Make Your Paper Notebooks Useful: Capture Your Ideas with a Capture Notebook

My daughter worked at an entymology department when she was in college. Her job was to feed and water the insects and arachnids, and clean their cages, which were mostly aquariums with mesh lids.

Some of the insects’ living quarters had signs on them that read: “Caution! FAST!!”

Luckily my daughter is fast too, and she had no escapees on her watch.

She honed her bug netting skills working at a biology research station. Here she is on our screened-in porch, getting ready to capture and release hundreds of baby mantids that hatched INSIDE our screened-in porch. (Long story…)

smiling young woman standing at the ready, with a bug net about three feet long

A capture notebook works like my daughter’s giant bug net.

You want to capture things that are fast-moving. You want to capture things that jump around a lot: the thoughts and ideas in your head.

You want to write them down where you can examine them more closely; and then you want to release them later into an appropriate environment.

The species we’re looking to capture in these notebooks include:

  • errands you just remembered you need to run
  • things you want to remember to tell someone
  • ideas for new projects
  • writing ideas, coding ideas, house repair ideas, vacation ideas, wild ideas
  • books or podcasts or shows that people mention, that you want to check out
  • things to add to the grocery list
  • that weird thing the dog is doing that makes you wonder if you should call the vet
  • anniversary / holiday / birthday gift ideas for your favorite people
  • domain names
  • questions you want to look into
  • tasks that you realize you need to get done

Lots of stuff!

I keep my capture notebook with me at all times. It is my thoughts and ideas in-box. Interesting and useful thoughts come to me quite often when I’m on a walk, or puttering around the house.

Lots of uninteresting and non-usable thoughts come to me as well. I capture those too. I don’t actually know, ahead of time, which will be useful later.

So I’d rather capture my thoughts and let several go, than lose any valuable ones I want to act on.

This means I need to use a big net: I need to capture my thoughts first, then figure out later whether or not they are useful.

Don’t Organize Your Capture Notebook. Empty It.

A capture notebook is not a reference notebook. It is not important to organize your capture notebook with a table of contents or index, or a fancy-schmancy numbering system.

What is crucial is to review your capture notebook regularly, and move stuff into your other systems. Otherwise, it becomes just another pile, another source of stress. This is a temporary holding bin, not a permanent reference document.

Deadlines, dates, reminders, and tasks need to go into your productivity system: dates on your calendar, tasks in your task management system.

Ideas in development need to go into your idea management system.

Tips to Make Your Capture Notebook Useful

  • set the table - find a notebook or cover you can attach a pen to, so you can capture ideas quickly
  • establish a regular routine for emptying out the thoughts and ideas in your capture notebook
  • have a way to mark things you’ve already entered, so you don’t reread them (I put a diagonal slash mark through notes I’ve moved into my systems)
  • find a way to mark the next blank page so you can turn to it quickly: I like notebooks with ribbons for this, but you could also use a paperclip
    • it is totally allowed to have a main capture notebook; and also have “satellites” for when you don’t want to carry the main one, e.g. smaller, more portable notebooks or even index cards; just be sure information on the satellites either gets moved promptly into your main book OR directly into your calendar, task list, zettelkasten, whatever…

I use pocket notebooks for my capture notebooks. The brand varies, but I like my capture notebooks to have ribbon markers, so I can grab the book and immediately find the next space to write in.

At the end of each day, I take about fifteen minutes to shut things down and prepare for the next day. At that time I review my capture notebook and move any tasks, dates, reminders, and deadlines into my calendar and task management system.

I put the date on all my notes, or at least on each page. This can be surprisingly useful for reminding your future self of what that note was about.

Once an idea has been transferred into my systems, I draw a slash mark through the note. That way I can still go back and re-read it if I forgot something; but it also tells me I’ve entered that information into my system.

For writing ideas, I write a “w” next to them and circle that, so I know it is not an task or appointment. I review my writing ideas in my capture notebook once a month or so, letting time sift the usable from the non-usable ones. I put the ones that still seem interesting into a dedicated writing ideas notebook.

You could also make up codes for other ideas that you are gathering, but not acting on right away: maybe “v” for vacation ideas, “h” for home renovation ideas?

Then you can leave those for processing later, and distinguish them from tasks and reminders.

You get the idea.

Now grab your trusty capture notebook, and write that idea down.

Like insects in the entomology lab, ideas can jump away from you FAST!!!

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