How to capture thoughts efficiently? 🐢

I wonder what are good strategies, habits, affordances to capture thoughts that pop up when doing something else.

Here’s what seem important points so far:

  • How can we avoid disrupting too much the original task? I see two undesirable effects: :one: This is not important enough, I better continue doing XYZ, and :two: let me capture this… … …uhm… what was I doing before?
  • For external ideas (i.e. sentences you read on a book), does clipping work, or should we encourage describing the idea with our own words? What are the trade-offs here?
  • What parts of the context are useful to capture? Context can help recall/re-contextualisation, but not everything seems equally important.

This is an important question that requires significant work/insight to answer correctly, and I haven’t found a good answer for yet. That’s why I consider it a :turtle: turtle question (if you read this and would like to pursue this question for a significant amount of time, please tell me).

Related Twitter thread

1 Like

From personal experience, taking a quick note seems to work well to get rid of distracting thoughts (“open loops”), and rarely makes me loose current context - on the contrary, if I try to leave the thought it seems to keep bouncing in my head limiting what I can do.

I think it depends on the context, I use clipping to store something for later, but then paraphrase and re-write in attempt to think through that thought and understand it better.

This sounds like a great question, again personally - if something I read triggered a thought then I note down the book/paper/url as well and that seems to help a little. I don’t have a good solution for the more common situation, when, for example while taking a walk thought X leads me to Y leads me to Z, and I note only the Z part as it seems obvious then. Usually in a few hours I have hard time going back from Z to Y and X, or even understanding Z.

1 Like

It’s true as @szymon_k reminds us that sometimes capturing has this beneficial effect to protect the original task by stopping our internal interruptions (Zeigarnik effect, GTD, etc) but it’s also true that the more you set out to capture and connect (carpe diem) the farther away you’ll go from what you were originally doing.

It happens to me a lot in conversations. A good idea seems to pop up and I have to choose between continuing engaged in that conversation or following that tangent in case the idea doesn’t pop up again (a FOMO moment?).

From the point of view of workflows and tools, quick capture seems key: I want to move a finger and have a distraction-free page to capture what I know now about. But it’s also a challenge how to pick up the words to save content and context without aiming at a too large thing (brick by brick).

I tend to think they work as a “source of the thought” but if we don’t capture also the thought itself we may loose what we intended to note. Example, I read a quote in a book, and my mind interprets it in certain ways, different to yours, and different to my own mind in a different context. That’s why it’s important to pair clippings and highlights with a short mind-dump type note, I suspect.

Now, I’m not good at quickly coming up with a few words that describe something in my own terms. But it’s probably a skill that one can practice and a habit tools can encourage.

There’s the alternative of leaving the note for later review to postpone this task, as @szymon_k mentions, but I suspect this depends very much on how distant is the context in the original capture time and the review time.

I’m far from feeling there’s a very good answer to this one.

I think capturing thought siblings (“I was thinking about A when it popped up” or “similar to B”) may be important. Maybe also emotional remarks if I was feeling specially angry or inspired or sad at that time.

Then there’s the question of location/time, which may be useful because our brains are good at recalling info connected to places.

But the hardest time I find in this space is that the usefulness of the captured context has an upper bound: the ability of the workflow or tool to help you represent/browse contexts so you can evoke things based on them. And this is a pretty hard problem.

The way I see it, there is no way to capture thoughts more efficiently and with a lesser cognitive load than through some sort of instantaneous capture.

I do this all the time. During meetings, when an interesting idea emerges, I just pop the audio recorder and repeat it.

What is interesting about this is not that the artifact produced by the recording is critical, it is that you reinforce that idea by repeating the moment, and you intensify your memory of it by choosing the right words to rephrase it.

Above all, I do not believe that is the role of the system to offer interfaces to maximize concurrent data capture. Any frictionless data capture affordances such as draft spaces and audio recording should be enough.

A critical problem of end-user software is that they are not built accounting for the fact that humans usually have great memory: systems today do not even come close to make use of the full potential of human memory and this is why we tend to forget things: because our systems are not made to be enhancers of our own capacities.

The fact that our systems make us be excessively confident about their capacity to persist our data is the reason we tend to forget what is important.

