Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.

Insights and interesting reads delivered straight to your inbox.
Sign up for the free Mental Pivot Newsletter.

Idea Capture: An Antidote to Forgetting

The Problem: Fleeting Ideas

Ideas come to me at unexpected times throughout the day. Sometimes these ideas are generated while sitting at a computer, but they’re just as likely to arrive while walking, exercising, driving, or while I’m in the shower.

Unfortunately, my memory isn’t great. My brain can only hold a handful of items at a time in short-term memory. As new thoughts enter my head, old thoughts get pushed aside and forgotten. It’s frustrating, but the reality is that ideas are fleeting and memory is susceptible to the distractions of competing stimuli and everyday life.

The Solution: Diligent Capture

My solution is simple: worthwhile ideas must be captured at or near the moment I have them. Capturing means recording the idea in a quickly written note (I also make use of other types of notes like photographs, crude sketches, audio recordings, and even web links).

Note-taking rescues interesting ideas from my unreliable memory and saves it for future use (you can read my previous thoughts on this topic in “Superhabits: Write Things Down (Especially Your Ideas)” from November 2019).

Here’s how I view the idea capture life cycle more holistically:

Idea ==> Capture ==> Review ==> Take Action

How it works: I have an idea. I capture the idea by writing a short note. This note is mean to be temporary; it only needs to preserve the idea from being lost to memory. To that end, a short sentence or two are typically all I need. At a later time (usually within 24 hours), I will review the note and decide what to do with it. This might mean writing a permanent, more fully developed note, incorporating the idea to another document, or realizing the idea wasn’t all that great and discarding it.

Practical Tips: A Dedicated Email Address & Emailing Yourself

Emailing myself a short note via my iPhone or iPad works best for me. The key tools I use are:

  1. A dedicated email address. I have an address that I only use for sending notes to myself. There’s no commingling of these notes with other messages or spam. I route all my idea capture notes to this one location which makes processing those notes a snap.
  2. An app that sends messages exclusively to that address. I use the Note to Self app to send these emails quickly. Once configured, I simply open the app, type a message, and send it. There’s no need to enter the recipient’s email address nor add a subject line (the former is set up during configuration and the latter is generated automatically).

Examples of things I might capture include interesting articles to read (for possible inclusion in my weekly newsletter), topics for my Zettelkasten, ideas for future blog articles, books for my reading list, and even mundane things like a recipe I’d like to cook. These captured ideas are fuel for my personal project pipelines and my writing process.

Note to Self is particularly useful because it can be used in a number of contexts:

  • In addition to text messages, the app supports images, sketches (using a rudimentary drawing tool), location data, file attachments, and audio recordings.
  • Note to Self also has an email action for the iOS share sheet. I use this feature to send notes quickly via other apps (e.g. a web browser or podcast app like Airr).
  • When hands-free note-taking is required, I have a simple Shortcut can be used via voice-command with Siri and the native dictation and transcription capabilities of iOS. The resulting transcription can be sent to my inbox.

At the end of each day, I review the accumulated messages in my note-capture inbox. I review the messages and then act on them in some way (e.g. file the note in a permanent home elsewhere, add it to another document, or dismiss it altogether). Remember: idea capture isn’t an end-point in the note-taking process, it is merely a means to preserving thoughts for future use.

Alternatives to Note to Self

It’s worth mentioning that there are other apps that solve the same problem. Captio was once the go-to solution for iPhone users, but it’s no longer actively developed. Alternatives include Boomerang, Email Me, Mailo, and Mail Notes. Of course, the tried-and-true paper and pencil are also viable.

I prefer Note to Self to the competition as it offers greater SMTP configuration options, has decent support for Shortcuts/Siri integration, supports multiple content types (text, audio, images, sketches), and provides an uncluttered interface (along with multiple UI customization options). The app is free to use with the basic features and requires a one-time payment of $1.99 to unlock the advanced features.

The one context I still haven’t solved is taking notes in the shower. There are waterproof note pads and whiteboards that can do the trick. I’ve also read about people putting a tablet in a waterproof case as a solution. That might be overkill for my needs. For now, it’s good enough for me to take quick showers and immediately capture any thoughts once I’m done.

Concluding Thoughts

Idea capture might not be a novel or particularly original idea, but it is an especially effective one. Once you start recording your ideas, you’ll be surprised at how many interesting thoughts you have throughout the day. A steady supply of captured ideas ensures that your projects and pipelines have a constant influx of working material. Even better, the benefit of accumulated ideas compounds. As you diligently engage with this habit, you will see ideas interact and enrich previously captured thoughts. You’ll discover benefits that weren’t previously possible when forced to rely on memory alone.

Get weekly email updates and additional content: Sign up for the free Mental Pivot Newsletter.