Make Capture a Habit

Meet Gregory, a writer and the brains behind Face Dragons. He's the go-to guy for getting things done. Gregory's been living the digital nomad life in Asia for as long as anyone can remember, helping clients smash their goals. He writes on topics like software, personal knowledge management (PKM), and personal development. When he's not writing, you'll catch him at the local MMA gym, nose buried in a book, or just chilling with the family.

Creating a Capture habit is one of the best things you can do to maximize your productivity. It can reduce stress and help you to live the life you want. Here you will learn everything you need to know to make capture work for you. And some of the best tools available to keep your capture habit friction-free.

What is Capture

In David Allen’s time management system Getting Things Done, capture is the first step in the process to get anything done. It might be getting batteries at the store or acquiring a million dollar company, it all starts with capture. This means you don’t need a new model for all your different tasks or projects. Everything gets captured and handled the same way.

Write it Down

So what exactly is Capture? Though some complicate it, capture is simply write it down. If your friend mentions a good movie to watch, write it down and capture it. If you have an idea in the shower for a new product line, write it down. If you have a random thought that you might like to start learning Muay Thai, yep write it down!

Why Capture

You’re wasting mental RAM keeping it all in your head. Get it out and free up your creative intelligence.

Getting it Out of Your Head

The main idea behind capture is to get it out of your head. Ever had a thought pop into your mind that you couldn’t do anything about right there and then? Like when you’re in the office but suddenly think, “I should really buy some new running shoes.” Then later in the day on the drive home it pops up again, “should really look into getting some new running shoes.” You get home, make dinner and relax in front of the TV and just as your cleaning your teeth before bed, “Running Shoes?” You need to capture so that you don’t have to have the same thought over and over again. Especially when you can’t actually do the action required because your at work, driving or have a toothbrush in your mouth.

Don’t Miss a Good Idea

We’ve all had it happen you’re out and about and suddenly you have lightening bolt of inspiration, something that’s going to change everything! You think to yourself “there’s no need to write this down or put it into my phone, how on earth could I forget!”

You finish what you’re doing and at the end of the day you get back home and settle down on the sofa to work out the details of your new idea. But as you nestle into your favorite pillow you realize, the idea – is gone. You spend the rest of the night thinking from every angle, where were you when it came to you? What inspired it? What was it even about?

Finally you accept that your life changing idea has been lost to morass of your mind, probably never to return.

Stay Focused on What Your Doing

If you procrastinate as much as I do then you probably know that distractions can kill your state of flow. That includes cool ideas or things your think about. I often find myself drifting away thinking about some new cool idea right in the middle of a language learning session.

Luckily if I have my phone nearby I can immediately type the idea into Simpletask. I know that whatever the idea was I will get to it later – it’s safely in the system. Now I can relax and continue, fully focused on the task at hand.

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Free Up Mental RAM

It is not only your focus that suffers when you don’t utilize a capture habit. Your creativity and intelligence will also take a nose dive. Your brain is like a computer and it only has so much RAM to expend.

If you are familiar with this experiment, this is easy to understand. A team of researchers gave volunteers the task of counting how many times a group of basketball players passed the ball in a short video clip. What they didn’t tell them was half way through the video a guy in a gorilla suit would walk across the screen. Surprisingly most of the volunteers didn’t see the gorilla when asked about it after the experiment. Why? They maxed out their mental RAM counting the number of passes – a fairly simple task.

A brain that has to keep track of dozens of tasks and ideas you have thought about in the past 24 hours, not to mention remind you of them at the right time and it is easy to see why stress levels are higher then they ever have been. The truth is that a simple pencil and paper is a much better task tracker than your brain could ever be. Let your brain do what it does best, solve
problems and make connections.

To Give Future You the Choice of Doing Whatever You Captured

Something gets cancelled and you somehow end up with a whole afternoon off! You’re determined not to waste it but what to do? Unless you have a list of all the cool, interesting or necessary things you have thought about you will never be able to give yourself all the options. You may think of a few things and pick the one that seems highest priority, most fun or whatever but you’ll never really know if you made the best choice of if you truly made the most of that afternoon.

I’m not saying that we should be productive all the time. I’m not even saying that you should use a free afternoon for work necessarily. Often times I will capture things like ‘cool new ice cream place in Ao Cheng’ or ‘try archery.’ These are things I could be doing on that afternoon but if I haven’t written them down, the likelihood I would be able to remember the dozens of possible options and make an informed decision is zero.

You can only be objective when you have everything written down in front of you. Your mind cant analyse a huge number of things at once as it just cant hold on to that many

Why do We Resist Capturing?

Although we can focus on the past or future, our subconscious remains firmly rooted in the present. The thought you have in the moment feels all-encompassing. It feels as though nothing else matters and as though nothing could possibly supersede it. However, experience tells us otherwise. We forget where we put our keys, whether or not we locked the door or that life changing idea. We know that our memories fail us so we must have a fail-proof system in place.

If you haven’t established a place for your bag, you’ll avoid tidying it away. It’s not because your lazy, you can’t tidy it away until you first decide on a place to put it. If you already decided that its going to live in the bottom of your closet, it’s just a 10 second job to put it away.

Having that extra step to decide where to put it each time creates too much friction. Which is why you’ll likely just leave it on the floor. If there is any decision that needs to be made in order to write it down, most of the time we wont do it.

How to Capture

Initial capture may have many places that need to be mined (email, bookmarks, notes, todo lists etc.)

Analogue vs. Digital


I always have my phone on me, I can’t say the same for pen and paper. Which is why I choose to use an app on my phone as my capture tool. Currently, I am using simpletask not only to capture but as a tool for my entire extended mind. I have used paper based systems in the past but I find that having little scraps of paper everywhere with potentially meaningful tasks on them is a little chaotic.

Of course, if I organised them better and had a strict process for where they went after I captured them it would be less chaotic but for me keeping it organised was far too much effort. I don’t even need to think about that with a digital capture tool. Everything’s in the app, it can’t get lost in the bottom of my bag. It wont go through the washing machine in my jeans pocket.

Here are 5 tools I’ve Used to Keep the Capture Habit Consistent.

  1. A Paper Based Organizer – Mine takes A6 size paper, which means it’s small enough to fit into the smallest of bags and still take up very little room. I have a calendar at the front, a lists section and capture section. When inspiration strikes I can easily pull it out and write it down.
  2. Simpletask – As I’ve already mentioned, Simpletask is my current system. It has a capture widget which means I can go straight to capture from my home screen, reducing any friction to capture.
  3. Toodledo – I used toodledo for a few years after graduating, it is a great cross platform system with UIs on mobile devices and in the browser (which was important to me at the time.)
  4. Plain Text Files – Hear me out! Plain text files haven’t changed since the early days of computing, and you know they will still be around for decades to come (can you say the same about something like Evernote?) It’s easy to edit a plain text file on any device you own. they are tiny so can be synced quickly using something like Syncthing or Dropbox
  5. An In’ tray – In the past most desks had an in-tray but they seem to have lost their appeal in recent years. They are super useful if other people often give you tasks and projects to do. Let them know to drop it into your in tray and you will be sure to get to it. The power of the in-tray is found in using it yourself. have a cool idea for a project but your in the middle of something, put it in your own in-tray for later you to deal with. Just remember to process in regularly!
  6. Honorable mentions: Todoist, Evernote, Wunderlist (now defunct), Things, Your phone’s in built notes app

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