Helping Creative People Create

No Idea Left Behind: 25 Tools for Capturing Ideas Anywhere

As a serial entrepreneur, I’m addicted to ideas. I feed off of ’em. And nothing makes me more upset than having a great idea… and losing it. Ideas never happen at opportune times, and having the proper idea capture tools can make sure that you’ll capture all your ideas for later processing.

The problem with ideas is that they’re situational. You don’t only have ideas while you’re in front of the computer, or walking your dog. Ideas happen all the time. This poses an interesting problem when you’re trying to capture all your ideas.

In order to capture every single little idea that we have, we’ll need to take a multi-pronged approach to capturing the little bits of genius that we have throughout our day. Here’s a list of tools that can help you capture your ideas no matter what the activity.

I should note that we’re not talking about complex systems like mind mapping and other GTD systems. While they’re awesome tools, we’re only interested in the ones that allow us to quickly capture what’s tickling our brain. Tools for organizing ideas is a completely different topic.

Analog Idea Capture

Analog idea capturing is the oldest and one of the most useful forms of idea capture. Often technology can get in the way of simply storing our ideas. Analog idea capture is great for those times when you’re unplugged from the world or don’t have access to a computer. Some people (like myself) prefer analog idea capture over any other method because it’s the simplest. Here are some analog idea capture tools:

Hipster pda
Photo by teo

Hipster PDA. Merlin Mann’s infamous creation is a staple to anyone who wants to jot ideas on the cheap. The Hipster PDA consists of 2 things: 3×5 notecards and a binder clip. It’s a simple lo-fi solution for creative people on the go.

Pocket Briefcase. The pocket briefcase expands upon the hipster PDA idea with a bit of a formal twist. For uptight types who don’t want anything other than leather touching their clothes, the pocket briefcase holsters 3×5 cards and has compartments for other scraps of paper.

Moleskine. The moleskine is nothing more than a notebook with excellent grade of paper and leather binding. While it sounds a bit excessive, anyone who’s ever used one will agree when I say that you won’t go back to the hipster PDA. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction that comes to writing ideas in one of these puppies.

Writeintherain
Rite in the Rain notepad

Rite in the Rain. Possibly one of the more eccentric capture tools, rite in the rain is all weather notebook that was made to “specifically shed water in any weather condition”. If you’re finding yourself in adverse conditions constantly, this might be a smart tool to snag.

Write boards. Writeboards allow you to quickly add ideas, but they really shine in the fact that the ideas stay visible. It’s hard to miss a writeboard on the wall. The fact that you can quickly erase and add to an idea is another bonus.

Sticky notes. We all know what sticky notes do. They’re the essential office product that allow you to scrawl notes quickly, and stick them somewhere prominent so you won’t miss them. While sticky notes don’t necessarily save well over a long period of time, they’re awesome for on-the-run idea capture.

Mac Software

Mac users pride themselves on the amount and quality of organization and productivity apps. As a general rule, there are a lot more applications like this written for the Mac. However, not all of them specialize in idea capture. Here are a few that do.

Append to Text Quicksilver
Quicksilver appending to text file.
Photo from 43Folders.

Quicksilver. Quicksilver is the quintessential application for doing just about everything better and faster on a mac. So naturally, it’s no surprise that you can quickly capture ideas with the little program.

Probably the easiest way to capture ideas is to append text to an existing document. Merlin at 43Folders covers this extensively, and shows the benefits of using the method for quickly scribbling notes into a text file.

You can also use Quicksilver with other todo list applications like iGTD and Backpack. Very nifty.

iGTD. iGTD is an excellent piece of free GTD software. However, the strength of the application is how easy it is to capture tasks and ideas quickly. You can use a keyboard command to quickly add items or tasks, and it also integrates into Quicksilver.

Omnifocus
Photo by reinoutvanrees

OmniFocus. OmniFocus is a great piece of task management software. OmniFocus claims to allow you to quickly capture tasks from anywhere, without switching applications. You can email yourself tasks or capture them via a dashboard widget. The other handy feature about OmniFocus is that it integrates with the iPhone, so anything you capture there will sync with your Mac.

