5 steps to capturing and storing your ideas

5 parts to an academics system for capturing and storing ideas

An an academic, you need a system to effectively capture and curate your ideas. Such systems are infinitely flexible–part of the fun is playing around with different components until you find a set that fits you. That said, I suspect that the following components are pretty much universal in any such system:

you need a means of capturing an idea anywhere,

you need centralized, temporary storage,

you need an arena for right-brain and left-brain play,

you need long-term storage.

We’ll spend time over the next couple of weeks examining each of these in more detail; consider this the opening chapter.

OK, here’s my system in, of course, 5 parts:

1) You need a means of capturing an idea anywhere. Every academic needs an instantaneous recording device. In fact, one way of recognizing yourself as an incurable academic is the near painful nakedness you feel upon discovering out in the real world without anything to write with. Because you never know when an idea will hit. Let me reemphasize that.

You never know when an idea will hit.

Never. Driving to work. In the middle of the night. Sitting on the john. As a consequence, there are only a handful of scenarios where I can’t at a moment’s notice reach out scribble on my Hipster PDA–a bunch of 3×5 filecards clipped together–with my Pilot V5 Extra Fine. Sure there are other technologies, like real PDAs or voice recorders, but nothing is faster, simpler, and less costly to replace when it goes through the wash. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking–“whatabout the pen?”. So far, the caps my trusty Pilot V5s have stayed on).

2) You need centralized, temporary storageOne insight of GTD is the importance of a physical repository for the paper that enters your life. I throw ripped out magazine pages, bills, journals, essays to be graded, and, of course, scribble-filled index cards, in my inbox. Since I have two desks, one at school and one at home, I have two inboxes. The goal is to process all items in the inbox by the end of the day. The reality is that it may take ’til Friday. But, and this is the important point, I know where my stuff is. Loose papers that need to be processed always pass through the inbox.

3) You need an arena for right-brain play– My Moleskine notebook, a high quality bound notebook, serves two functions. First, it is my upscale Hipster PDA. It goes with me to every seminar, faculty meeting, and waiting room–any place where I will be sitting for more than a 20 minutes. But it also serves as my analogue computer–a place to jot down ideas and connect them with arrows, to draw, to think visually and spatially. Every seminar/meeting/waiting room get’s a new page and heading (usually where I am, or a particular problem I’m trying to solve). The sequential nature of my Moleskine entries let’s me return to a where I left off and quickly get up to speed. When I’m working on a big project, the Moleskine sits (as it’s doing right now) between me and my keyboard so I can go back and forth, analogue and digital, right brain/left brain.

4) You need an arena for left-brain play–Thank gawd for intel Macs. I can now run my two PC-based programs, SAS and SigmaPlot, on a machine with an OS built by folks who understand how I work. I use one computer because my work is not CPU intensive–I don’t do a lot of simulations, and my graphics are simple and straightforward. Thus I can get by with a decent notebook computer and I don’t have the hassle of transferring files back and forth between my notebook and desktop.

5) You need long-term storage. Storage memory is incredibly cheap, your ideas aren’t. A notebook used in two offices allows you to effortlessly keep your backup’s in two places against the awful, finite probability that one of those two places will be obliterated (hey, I live in tornado country). I use LaCie backup drives because they look cool (I’m a MacHead), but the quality of backup drives is starting to converge on “pretty good” all around. Add a program like SuperDuper! (yeah, I know…MacHead) that does progressive backups (backing up your entire hard disk once, then only those files that have changed or been added subsequently) and you have as close to a guaranteed, painless system of protecting your data as is possible for about $200.

So that’s my system to capture and curate ideas. I’m pretty happy with it. Ultimately the system you use will be driven by your taste, budget, and work habits. But you need a system. We’ll be delving more into each component in the future. In the meantime, here’s your opportunity to share tweaks or hacks that work for you.


19 Responses to 5 steps to capturing and storing your ideas

  1. […] | Getting/Staying Organized: my Moleskine PDA | PipPog – A Moleskine Hacked Into a Compete System | 5 Steps to Capturing and Story Your Ideas | Moleskine Hacks from 43 […]

  2. nkilkenny says:

    Great post. I like the left/right area for play concept. It’s a very nice list of how to get starting organizing one’s creative life.

