THE BLOG

Think Smarter By Capturing Your Ideas

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Last week I wrote about how you can achieve more successful outcomes with a sense of relaxed focus and control. The first step I outlined was capturing anything and everything that has your attention. Why is that so important?

Because your mind is a lousy office. When you have a thought about something you want or should do, it is usually so simple and so obvious when you're thinking of it, you're sure you'll never forget it or that you'll remember it in the right moment. Then two minutes later, with the next thing on your mind you're sure you'll never forget, you've forgotten that you've forgotten the first thing!

If your mind had a mind, it would only remind you of something when you could do something about it. Here's a simple example--do you have any flashlights with dead batteries? When does your mind remind you that you need batteries? At the dead ones! If your mind had a mind, it wouldn't bother you at the dead ones, but would clearly let you know only when you were in a store that had live ones!

Just because we think of something, that doesn't mean that we are being productive or constructive about or with it, or that it will be fulfilled. We have to realize that the thought itself is just a beginning, and if we care at all that it brings value or improvement, we probably need to capture it, clarify what it means to us, and organize the actions and information embedded or associated with it.

Most people I meet are still letting their mind run the show. They need to learn that a flashlight with dead batteries should either have the batteries replaced the moment they notice it, or the flashlight itself should go right into the in-basket as a reminder for adding batteries to the shopping list.

How many thoughts and ideas do you have daily which represent useful things to do or potentially enhance or improve projects, situations, and life in general? How many have you had and forgotten, and forgotten that you've forgotten?

"I ought to call Susan and ask her about where she stayed in Hawaii..."
"I need to write up the meeting agenda and email it to the team."
"Wonder what marinade I'd use to cook a lamb on the grill..."
"I ought to update Bill about my conversation with his customer."
Etc.

Most people have (or could have) many more of these kinds of thoughts than they realize, during the course of any 24-hour period. Most people don't get value from many of them, because they lack both the habit and the tools to collect those thoughts when they occur. If they aren't captured, they are useless, and even worse can add to the gnawing sense of anxiety most people feel about things "out there" they know they've told themselves they should or would like to do, but don't remember consciously what they are.

I've had thousands of ideas and fun or important to-do's actually come to pass, and kept a refreshingly empty head about all of them, because I've managed to create the habit of grabbing those thoughts when they occur. Many people view improving personal organization skills and tools as a "fix" or at best a "maintenance" need. Yet from my experience gaining the habit of capturing and organizing all of my thinking can take on a much more creative and pro-active spin.

To do this, and to make it easy, you'll need two things:
(1) a collection tool with you at all times, and (2) the habit of processing all the thoughts within a short period of time.

(1) The Tools:
Simple, small tools are required. I use my NoteTaker wallet for this purpose since it has my driver's license, credit cards and is always with me. I usually have my PDA/phone with me as well. Some people use a portable voice recorder. The tool doesn't matter, as long as you have it handy when and where you have thoughts to capture.

(2) The Habit:
You must process these thoughts into your organization system soon, and completely. Processing could be as simple as picking up the flashlight from your inbox, and adding batteries to your shopping list that you take to the store. Of course some thoughts you capture will be about projects or larger goals, rather than simple actions. We'll look at how to process those in more detail in the coming weeks.

Both elements are essential -- capturing your thoughts outside your mind, and organizing the results. If you leave messages unheard again on your recorder, or notes piled up in a purse or briefcase, the whole process is defeated, and your motivation to continue will disappear.

But if you do get the tools, use them when you think, and organize the results into your system, I guarantee you'll have more thoughts. And good ones, too.

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You can find out more about David Allen and GTD at www.davidco.com. The David Allen Company is a professional training, coaching, and management consulting organization, based in Ojai, California. Its purpose is to enhance performance and improve the quality of life by providing the world's best information, education, and products in the fields of personal productivity and work/life balance.