Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Eight Capture Tools for Maintaining a Clear Head

by Andre · 7 Comments

There’s a problem with the common advice to focus on priorities. Something is always a priority relative to something else. If you had nothing else to do in the world but one task, you wouldn’t need to “focus” on it as a priority; the action would be self-evident, as it is in life-threatening emergencies. As soon as other things enter your head, focus requires effort.

One way of maintaining focus is to simply develop the discipline to stick with your current task and ignore new thoughts and external interruptions. Or it may be necessary to handle the interruption first, then return to the original task. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice.

The third option is to use a collection tool to capture either the interruption or to “bookmark” the current task. Remember, you don’t need to think through what you capture at the moment you’re capturing it. You can always process (clarify the outcomes and actions of) these reminders at a later stage.

Capturing interruptions

If, while you’re working, you suddenly think of something not related to your current work, an internal interruption, trying to ignore it will perpetuate the thought as a loop. It’s like trying not to think of pink elephants: you have to think of them in order to know what not to think about. The more a thought remains implicit, the more attention it will consume. This is why it’s important to collect any thought that has your attention, not just work-related thoughts.

Internal interruptions are the most insidious type, since they’re invisible until they’re recorded, but external interruptions also need to be handled. If the interruption comes in on a piece of paper, it can obviously go into an in-basket. If the interruption is verbal, the key information can be captured on a piece of paper, then thrown in the in-basket.

With IM, if you choose to remain visible to others online, treat message notifications just like verbal interruptions: write the key information down, reply with some version of “I’ll get back to you” (unless the answer to a question is immediately obvious), then throw your note in your in-basket. I recommend using the in-basket rather than relying on trying to remember to look at your IM client and reply to the last message.


In many office situations, the thing that’s interrupting your current task may actually be more important than the task that’s being interrupted. This is a judgment call that only you can make. If you decide that what you’re already doing takes precedence, capture the interruption and return to the current task. If you decide that the interruption requires your attention, “bookmark” it by putting the interrupted work in your in-basket so that after the interruption is handled, you can pick up exactly where you left off.

You’re writing up a purchase order and the phone rings. It’s a customer inquiring about a late delivery. Since you’ve decided to take the call, you put the PO and any related paperwork in your in-basket, and begin taking notes on the customer’s problem (the order number, contact information, etc.). Once the customer is off the phone, you process this input as you would any in-basket item, writing down the defined outcome on your project list and the next action on your action list; or you hand the problem off to customer service if that’s an option.

If another interruption occurs before you’re able to process the former one — say you get another phone call — you repeat the same procedure: you put the notes from the previous call in your in-basket and take notes on the new call. Then you process these inputs in reverse order until you get to your original task.

Collection tools

Things often occur to us in places where we can’t act on them. Family issues might come to mind while you’re consulting with a client. Client issues might come to mind while you’re having dinner with your spouse. Getting these thoughts out of your head is simple to do, but it requires having the right tools in the right place at the right time.

1. Junior legal pads. When you’re at your desk, having a junior legal pad ready for action at all times will lower the bar for deciding whether or not something is worth writing down. Hint: if you’re deliberating on writing it down, it’s worth writing down, even if you decide three minutes later to cross it out. You can either write down new items as a running list on a single page, then throw them in your in-basket, or you can write down each item on a separate sheet. While the one-item-per-page approach consumes far more paper, many people find that processing each item is more focused when they’re only viewing one item at a time.

2. Index cards. Index cards are highly versatile. There’s better suited to the one-item-at-a-time approach, they’re portable enough to fit in your pocket, they can be clipped to other documents as information supplements, and a cluster of them can be rearranged on a desk surface for a more topographical view of your project.

3. Computer applications. These can range from simple utilities like Notepad or TextEdit to more robust tools like Evernote or DevonTHINK. I used to use Notepad, which I assigned to a hotkey (Ctrl-Alt-N) whenever I needed to write something down. I eventually stopped doing this, since I was already using physical notepads and in-baskets, and the addition of virtual buckets diffused by attention. Even when I was still using the Palm Desktop as my primary organizing tool, I made it a rule to do all of my capturing on paper; that way I knew if there was paper still around, there was processing still left to do.

But there’s no reason you can’t operate in a similar fashion entirely with digital tools. For instance, if you might use Outlook as your task manager, but use a text editor to open a capture.txt file whose contents you process into Outlook until the file is back to empty.

4. Notebooks. The key to making notebooks work as capture tools is to make sure you have a clear protocol for processing what you collect. I recommend putting your notebook in your in-basket whenever you return to your desk, and treat it the same way you would other paperwork. Once you’ve processed an entry on a page, either cross it out or apply a bracket at the margin to make it clear that the item has been entered into your system.

5. Notetaker wallets. These are otherwise regular wallets for holding cash and cards, but with a notepad and a silo for holding a miniature or retractable pen. These are great, because you’re never without the means to write something down, either for yourself or others. The Wenger Mini Pad Folio and the David Allen Company’s Notetaker Wallet are a couple of common models. To fashion a notetaker wallet on the cheap, you can stick a dozen light bond index cards cut to size in one or two of your current wallet’s credit card receptacles; but you’ll need to carry the pen separately.