Screenshot. There’s nothing like a good ‘ol fashioned screenshot when it comes to capturing ideas. Apple computers allow you to resize the screenshot before you take it, and they allow you to quickly take it via a keyboard command of Cmd + Shift + 4.

There are plenty of applications that can help you capture screenshots, but since it’s built in to mac functionality, why download another program?

Windows Software

While Mac users traditionally tend to have lots more productivity applications to choose from, the Windows community appears to be catching up.

FlyWorld Flyworld is an interesting (and expensive) solution to quick idea capture. FlyWorld is a piece of software that allows you to quickly convert handwritten text to digital text with pen and paper, using a special pen and notepad. Essentially, the application syncs your written text to digital text on your PC. If you love using paper tools to capture ideas but want to ensure that they’re saved digitally, FlyPaper might be a great solution.

Append Launchy
Appending text with launchy. From Lifehacker.

Launchy. Launchy is an open-sourced equivalent of Quicksilver for Windows. It has nearly all the functionality that Quicksilver has, and can also append text to files as well as integrate with other GTD and task management software through the use of plugins.

Screenshot. Like the mac, Windows computers come with a built in screen capture function. Just tap the little Print Screen key in the upper right part of your keyboard, and Windows will capture a shot of what’s going on your desktop.

Screenshots are a really helpful way to visually capture what your looking at. Much like the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”, a screen-grab can quickly show you what’s going on, without having to take the time to write it down. The only downside is that screenshots don’t allow you to search text found in screenshots, unless you’re using Evernote (more below).

Universal idea capture software

Montage Phone Desktop Browser
Evernote

Evernote. Evernote is a new capturing software that’s available on iPhone, Mac, PC, mobile phones and Firefox. Essentially, you can capture ideas anywhere, while it syncs everywhere. Make a note on your iPhone, and it syncs online and on your computer desktop. However, the real benefit of Evernote is the ability to read text inside of images. If you took a screenshot of your desktop, Evernote would go through and scan the screenshot and extract any text it found with it, allowing you to search for it later. A very quick and handy way to capture everything and index it into a searchable database.

Evernote offers a tiered pricing scale, but you can store up to 40 MB of information for free.

Simple text files. Text files are one of the oldest and simplest forms of saving ideas on a computer. No matter what the platform, you can create and save text files to your hard drive. Some might scoff at the simple nature of the text editor, but it’s easily one of my favorite platforms for capturing ideas. While it doesn’t come with the bells and whistles of software like Word, it’s quick and easy. With text files, the software doesn’t get in the way of the idea like more complicated software.

Web Apps for Idea Capture

While there are many web applications for todo lists, project management and the like, I only featured the best at idea capture. Many boast at their usefulness, but only a few really capitalize on quickly capturing thoughts and ideas. These are the creme de la creme of idea-capturing web apps.

Backpack Capture
Photo by tupton

Backpack. Backpack is one of the pioneers of todo list applications. It has consistently been one of the best and most widely used applications, mainly because there are many ways to use the application. Thanks to an API, there are lots of applications that allow you to use Backpack in a number of different ways. This makes capturing data and thoughts easily. For example, there’s a dashboard widget that allows you to view your Backpack items on your desktop.

Google Docs. Google Docs is an online version of a word processor, like Microsoft Word. Google docs are excellent for writing ideas that might come up during the day. For example, I create a fresh document with every post idea I have for LifeDev or Web Jackalope. It’s like saving ideas to text files, except they’re saved on the Internet. Google Docs also allows you to sync the documents for offline use, if you use Google Gears.

Another great feature of Google Docs is that you can create unlimited documents that can be organized by folder. It’s important to be able to organize your thoughts and ideas so they’re not misplaced in the future.

Remember the Milk. Remember the Milk (RTM) is in a whole different league when it comes to portability and the number of options for capturing ideas. Not only do they have great task management software, they also integrate with a slew of services that help you capture ideas. That’s right, idea capture at it’s finest.

RTM integrates with: Gmail, Blackberry, iPhone/iPod touch, Twitter and Google Calendar.

