Thoughts don’t come in a linear fashion.  They come at odd times.  They interrupt us day and night.  Our brains have a habit of working on things even when we aren’t consciously thinking about them—which is a good thing and we will talk about that later.  So, we find that as our mind works, thoughts will pop into our consciousness unbidden.

Even when you have sat down to plan a project the ideas still don’t come sequentially.  (Here’s a little secret.  If you try to force the ideas to come in the right order you will squelch the creative process and greatly reduce the flow of ideas.)

So, the trick is to capture those ideas when they come.  It would be nice, too, to capture them in such a way that they can be easily edited and rearranged later.  In this post I’m going to give you some methods for capturing and saving ideas.  Later, in How to Tame your Ideas and Finish your Plan, I will talk more about systems for rearranging and editing those ideas.  The process you choose there may affect which method will work best for initially capturing the ideas.  In fact, I’m just going to list some approaches I’ve taken to get you thinking.  You will create a system that works best for you and your particular style!

A Dozen Methods I’ve Used to Capture Ideas

There are two distinct times when you will be capturing ideas: 1) throughout your day and night as ideas come, and 2) during an actual planning session.  Some of these methods will work best for the first situation (I’ve listed them first), some will work best for the second (and I have listed them toward the end), but they have all worked for me at one time or another.

  1. Write them in a memo pad.  I bought one of those small ones that would fit in my shirt pocket and carried it with me everywhere.  I even put it by my bedside in case I woke up with a wonderful thought in the middle of the night.
  2. Speak them into a dictation machine.  When I had a full-time assistant I would carry a dictation recorder with me and use it to record my ideas.  Later my assistant would transcribe them and send them to me electronically.
  3. Record them on my phone.  I will sometimes use the record button on my phone to get a fleeting idea solidified so that I can do something with it later.
  4. Send them as a text message to my email.  If I have a little more time to formulate the idea I will write a text message on my phone and send it to my email where I can do something with it later.
  5. Write them on a bar napkin.  Well, I’m actually in churches more often than in bars so I have a slew of bulletins with notes written on them.  (I always keep a pen with me.)  Since I work with churches and spent a number of years as a pastor being in the church environment often gets my mind spinning with ideas.
  6. Write them in a notebook.  One idea I had to tame the pile of notes written on napkins, bulletins, envelopes, and other odd pieces of paper was to carry a notebook with me—then all my ideas would be written down in one place.
  7. Make a list of ideas.  I have found this especially helpful when I have a whole bunch of ideas swimming around half-formed.  I get in front of a computer or grab a piece of paper and do a “brain dump.”  I write down—in no particular order—everything that I’m thinking; all my thoughts no matter what they are about or how defined they are.
  8. Put them on post-it notes.  I always have a pad of post-it notes beside my computer.  As I’m working on something else and an idea comes I will write it down and stick the note somewhere where I’ll see it.  Now I have virtual post-it notes on my computer desktop and I use them the same way.
  9. Write them on index cards.  Index cards are about the right size to fit easily in a shirt pocket or purse.  I have often carried several different colors so that I could write different kinds of ideas on different colored cards.  For instance, personal ideas might be pink while work ideas might be yellow.
  10. Mind Map them on paper.  Write the topic you want to explore in the middle of a piece of paper and draw a circle around it.  Then around that topic write down ideas as they come.  If an idea seems to be related to another draw a line between them or write them next to each other.  Sometimes you will find that a sub-topic will develop a whole constellation of ideas around it.
  11. Mind Map ideas digitally.  The nice thing about a digital mind map is that you can move your ideas around on the page.  There is great free open-source software, Freemind, which I use all the time.  And today I discovered an online mind mapping site,, which allows you to share your mind maps with a team.  But more importantly, for me, allows you to import and export mind maps in the Feemind format.
  12. Write fully formed ideas on lined paper or with a word processor.  In seminary I would write complete and fully developed paragraphs.  They would just form in my mind.  I wasn’t sure where that paragraph would fit in my manuscript, but I knew that it was important and probably wouldn’t change much in the final draft because it expressed a complete thought.  Later I would find the right place to plug it into the right document.

I’m sure there are lots of other great ideas.  If you have one please share it with us by posting it in the comments below.

Now that you have seen some of the ways that I have captured ideas so that I don’t lose them adapt these methods or create your own to make sure you keep all your great ideas!

This is the fifth installment in a series of posts, How to Plan a Project with Ease.

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