easy idea capture I can put in a text message, voice message, photo (with notes), or web link into my “Ideas” folder and review it later. I can take notes at a guild meeting for the next guild newsletter and know where they are. Being able to do this with my phone was a game-changer – it is always with me, always handy. Since my notes are saved to the ‘cloud’, should my phone disappear or self-destruct, I still have them. For ideas that need brainstorming I use the paper notebook. I can think things through better with a pen in my hand than fingers on a keyboard. But oddly enough, for writing I compose better on a keyboard than with a pen. I suspect it has something to do with random brainstorming verses linear thinking and being able to type faster than I write.
A Review System – trusted retrieval
Capturing all your great ideas won’t do any good if they are captured and forgotten. A “Review” system is needed. One that is a habit and is trusted. It’s very easy to forget your ideas if you never see them again. With a physical notebook, at least you pick it up and use it regularly and your chances of flipping through and seeing old ideas are much greater. But, with digital notes – out of sight, out of mind. A system can help with that. I’ve set mine up as a weekly task. I pull out my physical Notebook and look through the things that I’ve added to it since last time. Most of them get scanned and sent to Evernote where they are tagged and filed in the appropriate Notebook. The things that I put directly in Evernote are reviewed, tagged and put in the appropriate reference notebook or on my “Projects To Pursue” list or “Tasks” list. If I put something in Evernote that needs to be acted on before the next review day, I make a reminder out of it and it nags me to do it like a calendar appointment. This is a fairly new system for me and I’m still working on the “habit” parts but, so far, so good.
Tagging is a way to find stuff again. A tag is a label that you attach to a file. You can then sort by your tags and find only the files that are related to your search. You also have folders or Notebooks. For example, I have a Notebook called “Recipes”. I can clip recipes from any web site into my Recipes Notebook and tag it with “Slow-cooker” and “poultry”. Finding it later will be easy. The key here is to not get carried away. It’s easy to build up 18,945 different tags. That is not helpful. Pick a few you will really use and stick with those. If you are saving an idea for a necklace you can put it in your “Jewelry” Notebook and tag it with “copper”, “fused glass”, and “product idea”. At worse you will only have a dozen or so files with the same tags and at best you will be reminded of a similar great idea! Set up Notebooks and tags so they make sense to how you will hunt for them. You can always edit them later. A final word about reviewing: Review, tag and file recent additions regularly. It will keep you from being overwhelmed by a huge glut of unprocessed notes. The alternative is to tag and file them when you make them. This is great if you are not in a hurry. The other habit you need is to review your “Projects To Pursue” Notebook (or whatever you have called it). I plan on doing mine every month or quarter to see what idea is ready to be moved to an active project. About once a year (or five) I will review the Notebook labeled “Wild Ideas” that I assumed will never go anywhere when I put them in it. There may be a good nugget hiding in there, or a few laughs if nothing else 😉
Have you developed a system for idea capture that works well for you? Share it in the comments.