A guide to capturing ideas for better creativity

I’m going to make the case that the way you capture your ideas is just as integral to the creative process as what happens in the mind. It not only prevents frustrating failures to remember great ideas, but it creates a feedback loop: ideas go into your capture tool, and in the act of describing, the idea improves and often leads to more ideas.

Simply keeping a notebook on hand is great, but I’m going to offer some different perspectives on the process.

Every human mind is extraordinarily creative, and we know this is true because our minds are busy creating the stories of our lives at every single moment. There are thoughts and ideas perpetually forming and then giving way to the next set of thoughts and ideas.

If you accept that, then all that separates the “creative person” from the “uncreative person” is the work produced. Potential ideas are already floating around your mind, but you must capture them, create them, and release them into the world.

Ideas often came to me in an instant of exhilarating inspiration, only for me to forget them later. When I solved that problem, not only did I stop losing those good ideas, but inspiration came more frequently, and the ideas improved.

My first voice recorder, then other capture methods

Many years ago, I was on a long road trip alone through the desert with nothing to see but dirt and distant horizons all around me. My mind was wandering aimlessly and suddenly stumbled onto an idea so perfect for a song I’d been struggling with that it brought me nearly to tears.

And then I thought of another idea which, for a moment, seemed unrelated, but they both occupied my mind simultaneously, so they inevitably connected. As the two ideas collided in my mind, possibilities burst into my consciousness, beautiful and chaotic.

Hours later, I arrived at my destination. People greeted me, then we left straight away for dinner. The next day, I tried to write all of my ideas, but they had evaporated from my mind. I never remembered.

This had happened far too often, so when I got back home, I drove to Best Buy and invested in my first digital voice recorder (this was before smartphones).

There was something about having that device handy that made me want to fill it with ideas. And that made me more vigilant. I paid closer attention to my thoughts, watching for anything worth recording. Not only did I successfully capture my ideas, but I produced more of them at a faster pace than I ever had before. So many more.

I noticed there were places where ideas would come to me where my recorder wasn’t handy, such as the shower. This was difficult to solve because of the water, but then I discovered AquaNotes, a waterproof notepad and pencil that sticks to the side of the shower. Once again, having this tool for capturing ideas made me more vigilant, and ideas came to me as fast as I could write them down.

I realized I had created a feedback loop: I listen more closely; I find an idea; I capture it; my mind is now free to explore the next idea; ideas I’ve recorded lead to new, expanded, or better ideas; the loop continues, growing more powerful with each iteration.

The components of a good idea-capture system

It starts with the intention

You can’t force inspiration, but you can guide your mind in an intentional direction. As you devote more attention to your thoughts and begin taking notes on your ideas, I recommend working toward finding something that feels like a Calling. When you gain some clarity on what you’d like to accomplish with your life and your work, your mind will gravitate toward that.

And when you get ideas that distract you from your Calling, you can give them away or set them aside because you know they’re distractions.

I believe the processes I describe can help a person find a Calling and help keep moving forward on the path to creation.

Vigilance over one’s own thoughts

The next step to drawing out frequent inspiration is noticing and recording the ideas already living in your head. We draw distinctions between thoughts and ideas. Erase that line. Thoughts become ideas by recognizing them as ideas. We just have to watch for the ones worth recording. Otherwise, they pass as transient chatter and disappear back into the ether.

The paragraph above, in fact, is an example of this. Amidst the chatter of my mind, I thought: sometimes it’s just a matter of recognizing your thoughts as ideas and recording them. I noticed the profundity of that thought and realized that itself was an idea to record—and this piece I’m writing was born.

I would say that vigilance is the single most important piece of the creative inspiration puzzle. Just turn your attention within and listen. Turn the attention back outward into the world and listen. Imagine the world from other perspectives and listen. And always have your idea-capturing tools handy so you can easily and habitually record your thoughts as they come.

Meditation helps to become more vigilant. It helps train your mind to be more introspective and alert. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a stream of thoughts race through my mind before I stopped for a moment, retraced my thoughts, and realized a great idea hid amidst all that chaos. Had I not stopped for a second, I would never have even recognized it as an idea, and it would have been lost in the ether.

Include interesting experiences

Your notes can include more than just inspired ideas. Art is about reflecting the ineffable experience of life and the aspects of life to which you’ve been uniquely exposed.

So I’m not only vigilant of the spontaneous thoughts that bubble up but also of my feelings and emotions. The unconscious mind is ancient and primal, and even when it gives us what we want, it doesn’t always come in the form we’re expecting.

I keep a “synchronicity journal” where I document all the strange coincidences that occur in my life because if my mind is noticing these parallels, it must consider them meaningful.

I keep a dream journal because sometimes, that’s how my different minds communicate with one another.