6. Voice recorders. Voice recorders are especially useful in situations where you don’t have two hands available to capture notes. When I’m driving, I use a Panasonic voice recorder to jot things down, despite having voice recording capability on my phone. The cell phone requires a press-and-hold operation that I find just distracting enough to potentially interfere with my driving, whereas the dedicate voice recorder has a straightforward one-touch operation. I make it a rule not to leave my car until I process any voice notes (I usually only have a couple), but some people will literally put their voice recorder in their in-basket. An increasingly popular option is to use a free service like Jott, which allows you to call an automated voice mail that transcribes and emails your voice note, along with the original audio file as an attachment.

7. Organizers. To make paper day planners work effectively, be sure to keep your task and calendar entries separate from raw collection. Have a separate tab just for blank or rule note paper, or a notepad. As with notebooks, make sure any processed entries are crossed out or otherwise denoted as processed, so that old material doesn’t get mixed in with the new. Ideally, if you’re using a loose leaf organizer, or have a notepad with perforated sheets, eliminate the sheets with processed items as soon as possible.

8. Mnemonic visualization. If you happen to be a situation where a capture tool simply isn’t available, you can often jog your memory to vividly imagining a scenario that will trigger a reminder where it needs to occur. For instance, if I realize I need to recharge my MP3 player, I might visualize coming back to my desk and having the player’s charging cable lash out and zap me like a snake.

It sounds silly, and is, but the exaggerated scenario creates an anchor point. It only takes a moment to imagine the exaggerated event, but you can forget it immediately afterwards. Once you’re in the environment of the trigger (in my case, the desk), the memory will come back automagically. Even if you don’t practice mnemonics regularly, you’ll find that you can recall these anchors about 80% of the time.

What about the other 20%? C’est la vie. That’s the point of having a ubiquitously available capture tool.

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  • Adrian KohNo Gravatar // Jul 31, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Another awesome notetaking wallet is the wallet-sized filofax called “Lynhurst”, which is tiny enough to carry around comfortably anytime.

    It’s very mod-able, with writing space (though tiny), pen loops, inserts for cards/cash, and refillable note taking space – but most of all, a zip to make sure nothing falls out.

  • Charlie GilkeyNo Gravatar // Aug 1, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Having used many of these, I’ve settled on the notebook. Notecards worked for me until they ended up all of the house – it took more discipline than I had to round them up; as an aside, they do work well for music structure, but that’s another matter.

    I’m thinking about getting a voice recorder for exactly the reasons you mention – and because I’ll oftentimes start creating a song that works and forget the words by the time I get something to write on.

    Computer applications come in as the holding tank for reference information – those items that aren’t actionable (right now) but may prove valuable in the future. Everything else gets purged at the end of the notbook.

    Great post, Andre!

  • Francis WadeNo Gravatar // Aug 6, 2008 at 1:45 am

    I am waiting for the day when they reduce a PDA to the width of a piece of paper, and then I can include it with a regular pad – resulting in the perfect capture tool.

    Now, I use a PDA wallet with a pad — that’s the closest I can come to the perfect capture tool.

    When I am without my pad, I sometimes change my watch to the other hand to remind myself that something needs to be recalled at a future time.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Aug 6, 2008 at 2:03 am

    @Adrian: The Filofax Lyndhurst looks nice. I’m using a Filofax Guilford, but it doesn’t have the pen loop that the Lyndhurst has, which is becoming annoying.

    @Charlie: You’ve made the right decision with the notebook. Index cards are best if you’re deskbound, have an intray, and have the habit of immediately throwing new notes in the intray. Otherwise, like you said, they’ll just wind up scattered around the house.
    @Francis: The Irex iLiad comes close to what you’re describing. It’s a ebook reader that uses E Ink, like the Amazon Kindle, but incorporates a stylus for writing or drawing. You can even annotate documents as a separate layer. But the $700 price tag makes it hard to justify, and it’s not quite A4/letter size.

  • J-MoNo Gravatar // Aug 6, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    I’m a secretary, so as you can imagine, my tasks/to-dos are updated a LOT.

    I keep a Post-It note on my document holder, which is right under my screen. It is updated each day with that day’s to-do list.

    The 2nd thing I do is keep a small spiral notebook for meetings/project assignments. I write down the date of the meeting, the subject/name of the project and then any relevant notes.

    This little system has kept me on task really well. If I use electronic media for these types of things, they just get lost. The physical act of writing acts like a psychological key or trigger.

    At home, I don’t have any such system–I have a general idea each day of what my big tasks are, and as I do them, I take care of anything else that might come up. I save large projects for weekends/days off.


    PS: This is a WONDERFUL blog!

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Aug 6, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    @J-Mo: Physically writing things down acts as a psychological trigger for me as well. When I used a computer to track things, I would copy and paste more information than necessary; also, I didn’t pay as much attention to information if I simply copied it. Writing down a task slows me down just enough to focus on it sufficiently.
    More importantly, I found that having a tool for tracking work that’s separate from the tool I use to do work (the computer) gives me more perspective, as I mentioned in my post on paper task management.

  • Distribute Your Productivity System // Oct 3, 2008 at 11:12 am

    [...] soon as I realized what happened, pulled out my notetaker wallet (as seen in my post, Eight Capture Tools for Maintaining a Clear Head), sat down and spent the next 10 minutes doing an extensive mind sweep, collecting everything that [...]