Now do this. Now Do This is so simple it’s almost a parody on other productivity apps. You simply type in a list (separated by line breaks) of your todo items. While it’s made to be a todo tool, it can be used to quickly keep ideas on the forefront on your mind and it allows a dead-simple way to store ideas. Just click “edit list” and add your idea, thought, or simple whatever. No registration needed.

Twitter. Believe it or not, you can use the handy messaging tool on Twitter to quickly dump ideas into your account. Twitter integrates with Remember the Milk, and Brett Kelly has a great method for sending messages to yourself from Twitter. Twitter can be a very powerful tool because of the wide user base and all the applications that have been created for Twitter. You can literally access Twitter from almost any device or platform, so Twitter seems like a great candidate for ubiquitous capture.

(Oh, and you can follow me on Twitter if you’re so inclined.)

Capture applications for the Phone

As the cell phone market continues to grow and more smart phones are entering the market, it only makes sense that more people will be using their cell phones for more and more things. Now that services are developing mobile-friendly applications, it’s becoming much easier to capture information without needing a computer or a notebook.

iPhone/BlackBerry. Smartphones like the iPhone or the Blackberry have changed the way that people use cell phones. With the ability to take pictures, access the web, email and text messaging, sending and receiving different forms of communication and media is now much easier. There are a myriad of productivity and capturing applications at the iPhone app store, Both iPhone and Blackberry users can take notes with default applications. While I’m not an expert on smartphones, it would appear that the iPhone’s app store has more specific applications for idea capture, like OmniFocus for the iPhone. There is an application that works for both Blackberry and iPhones called Note2Self that allows you to record voice messages to yourself that looks very promising.

Jott

Jott. Jott is an incredible and simple way to store random thoughts that happen when you don’t have a computer or some paper handy. Just call Jott’s number, and say your idea. Jott converts your speech to text and can email it to you. Very simple and very powerful.

Send yourself a text message. People have been using this trick since texting was introduced to the cell phone. Just simply type your text message and send it to your phone number. It’s not the most elegant solution, but it works in a pinch.

Miscellaneous Idea Capture Tools

Watch Recorder
Spy watch that captures audio.

Recording MP3 watch. This nifty little watch allows you to record and play audio straight into the watch. You can plug earphones into the watch and listen to your playback. Not only is it incredibly useful, you’ll also feel like a spy when wearing it. Seriously.

Remembering the idea until morning. I think nearly everyone has ideas right before go to sleep, while your mind is winding down. Bert Webb has an interesting method for remembering the idea until the next morning, if you’re too tired or lazy to write the idea down.

Reach over and turn your alarm clock upside down, lay the night stand lamp on its side, place a shoe in a drawer, or drape your house coat over the lamp. In the morning, when you rise, the first thought you will have after rising will be, “Why the hell did I do that??” At that time, natural memory will take over and remind you.

Sounds like a good idea to me. I personally just prefer keeping a notepad and pen near the bed, but to each his own.

There are more tools…

This is by no means a comprehensive list of applications that help with idea capture. If you can think of any others (or more that you’d like to see), feel free to leave them in the comments below!

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Leave a Comment

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Christina August 14, 2008 at 5:16 pm

I have one to add!
http://www.jott.com

This has been the best for me… you go register for free on their site. They give you a toll free #. You save this # in your cell phone. Anytime an idea hits you, you call the # and speak whatever it is that's on your mind. Jott then sends you an email (pretty fast turn-around!) with your message typed out. I was surprised to see pretty accurate spelling of names! I've been sharing this site with friends and co-workers. It's a free service. Enjoy. & btw, your blog is great! I'm going to link to one of your posts… Thanks again!

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Glen Stansberry August 14, 2008 at 5:49 pm

Hi Christina,

Actually, Jott is under the phone tools. Thanks for the in-depth explanation though! :)

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Metroknow August 14, 2008 at 5:58 pm

Wow Glen – great comprehensive list. I use a moleskin primarily, but I also use Google Docs and Samurize for online stuff. I love the alpha blended view of Samurize for my desktop, although I am slowly switching over to Mac – at which point Quicksilver is my best choice.

