The Importance of Capturing

Image: Illustration of inbox by Brad Blackman
Ideas are like dreams. There’s probably not a lot of difference what happens in the brain when you’re having a dreams or an inspirational flash. I’m not a neurologist, so I wouldn’t know. But I can imagine that something similar happens each time. (Ever noticed how many ideas are born out of dreams?) They have this much in common: these momentary flashes appear brightly for an instant, and then quickly fade into the subconscious, never to be found again when you need them or want to remember them.

There are a lot of important nuggets there in those flashes. Too bad they go away in a puff and they’re hard to recall. But they don’t have to be, if you find a way to capture those things and make a habit of doing that.

See, Capturing is one of the fundamental concepts of Getting Things Done. There’s so much “stuff” in our heads that escapes us when we need it. I can’t over-stress the importance of capturing things — whether it’s the need to call to make an appointment to get your tires rotated or if it’s an idea seed that could give way to a masterpiece.

It’s not so important how you capture things, but that you do capture them. The tools are as diverse as there are human beings, and everyone has their own way of doing it, their own preference. (We’ll discuss different capture tools in another post.) Just do it in a way that makes sense to you so you can act on it later. If it’s something that someone else will have to do later on, make sure you frame it in such a way that they’ll understand it, using clear, well-defined language.

Capture, then Process

Writing stuff down on a sticky note won’t do you much good if you never see it again. When you capture things, be sure to put them in a place where you can find it — enter it in your Trusted System to ensure it doesn’t get lost. Make sure you review it and process it so that it’ll get acted upon or otherwise filed into the right place.

If you’re using the standard GTD procedure, it should go like this, going by the Do, Defer, Delegate, and Delete method, taking care to file away what needs filing away:

  1. Capture each item on a separate sheet of paper, which goes in the inbox.
  2. At Review Time (daily, weekly, as often as necessary!) Process it and deal with it by asking one of the following questions:
    • Is it actionable and can it be done in less than 2 minutes? DO
    • If it can’t be done now, in what context can I do it? (At the grocery, while I’m running errands, while I’m in the studio, etc.) DEFER
    • Is this something I need to let sit on the back burner and re-evaluate later? If so, put it in your Tickler file for future evaluation, or set up some other reminder for yourself, whether it’s 6 days, 6 weeks, or 6 months from now. DEFER
    • Am I the right person to do it? If not, I should hand it off to the right person and follow up with them at some specified time. DELEGATE
    • Is it a piece of reference material that should go in a reference file or an idea file? (This would apply to phone numbers you need to have around or to doodles that might make their way into a piece.) FILE AWAY
    • If it doesn’t get answered by any of these questions, it’s probably trash and not worth hanging on to. DELETE

There’s one caveat, though: don’t overdo it to the point that it’s an obsession, and you’re so busy capturing things that you never ever do them or just feel so overwhelmed that you’ll never get to any of it. Moderation is key. Just be sure to periodically evaluate and purge captured items that are no longer going to be useful or doable. If you think you’re doing that, take a good hard look at it like my friend, productivity guru Patrick Rhone, suggests.

Remember, getting a handle on capturing (and then processing) is fundamental to staying on top of things. If you wait too long to process or review, you’ll end up with forgotten ideas and missed opportunities. I’ll be sharing some of my own capture tools in a few days.


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  1. […] you draw constantly, you’ll catch ideas before they go away. Get in the habit of carrying some sort of capture device, whether it’s a […]


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