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zen habits: Tips for GTD's Ubiquitous Capture

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tips for GTD's Ubiquitous Capture

Every Tuesday is GTD Tips Day, starting today.

One of the revelations of GTD is the very simple (and in retrospect, very obvious) mandate to write everything down. Capture all your thoughts on paper (or digitally) -- don't let them float around in your head, where they will surface at inappropriate times, stress you out and be forgotten when they are needed. Have an idea? Write it down, right now, before you forget. Thought of an errand you need to do? Capture that as well. Just remembered something for your grocery list? You know what to do.

If you're not already capturing all your thoughts or tasks immediately on paper, or in a digital system, and carrying that around with you wherever you go, I highly recommend you start today. Even if you don't implement the entire GTD system, this one step can make a big difference. It eliminates a lot of the stress from this stuff floating around in your head, and keeps you from forgetting a WHOLE lot. Trust me.

Here are a few tips on ubiquitous capture, whether you already have a system or not:

  • Some of the more popular methods: A little notebook, a Hipster PDA, a PDA or smart phone, or a Moleskine notebook. Each of these methods has some very passionate proponents, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. I prefer a simple, small notebook, as it is cheap, portable and easily modifiable to my needs.
  • Carry it around, everywhere. No matter what system you use, it should be very easy to carry around, and easy to jot down ideas quickly. You need to carry it wherever you go, including to bed, in stores, if you're hospitalized, wherever.
  • Jot down ideas immediately. Don't wait until later. You'll forget. Even if you don't forget, your mind will waste precious CPU cycles trying to remember, instead of focusing on what you're doing at this moment.
  • Once you get back to your computer, or wherever you keep your next-action lists, process your notes immediately. If you just write your ideas down, but don't actually transfer them to your action system, it's not worth the effort. The ideas and tasks you write down have to actually be acted upon, or at least decided upon (you might decide to ditch it), otherwise your system won't work. Your mind will keep that stuff in its active RAM, because it knows that writing the stuff down won't help you remember it later.
  • Don't use your capture system as your action system. This will be a point of hot debate among GTDers, because some like to use their Moleskines and PDAs as both their capture and action systems. But let me clarify: if you use one part of the Moleskine, for example, for capture, and another part (perhaps marked with tabs) for your next-action and project lists, that's fine. Just don't mix them up. If you write down stuff on a list as capture, and then use that same list for your to-do list, you'll run into problems. Things will be confusing, for one, because the list is just in order of capture. You will also not have things broken into context, which means you will be constantly sorting through different types of actions that you can't actually act upon right now. And over time, the stuff you still need to do will be several pages up into your notes, meaning you'll have to constantly flip back through your capture notes to find out what you need to do.
  • Use tools you love. Some people love the texture of the Moleskine notebooks, and have a favorite pen that feels great in their hand and rolls beautifully on the paper. Others enjoy the technology of the PDA. Just choose something you enjoy using -- you'll be more likely to use it.
  • If you slip up, just start again. Sometimes we forget about our capture system, or get too busy. It happens to all of us. Don't beat yourself up, or just abandon the system. It works. You just need to get started again. Perhaps try a new system, but just start.
Update: By request, I've posted a photo (above) of my little notebook I use for capture. It's blurry on purpose, but you get the idea.

See also:


Brett said...

Great post! I've been thinking about my GTD capture methods lately. I use a Moleskin to take notes while I'm away from my computer, but I've started to use Google Talk as my capture system while I'm at my computer. I recently wrote a post on how I’ve started using Google Talk as a capture system and using Gmail to organize those notes into GTD contexts. Here’s the link. http://www.frugallawstudent.com/2007/02/22/google-talk-as-gtd-capture-system/
Great site! Keep up the good work!
Take care.

Leo said...

Hi Brett ... thanks for the nice comment and sharing your experiences. I like your post on Google Talk as a capture system ... personally, I prefer plain paper notebook, because I can take it wherever I go and don't have to switch systems. But everybody is different, right? That's the great thing about GTD ... you use the tools and system that work for you.

sunny said...

I like the idea of using a small notebook. Could you post a photo or two of your notebook?

I am a visual learner and can't figure out if I'd have one page for projects or one page per project or a page per day?

(I'm also going to refresh my memory on the GTD system... can't carry around the information in my head any longer!)

Great post! Am new to your blog and it's now one of my favorites!

Leo said...