Great work – Duly Digg'd :)

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Jared Goralnick August 14, 2008 at 6:07 pm

I use a lot of these…but the one I use most isn't on the list: Microsoft OneNote. While it can be used for both a quick idea and a hour long brainstorming or note-taking, its search, audio, video, hand-writing recognition, organizational tools, and interface are a pleasure.

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Art Gonzalez August 14, 2008 at 6:48 pm

Moleskine notebook is my trusted tool. Is very handy and stylish.

Thanks for the info on the rest of the tools.

Art Gonzalez
Check my Squidoo Lens at: Quantum Knights

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Bill August 14, 2008 at 7:40 pm

I've used almost all of these apps in various degrees, each with their own quirks. Where I'm stuck is defining an actual system between them. Do I use JOTT to just send notes to my RTM account? Or do I use JOTT to handle the list itself. Do I sync it with 43Actionss? What about Evernote, do I keep to-do's in there? Do I snap photos with my iPhone of my notes in my moleskine? And when I do, do I send them to Evernote or Jott? Hopefully you see my problem here.

I'm just wondering how my fellow readers are USING these in conjunction with each other. Or is one tool doing it all for you guys?

Bill [Proud user of an iPhone, RTM, Evernote, 43Actions, JOTT, Moleskine, GMail, Gcal, toodledo, etc, etc]

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Lindsay August 14, 2008 at 10:33 pm

Great list. Note2Self sounds like it would be great for me, as I usually have my brilliant (and idiotic) ideas while I'm out walking the dog or on the road listening to podcasts and audiobooks. I usually have my iPhone with me and use the notes feature which is kind of slow (and a bit awkward when you're holding a dog leash too!). :)

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Robb August 14, 2008 at 11:41 pm

Anyone have any experience with http://chandlerproject.org/ ? I was turned on to it just today, but haven't tried it out yet.

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Robb August 14, 2008 at 11:41 pm

Anyone have any experience with http://chandlerproject.org/ ? I was turned on to it just today, but haven't tried it out yet.

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Robb August 14, 2008 at 11:44 pm

Apologies for the comment spam/dup (Ack! I'm doing it again!). I had javascript off and it didn't look like the comment was going to post. Great post. I look forward to exploring some of these options. I picked up some moleskines at a going out of biz sale last year for $1 a piece (!) – love em for journaling/note taking.

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Fred Schechter August 15, 2008 at 6:58 pm

Hilarious! You use my favorite capture mechanism and yet don't mention it at all. Delicious! (no, Delicious the site).

I use Evernote, Jott, delicious, Palm Centro, and moleskine to mild effect.

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Michael@Awareness * Connection August 17, 2008 at 12:44 am

Wow this is thorough. You hit on a LOT of them. The spy watch is less expensive than lots of similar looking regular quartz watches. Funny. I'll stick with my standard olympus voice recorder and with my iphone apps—still deciding which I like for voice.

I also like Levenger pocket briefcases. Weird name for them, but they are very nice leather writing pads. I use one that is for 3 x 5 cards and that has 3 pockets. The more expensive one that I have has a pen along with it.

Did I miss the Fisher Space pen in the list?

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wickedblog August 17, 2008 at 3:19 pm

Nice comprehensive list, thank you. I was just looking for some cross platform options and a review on those available for the new-to-me mac OS.

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tru August 19, 2008 at 12:17 pm

Just one thing on the Moleskine – its binding is not leather.

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DanGTD August 19, 2008 at 3:42 pm

Google Notebook is also good, and much lighter than Docs.
It has even a browser extension that you can use to save snippets quickly while browsing.

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Tabs August 19, 2008 at 7:48 pm

I get my best ideas in the shower, I get in and the ideas pour out and by the time I am done I will be lucky if I remember one of them. I may have to check out the “Rite as Rain” thing, thanks I may yet be able to get my best ideas to the world.

Thanks for the list,

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Chuck Frey August 20, 2008 at 10:37 am

I like GyroQ, an add-in for MindManager which sits in your Windows system tray until invoked with a Ctrl-Q command. It provides a single line for idea input, and stores ideas within the app until you send them to your default mind map for further processing. Then GyroQ retreats out of view, enabling you to quickly get back to what you were doing. I also recently purchased a pocket-sized Sony digital recorder, which I'm going to try out for capturing ideas, then transfer them to Dragon NaturallySpeaking for conversion to text. We'll soon see how that works (fingers crossed).