Your memory of ideas is what matters, and if your own memory is the main source of truth, you will allow your unconscious to develop and mature them, contrary to persisting it in cold storage and gaining nothing from it.

Above all, you should ideally only come to make use of a system if you already have a concrete necessity. I do not think that it is right or productive to conjecture using a computer. Pen and paper are our best tools for thinkng, and no computer will ever come close to their usability.

We must be careful not to exaggerate the importance of computer’s capacities at the expense of giving up our own.

You do not design a product by using a ruler. You do not think mathematically by mashing the calculator. There are stages of ideation that requires craft and not mechanization.

I would also like to add a note regarding our human nature.

Humans are not only brains, eyes, and fingertips. Computer use requires specific ergonomy traits, effectively compromising the entirety of our bodies in such activities.

Thinking with the entire body is important. Also, computers usually restrict the possibilities of ambient spaces we can surround ourselves with.

Not to mention that they are massive distraction machines, much like when we measure something we are, somehow, changing the thing – computers change us more than we change them.

Maybe this will be different in the era of VR, but as for now, we must carefully consider how computers compromise our nature and, consequently, our habilities.

I have a wall covered with a writable varnish in my house. My friends and I think together before it and then we snap a picture and store for later recollection.

Guess how many times I needed to look at the pictures to remember something? Zero. The memory of our ideas drafted in the wall are always too strong to require any artifacts for recollection.

@jonsecchis very interesting. I agree on many of the things you say, yet I think computer interfaces are in their infancy and the time and effort put into researching adapting computer capacities to human capacities in the last years has been minimal. We’re basically running on the very partial work done in the 70’s and 80’s.

Another underused benefit of computers is gradually building a set of personal interlinked notes on things we learn. This can be done in paper (Zettelkasten) but computers are much better at retrieving connected information once the body of notes grows a lot.

(…) through some sort of instantaneous capture. (…) when an interesting idea emerges, I just pop the audio recorder and repeat it.

It’s interesting that you consider that “instantaneous”. I agree that the process of consciously summarising the thing to capture it does wonders for recall and future associations. But in the current times, many people would call instantaneous something like taking a picture or having an automatic recording, rather than the slower, and harder (and more effective) way of consciously describing the thing on a paper / computer / recorder.

The fact that our systems make us be excessively confident about their capacity to persist our data is the reason we tend to forget what is important.

This makes sense, since we tend to remember loose ends, things that haven’t been dealt with (Zeigarnik effect), but there’s also the experience of clearing your mind by turning something over to an external system (that can be a person, a notebook, or some sort of device on a computer).

As I mentioned, I think that there is an overall distrust in the capacity of our own brains.

If we trust ourselves with the ability to recollect and reconnect information scattered through diverse mediums at any time, we would conclude that, no matter how chaotic the means we use to register thoughts, we will always be able to recompile them over and over.

It is important to make a distinction between definitive registers and chaotic registers. Again, the very idea we have to be rigorous at registration moments is an effect of how messy and entangled computer data can get. So that we feel unnecessary anxiety for organization and structuring.

Should the system offer decent interfaces for input, recollection, and interlinkage, together with good configurable curation strategies (so the system always looks neatly organized), we then could just relax and register anything, at any time, in whatever means we judge adequate, without anxiety.

Systems should allow us to be chaotic and not pay any price for it since the very idea of ‘data-stability’ is an illusion. Let entropy increase, let us allow ourselves to make peace with it. Information materialization should be a quasi-passive process.

That is exactly what is leading people to be more consumers than creators – the fact that we think it is hard work to engage a little more physically in our endeavors. That way we lose too many opportunities for learning and discovery.

1 Like

I had a boss who thought me an invaluable lesson and I think it applies here.

I was a young illustrator at a studio and, when I had a drawing in front of me that was good in many aspects but needed some improvement, I would put great effort at correcting it by changing it.

And then my boss said to me:

Why are you putting so much effort into correcting this? It was you who drew it. You can redraw it better by starting over.

I think this applies to so many things. We think that, because we have done something, we should somehow improve it to maintain it. When in fact you could discard everything and start over.