I’ve read of creators keeping “experience journals” where they note anything in life they find interesting. Others keep notebooks or drawers of things they find inspiring, which they can mine later when in need of an idea. If you’re a writer, you might note interesting personality traits or characteristics you’ve noticed in other people—these can become the inspirational soil from which characterizations can grow. If you’re a painter, your notes might be more visual, including photos and drawings of colors or shapes you find inspiring.

A willingness to produce bad ideas

Not all ideas will be good ones, and that’s okay. Every time you judge an idea as unworthy, you discourage your mind from producing more. Even bad ideas are steps in the path to good ideas. Let them come…and when they don’t work, either work to improve them or let them go.

I’m often able to turn bad ideas into good ideas with small adjustments or inversions. Sometimes I can’t fix them, but the bad ideas trigger better ideas. Other times I run into dead ends and dismiss them entirely, and that’s okay, too. If 75% of my ideas don’t work, then that just means I have to fail faster to get to the 25% that do work.

The best creators produce immense amounts of work before they get to their masterpieces. Nobody produces masterpiece after masterpiece without a lot of noise in between.

This is why I believe a large chunk of creativity must happen in solitude. If you’re self-conscious, your mind becomes constricted. You lose the freedom to record and develop embarrassing ideas.

Coming up with ridiculous and potentially embarrassing ideas is a great exercise, in fact. I sometimes ask myself questions like: what is the most absurd solution to this problem I can think of? This frees me from my normal creative constraints, and sometimes, I return from those excursions with convention-defying ideas I never could have thought of otherwise.

Consider every context

You must learn to be aware of those moments when you’re least prepared to capture an idea. I make mental notes of any time when my mind is prone to drifting. That’s when the ideas are most likely to come, but it’s also when I’m most likely to get lost in those thoughts and not think to capture them. It’s more than a matter of just having a tool handy; it must become a habit. Train your mind to associate those different contexts with that context’s idea-capture tool.

Capture tools must be within arm’s reach and held in the consciousness while thinking.

Make some space in those contexts for free thinking. If you’re in the habit of getting on social media during walks, don’t. Walking is for ideas, not distractions. These tools do you no good if your mind isn’t free to meander.

The importance of convenience

Even a small obstacle can prevent a regular task from becoming a habit. In fact, if you want to break a habit, one of the most effective ways is to make the action more difficult. Keep your cigarettes in a drawer in the attic. Put your junk food in a locked box. Even small amounts of cognitive effort can become an enormous deterrent.

So it’s important that your idea-capture methods are handy at those times when inspiration strikes. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve thought, “That’s a great idea, but my notebook’s in the other room. I’ll grab it as soon as I’m finished with this thing I’m doing.” More often than not, I lose the idea.

Consider mixing up your capture methods

Different idea-capturing methods require a different approach, guiding a torrent of ideas along different channels, changing various qualities of the ideas.

My handwritten notes come in two forms: stream-of-consciousness and bullet points. I write more slowly, so my ideas are more thought out.

If I’m typing on my phone, I get annoyed by the small keys and typos, so my notes are concise and broken into small chunks.

Sometimes I need to let myself ramble as if I was describing and working out the idea with another person. For that, I take voice notes and let my mind roam. This is when my ideas can become the most divergent and interesting.

Tips on organization

Every mind processes information differently, and therefore, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to managing and organizing notes and ideas.

But I can tell you how I do it.

First, I use a note app called Bear. I create an “Inbox” tag to compile all of my notes before sorting.

(Alternatively, Evernote or any other simple note app will work fine. You just need a digital space to compile everything.)

Once a week, I have a recurring reminder on my calendar to check all my idea-capture tools. I compile and transcribe them all in my Inbox. 

Once I’ve compiled my notes in that central place, I start sorting, moving the notes into locations more appropriate for them to live. Some notes are just to-dos—those go into a productivity app (i.e. Reminders, Things, Todoist, etc). My novel notes go into the place where I keep my novel notes. If I have a business idea, it goes into a place where I keep business ideas.

It’s important to clear the Inbox and not let assorted notes stay in there. It can grow out of control and overwhelm you, and ideas get lost in the noise and forgotten.

What now?

Here’s an actionable list of steps to get started.

  • List all the places and contexts from which ideas might come.
    • Think about your typical day. At what times is your mind in a diffused state?
    • Think about ideas you’ve had in the past. Where were you?
  • List all the idea-capture tools you could have handy in all of those contexts.
  • Put those tools in place.
  • When you enter one of those contexts, remind yourself of its presence. This primes the mind to produce something to put into that tool.
  • Journal your results.

That last step is another topic, but it’s one I’ll be returning to frequently. Never just trust my results or anyone else’s—you need to try it out for yourself. Track your progress. Note any difficulties you have. Note any successes you have. This helps you to develop a compass that points in a more creative and productive direction.