If you were to ask me what’s the one tool that has helped me build my success in life; I’d tell you that it’s simply a notepad and a pen, coupled with my habit of using them on a consistent basis. The process of capturing your thoughts is one of the distinguishing hallmarks of great achievers. What Exactly do you Mean?
The problem with thoughts and ideas is that they’re not tactile in nature, meaning that they don’t have any solid or tangible physical form to grasp onto. I can pick up a stapler and hold it in my hands and I know exactly what it is, but with a thought or an idea, it doesn’t come in a convenient form that I can put my hands around. What we can’t experience through one of the five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight and sound), we are prone to misplace and lose. Thoughts and ideas fall under this amorphous category.

The process of capturing your thoughts simply means transferring your thoughts onto some type of medium that is physical and permanent in nature. This can include the following:

Writing your thoughts down on paper
Writing your thoughts down electronically
Recording your thoughts by dictation (voice recording)

Why Capture Your thoughts?

Your mind is a powerful computer that can do a great many things, but just like your home computer, your mind can only focus on a certain number of things at any given time. Rarely do we ever forget anything, but it’s more the case that we didn’t place an importance or priority on that information at the time it was presented to us and so it got buried along with all the other bits and pieces of extraneous non-important information that we store in our subconscious minds. By capturing our thoughts, we insure that they don’t fall through the cracks and get lost. A single good thought can be worth millions of dollars or it can single-handedly produce a significant and meaningful change in your life. You simply can’t afford to lose any of these precious thoughts just because you didn’t have a way to capture them.

Once you have your thoughts on paper, you can manage your thoughts just as you would any physical item because now it’s something that can be physically manipulated within your environment. That’s why I’m a huge advocate of thinking on paper. The advantages are enormous. Here’s a list of reasons why you should capture your thoughts.

Lost thoughts are like wasted money. I can’t put it any simpler than this: “Thoughts are money.” Imagine that money was pouring from the sky and you wanted to collect that money, but all you had was a straw to channel it into your bottle. A lot of that money would be wasted. Now imagine the same scenario, but this time you had a wide funnel to channel all that money into your bottle. You’d be many times richer using the funnel than the straw, right? The same holds true with respect to our minds.  Our minds can store an unlimited amount of information, but it can only focus on a small amount of things at any given time.  Therefore, trying to hold information in our short-term memory is like using a straw to channel the falling money into our bottle—a lot of wasted money and very little money actually collected.  Capturing, which involves the transfer of thoughts onto a physical medium is like using a funnel to channel the falling money into your mind.  There is a lot less wastage and a lot more wealth created.

Capturing forces you to clarify your thoughts. According to Tony Buzan, the leading expert on mental literacy and the inventor of mind mapping, your thought process is organic by nature, meaning that ideas usually sprout from other related ideas in a non-linear fashion.1 This is why you might be sitting at your office typing a memo to your boss regarding a patient’s donor kidney and suddenly remember that you have chicken in the freezer that needs to be thawed for tomorrow night’s dinner. The process of capturing your thoughts and ideas, however, requires that your thoughts be organized in a linear format to be put into written or recorded words, which means that the process of capturing acts as a filtering mechanism for your organic thoughts. Capturing will help clarify and distill your raw thoughts into something much more concentrated and pure.

Capturing allows for easy processing. Productivity expert, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, states that your thoughts need to be corralled and processed just the same as you would that paper stack in your inbox or those incoming e-mails.3 When you keep your thoughts inside your head, they become as difficult to hold onto as is it is trying to grab water flowing from a fall with your bear hands. That’s because thoughts have no discernable shape or form which makes them difficult to manage. If you want to transport water from a fall over to your camp site, you don’t use your hands, rather you use a container to transport that water because water will take the shape of that container and you can then manage that quantity of water just as you would the container in which it is in. Just like water will conform to the shape of a container, so can a thought be held by a single piece of paper. That piece of paper becomes your portable container for all the thoughts that you need to carry and you can then manage those thoughts very easily by treating them as items.

Capturing activates the reticular activating system. According to Hans Morvec, the principal research scientist at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, the human brain’s probable processing power is roughly 100 trillion calculations per second.2 By comparison, IBM’s Blue Gene/L supercomputer, the fastest computer on the planet at the time of this writing, has a peak performance window of only 360 billion calculations per second.3 Your reticular activating system (RAS), the finger-shaped process in between the medulla oblongata and the mesencephalon on your brain, is responsible for filtering all the information your brain receives. Most of the information that your brain processes is not useful towards your daily activities, so your RAS filters most of it out, allowing you to focus on the most important information necessary for survival and goal attainment.  The process of capturing your thoughts acts as an activating mechanism for the RAS to identify those thoughts as important.  Your RAS will then begin to make you aware of things in your environment that resonate with those thoughts, allowing you to pull resources into your life necessary for goal attainment.  This process has also been popularly referred to as the law of attraction.

Capturing reduces stress. Your brain is a biological computer. You have your hard drive that stores all your programs and files and you have your RAM (ready access memory) that enables your computer to use different programs at the same time. Ever notice that when you have many different programs running on your computer at the same time, everything seems to slow down considerably? That’s because you’re depleting your available RAM on your computer. In much the same way, your brain also has RAM in the form of short-term memory. You can hold a couple of items in your mind, but the more things you start holding in your short-term memory, the more overworked your mind becomes and this translates into the feeling of stress you experience within your body.  Capturing your thoughts effectively clears up your brain’s RAM so that you can focus on the important tasks at hand without the burden of stress.  Clear out your mind entirely by capturing your thoughts down instead of trying to memorize them. Free up that RAM space for tasks that really deserve its attention. This is truly a key of top performers.