The same principle applies to thought capture. Why put some much effort at organizing thoughts if, when the necessity arises to materialize them in different forms, you could just trust yourself to come up with them again. Be it by searching, gluing, snapping, recollecting, questioning, stitching, or whatever! I assure you that it is more likely that they will come up better shaped and matured.

That freedom. We all must be entitled to it. Else we will be servants of our own systems.


Take a look at this video of theoretical physicist David Deutsch at 16:56 and notice his office space.

The multiverse

Don’t you think that if a hardcore scientist like him can manage to be chaotic, the rest of us can also afford to be a little chaotic?

1 Like

I have started using quite a bit - I described how I use it to actively listen to podcasts, but I also use it to capture for example a bunch of ideas I think about in the shower. Lately, I’ve began using it for reading academic papers - instead of highlighting, I just “talk my way through the paper” - both the actual small snippets I want to store, but also all my questions, comments, etc. I find it is more enjoyable, and also triggers far more active thinking - sometimes I go on long “excursions” away from the actual topic of the paper, but that’s really valuable thinking.

1 Like

Hi @hanbzu - I’m parsing through this thread right now, and will follow up this response with a more in-depth explanation to each of your questions. I wanted to call out that I am actively working on answering your 2nd and 3rd questions myself and would love to connect offline to discuss in more detail.

In order of your questions:

How can we avoid disrupting too much the original task?

Task management (and the firm scoping of tasks) is something I have long tried to understand. While segmentation frameworks for task management (Jira and Todoist are good examples) come to mind, the way that I have managed my own development of tasks is the adherence to a single, overarching explanation for why I am doing something.

Applying a tree structure to a goal has helped me to tremendously simplify and prioritize the different activities. By creating a plan prior to the outset of a project, I am much more committed to completing a task because I know what it affords me in the future.

In the example that you provided, my interpretation of the issue that you describe is that the outcomes of tasks A and B are roughly equivalent… and that the reason someone would abandon task A for task B is because they become bored, they are not related tasks, or there are different deadlines that impact the importance of one task over the other.

As long as the tasks mandate that workflows are mutually exclusive - and that therefore the time I spend on task A does not incrementally help me to accomplish task B - then the reason that I am motivated to accomplish task A in the first place is because I have assigned an expectation / standard to what I hope to achieve from the experience.

To wrap this response up, I’ll also provide an example of how my own shortcomings have supported my approach. Like many other developers, I am not for lack of new and exciting ideas… I find that I have more ideas than I can ever keep track. Every so often, I happen to sit at my computer and am able to create a repository for that idea. However, this is where the division of success starts. When I don’t take the time to define (1) what my intended outcome for the project is, and (2) how I can contribute on a semi-frequent basis, these projects almost always fail.

The axiom that I have developed for myself to address this exact question has been: the best idea is derived from a meaningful set of options. I catalogue my ideas, and then will choose - each weekend - to work on a fixed set of those activities. Those ideas that I do not choose I shelve or discard entirely.

does clipping work, or should we encourage describing the idea with our own words?

Clipping is the basis for how I take notes today. I find the best way to take engaging notes is to approach reading as if I am having a conversation with the author directly.

From an article, I generate clippings. For each of those clippings I’ll attempt to respond.

The outcome of this approach is a mixture of the options you describe.

What parts of the context are useful to capture?

I’d suggest reading this post on knowledge management which I have found helps me to determine what kind of information I clip from articles.

If clippings represent data from posts that we read, the point of the article I linked draws the conclusion that data - by itself - is not inherently valuable.

I think your question is meaningful because (I assume) the idea behind capturing components of a context is so that someone somewhere some-when else can recreate that context for themselves.

The answer that I have to your question is that my goal is neither to recreate the context of the original article, or even my thought process at the time. If the end result of clippings + my own commentary represents the meshing of two distinct voices (however similar or different they may be), what I hope to look backwards upon that interaction is how I was able to build an image of the point of the original article from my own observations, experiences, and memories. (Exactly how someone measures this is something I still have no idea how to do… but, no matter how excellent NLP is today this is still - in my own mind - a qualitative judgement.)

My questions for you:

  • Does the provided framework from the article help you to shape the way that you capture information from the things that you read?
  • (More of a qualitative question) How do you describe to others how the things that you have read have changed you? Does this occur in the way you act, write, think, live… etc.?