  3. Anon. says:

    Curate is not an appopriate word. GTD is stupid. VLR! Death to GTD.

  4. Mike says:

    I must admit, I never knew an alternative definition of curate was “a person invested with the care, or cure (cura) of souls.” I used it as the verb, “to manage and maintain a collection”. Though, come to think of it, a blend of the two was what I really had in mind…

  5. […] Check the full description at Getting Things Done in Academia  […]

  6. […] Advice for graduate students on staying organized. This is also valuable information for faculty, too. One of the things I’ve found since I became faculty is that the old system of note-taking I developed as a student (using a legal pad+manilla folders) doesn’t really work all that well for me anymore. Instead, I now tote around a Moleskine notebook and just keep everything in it. Interestingly, I find that I’m able to find stuff remarkably quickly in it—so much so that people will ask a question about a meeting several weeks ago and I can turn right to the page containing those notes. I’m not a GTD guy; I find that those pre-fab systems don’t work well for me. A while back, a friend set me up with an “inbox”—the shibboleth of the GTD system. Inboxes work great, I think, if they can contain things that can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. But my job routinely requires me to live six months ahead, and I get documents that I need to deal with, but often not for weeks or months. The result is that within 2 weeks, my inbox was a foot tall with things I needed to deal with in upcoming months but could not deal with immediately. Or even in a reasonable amount of time. […]

  7. […] 5 steps to capturing and storing your ideas « Getting Things Done in Academia how organized. I am all about a tornado of post-its, and a proliferation of confusingly-named .txt files (tags: academic learning research tips lifehacks useful) […]

  8. […] etc. og er målrettet studerende, men det gør den nu ikke mindre interessant. F.eks. anviser den 5 trin til at holde styr på og opbevare sine idéer. Det er gode, simple tips til, hvordan du hurtigt kan lave et idéarkiv, der er nemt at have […]

  9. Chris says:

    Post-its!! Right on. Post-its and notecards – i.e., physical pieces of rather durable paper that you can literally shuffle to get organized – are definitely the way to go. I tend to have five or six documents (at least) going at a time when I’m working on a paper or a story. It’s a tremendous relief that what I thought was disorganization on my part is actually fairly systematic.

    Darn it all, though: I’m going to have to get a Mac before I start working on my PhD, aren’t I?…

  10. Steve says:

    1)”You need an arena for right-brain play”
    2)”You need an arena for right-brain play”
    I like GoalEnforcer http://www.goalenforcer.com/
    I use the brainstorm mode for 1), and then I use the drag-and-drop + clipboard area to re-organize my plan in a step by step fashion, 2)

  11. Steve says:

    Sorry, my MISTAKE
    For the post above, please read:
    1)”You need an arena for right-brain play”
    2)”You need an arena for left-brain play”

  12. gradschoolsurvival says:

    great article. I have just written something similar to this on my blog. I focused on capturing incoming information, then another blog on organizing that information.

    By the way great site. I enjoyed your reading list!

  13. […] of Getting Things Done in Academia, five steps to capturing your ideas. When you are swamped with things to do and still have the urge to generate […]

  14. Charlie Cory says:

    I agree with your point about when ideas hit. Always when your not expecting them if my experience is anything to go by. At least your system gives you a chnace to catch a few of those pesky critters.

  15. […] Use it for central, temporary storage: Stash magazine clippings, tickets, receipts and other to-file items in your "inbox" section. […]

  16. Harry says:

    I find what works for me is a goal setting app called GoalsOnTrack and it has worked very well. It saves me a lot of time in keeping track of my goals and most importantly it helps me better organize my daily todos towards achieving my goals. You may want to check it out.

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  18. Ilse says:

    Helpful information. Fortunate me I discovered your site accidentally, and I’m shocked why this accident didn’t took place earlier!
    I bookmarked it.

  19. […] of Getting Things Done in Academia, five steps to capturing your ideas. When you are swamped with things to do and still have the urge to generate […]

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