Hi Sunny, thanks for the excellent comment. Posting a photo of my small notebook is a good idea, which I might do soon ... however, it's embarrassingly messy. Basically, any small notebook will do ... one that can fit in your pocket, so you can carry it around and whip out at a moment's notice. I recommend a Moleskine (google it) as they are really nice.

As for your other questions (one page per project, etc.) ... I only use my small notebook (my "capture system") to jot down thoughts, ideas, tasks that I think of, etc. on the go. When I get to my computer, I use a different program to list my next-actions (tasks) by context (home, work, errands, calls, etc) and by project. The program I use (Tracks) has a page for each project's actions, but you can see all the projects on one page, and all your contexts on one page too. See "My GTD Implementation" in the right hand column for more on this. I don't organize my projects in this "capture" notebook ... I write tasks down on the go and then transfer them to my GTD system at the computer. You could use a notebook for your GTD system (many people do) but I wouldn't get the two systems mixed up together.

If you have more questions, feel free to email me at zenhabits (at) gmail.com ... I'd love to help you.

Johnnydcusa said...

A great Java program that is very closely aligned to GTD is ThinkingRock ( http://thinkingrock.com.au ). And the great thing is it is not only cross platform, but also will print out onto paper so you can carry it with you ... even has idea / thought capture area!

They have an updated version out in March ... very worth a look

Geekette said...

Good Post. reguarding the "process immediately" part, ' I was just thinking today how my portable inbox items sortof nag at me until I have time to process the items. SO does anyone have any ideas for that? Or maybe it's just a newbee symptom of not trusting my system?

Leo said...

Great question, Geekette. My inboxes (physical and email, along with voicemail and notebook capture system) all bother me as well until I empty them. I have a compulsive need to empty my inboxes, which I do fairly often.

I don't have a suggestion for how not to let this bother you, except that for me it's not a problem. I like having empty inboxes, and I don't think it slows me down.

Leo said...

@Sunny: I've now posted a pic of my small notebook in the post itself.

gtdfrk said...

Great post, Leo!

For maximum portability and flexibiliy I carry 2 PocketMods and a (simple) pen with me at all times. They are my capture device of choice.

The first PocketMod is actually preprinted with my next actions, waiting for, projects and someday/maybes. The great thing about a PocketMod is that you can quickly refold it to start writing on the back (which I have prepared by printing lines on it).

The second PocketMod uses a standard template, showing 2 year calendars (2006 and 2007 at the moment), 2 full weeks diary (current and next week - just for a quick glance at my schedule, I use a Moleskine Pocket Diary for the real work) and 2 more ruled pages for taking notes. As with the first PocketMod, I tend to scribble on the backside of this one also, depending on how much I need to capture.

At home I "sync" my PocketMods with my paper-based (and digital) reference systems and my custom Excel based GTD system.

Sounds complicated perhaps, but it works great for me! ;)

I'm looking forward to reading more tips from you!

Leo said...

@GTDFRK: thanks for posting your capture system. I love it. That's the thing about us GTD nerds ... we love reading about other people's systems. Your system is a little complicated for me -- I like to keep things as simple as possible -- but it sounds like it's working great for you, and really that's the only criteria, right?

Edmond said...

I'm not sure I understand the problem with combining the capture tool and the context task lists. I use a Hipster PDA with a single card for each context, plus another card that lists all projects. When I need to capture a task I'll write add it to the project card if it has more than one next action or directly to the appropriate context card if it's a single action task. Am I missing an opportunity to improve my system here?

Leo said...

Hi Edmund ... this is a tough one to answer. Let me start by saying that if your system is working for you, and you are not resisting writing everything down using the system you described, don't worry about changing it.

Having said that, I provided that tip as a general comment on best practices. Best practices don't work for everyone, and you shouldn't conform to what "should" be done.

The reasoning behind that tip is this (and remember, this is in general, not a comment on you): if you have to take the extra few seconds to locate the right project or context card in your Hipster PDA, there may be times when you don't bother to write something down. For example, if you are driving or at a store or something similar, and are too rushed to look for the right card.

The reasoning is that if you separate the systems, and have a card (or notebook or whatever) strictly for capture, you are more likely to just jot everything down, right then and there, instead of waiting until later when you have time to find the right card.

However, like I said, if your system is working, don't change it. But if you monitor your habits over the next few days and notice that you do have a tendency to wait until later to write things down at times, instead of doing it right away, I recommend you think about my tip.

It sounds like you have a great system, though, and I congratulate you on that! Keep it up! And thanks for sharing.