Common Places People Tend to Lose Good Thoughts

People tend to lose great ideas, thoughts and bursts of inspirations in the places where they are least likely to have a capturing device handy. If you prepare in advance by having capturing devices handy in those “black hole” areas, you can effectively preserve your valuable organic thoughts.  Here is a list of the most common places where thoughts are lost:

  • In the shower
  • On the toilet
  • Commuting to and from work
  • In bed
  • At restaurants
  • In the dining area
  • In the living room
  • On vacation

Types and Uses of Capturing Devices

Your thoughts and ideas are of little value to you if you don’t collect and process them in a systematic fashion. By keeping your thoughts in your head, you not only add to the stress of trying to remember them while doing other attention-dividing activities, but also you run the risk of losing your thoughts as well. In order to prevent this from occurring, always make sure that you have a capturing device within reach at all times.  Here are some common capturing devices and tips on how to use them effectively.

Pocket notepad and pen.  One of the cheapest and most reliable capturing tools out there.  I keep a small notepad in my back pocket whenever I leave the house.  As for pen preference, my general recommendation is to use whatever feels comfortable to you.  By far, the best pen for my personal use is the Fisher Space Pen.®  Their bullet model pen is very small and easy to carry in my pocket and the special pressurized ink cartridge allows me to write on wall calendars, upside down and in the shower as well.

Journals.  These larger-format notebooks are best used for brainstorming and journaling, rather than for jotting down things to do.  The information kept within a journal is usually archived for a long time rather than processed and disposed of.  The nice thing about a journal is that you can use it as a reference guide to see the progression of an idea or your own personal/professional development.  Leonardo da Vinci kept a library of journals, complete with his sketches of inventions and his insight into philosophy and the sciences.  Thomas Edison also wrote and maintained over 3,500+ journals with his brilliant organic thoughts, some of which have been donated to various museums.

Index cards.  Index cards are my tool of choice when capturing organic thoughts at home or in the office because they are uniquely suited for capturing and processing thoughts.  My rule is simple: one index card for one thought and after the thought has been captured onto that card, it then goes into my inbox for processing.  Another advantage of index cards is for project management.  You can manage a project quite effectively by writing each executable action for that project onto an individual card and then arranging the card deck by priority and order of events.  You can even lay each card out on a table to see the natural progression of the project. When the next step of a project needs to be done, you simply toss that card into your inbox for processing and then move on to the next card. A very simple, yet effective hybrid between a pocket notepad and loose index cards is the Hipster PDA, a novel concept developed by writer Merlin Mann.  The Hipster PDA is simply twenty or so index cards that are bound together by a small binder clip on one corner and carried around like a pocket notepad.  The Hipster PDA gained it’s inspiration from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, but quickly took on a life of its own, especially with IT professionals. There are several websites now that are dedicated to the Hipster system.

Cell phones.  Most of us carry cell phones everywhere we go. Start using this communication device as a multi-tasker by capturing your thoughts with it.  When a thought comes to mind, capture it by leaving a voice mail for yourself in a voice mailbox account that you check regularly. Additionally, some of the more advanced phones have digital voice recording technology built right into the phone, making it a very useful multi-tasker.

Micro-cassette / digital recorders.  These devices are useful in situations where writing is not possible, such as when driving or walking.  The thought capturing process is much quicker when you dictate your thoughts, but the drawback is that you must get it transcribed afterwards in order to have your thoughts in a format that you can use.  You can enlist the aid of a transcriptionist or transcribe the recording yourself.  Also, the transcription software currently out on the market is fairly good for transcribing thoughts, so you might want to consider investing in one of the software packages available.

Computers.  Laptops and desktops are great tools for collecting and saving your thoughts if you are always in front of a computer.  Simply open your favorite word processing, spreadsheet or e-mail software and keep it open during your day to log thoughts as they come to you.  At the end of the day, you can either print or e-mail your list for processing.

Whiteboards.  These are great for leaving notes for other people and for to-do lists, but not my favorite for capturing organic thoughts due to their limited space and portability.

Napkins, coasters & placemats.  A good impromptu capturing device while dining at a restaurant when you don’t have your notepad on you.  Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask the server for a pen—rarely do they ever say “no.”

Personal digital assistants (PDAs).  These make the transfer of information from PDA to computer very efficient; however, inputting ideas tend to be slow in comparison to a notepad and pen.  Also, I’ve found that any type of sketching or drawing on these devices is mediocre at best.

Pens, pens, pens.  Having a writing device handy when you need one is often the biggest reason why people don’t capture their thoughts.  Avoid this problem by getting a box or two of inexpensive pens and seeding your most common areas around the house with these pens.  You really want to eliminate ever saying, “Where’s a pen when I need one?”

Water-proof paper.  This is a relatively new addition to my own personal arsenal of thought-capturing tools.  I keep a water-proof notepad inside the shower along with a Fisher Space Pen® which combines effectively for a great way to capture thoughts while in the shower.  Additionally, I can take the same setup with me in rainy weather conditions or if I am out by the pool, lake or ocean. Riteintherain.com offers an excellent selection of waterproof paper.

Conclusion

Thoughts are the most valuable commodity that you own. It’s what makes you unique. It’s what makes you valuable. One special thought or idea has the potential for creating unlimited wealth and success, or it can lead to a dramatic and meaningful life change. Don’t be like so many people out there who let those thoughts slip from their minds.  Start collecting them today.