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Corey August 21, 2008 at 3:58 pm

How about more ideas for obscure locations. In the car, on a jog, in the shower, waking up in the middle of the night, in the bathroom, etc.

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Sarah11918 August 25, 2008 at 6:21 am

Was just this morning turned on to SketchBox billed as a “multifunctional yet uncluttered – Sticky Notes Manager for your Mac Desktop.” I've downloaded, but haven't tried it yet, but given that my desktop is smothered whenever I open Stickies, it might be helpful!

http://www.omz-software.de/sketchbox_index.html

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Jay August 25, 2008 at 5:49 pm

I am using Moleskine when on the road and http://www.taskwriter.com when online.

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pete August 26, 2008 at 9:34 pm

What about Microsoft OneNote? I use it on my laptop and my mobile phone, and it automatically synchronizes between the 2. Invaluable…

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cburnham August 27, 2008 at 10:53 pm

http://iwantsandy.com is a great to do list, calendar, appointment, contacts web app that works very well with Jott. It also will email you an .ics file you can save to your outlook

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HIB August 28, 2008 at 11:50 am

I've used some of these idea capture tools, but I've found that the best way is to keep a notebook in my car. I then transfer that to an IDEA document in google documents.

A lot of these programs are great, but if it's not an application that I don't interface with often, I'll forget about it and won't use it which is why Google Documents works for me.

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Dougist August 28, 2008 at 9:52 pm

I'm surprised Journler didn't make the list. I wrote about it last week as my key writing tool.

http://dougist.com/index.php?p=25

Doug

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DrKaren September 2, 2008 at 3:36 pm

My absolute favorite is the Personal Brain. http://www.thebrain.com/

It acts as both my idea collector and manager when I want to organize my thoughts. It works on Windows, Mac, and Linux and has some great features so things don't get lost. I can dump a thought in anywhere (meaning it's bottom-up rather than top-down organizing) and it can travel on a flash drive. It connects to virtually any software doc you want and has drop-in email linking.

I use a notebook when I'm absolutely unplugged, but then I move things to my Brain to collect them in one place. I love it —

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thomas78745 October 1, 2008 at 5:33 pm

Thanks for this post, some of these I have never heard of. Maybe you would do a post on developing complex ideas once they are saved? I use Inspiration on a Mac. I would love to hear what other people are using.

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Business Door Hangers November 17, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Great post the worst thing in the world is thinking of a great idea then forgetting it. I try and keep notepads and pens everywhere especially in areas where i think of my best ideas.

Sometimes i think of a lot of good stuff when i lay down to sleep since my mind is more clear, but its a little annoying having to turn on the lights and find a pen and paper to writ it down so i can go back to bed!

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Business Door Hangers November 17, 2009 at 8:19 pm

Great post the worst thing in the world is thinking of a great idea then forgetting it. I try and keep notepads and pens everywhere especially in areas where i think of my best ideas.

Sometimes i think of a lot of good stuff when i lay down to sleep since my mind is more clear, but its a little annoying having to turn on the lights and find a pen and paper to writ it down so i can go back to bed!

Reply

sogoya January 19, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Nice, I digg it!
http://www.sogoya.com

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travesti May 8, 2010 at 1:49 am

hi very nice your site's contents. If this is a nice sharing. Thanks, but for my country because there is no content sites like yours as I would always follow the most liked sites like these and I'm waiting for new issues and explanations.

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Dragan Isakovic May 8, 2010 at 6:13 am

Useful and interesting article.

I would like to recommend DataStation Innovation Cloud: http://www.datastation.com/

Our company use this SaaS for managing innovations in our IT services and development.
Ideation module has duplicate prevention which helps us collect good ideas and stop duplicates from submission. We can prioritize ideas easy, and track the best people contributing.

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travesti December 24, 2010 at 7:59 am

Fine information, many thanks to the author, thanks for write

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