Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Skills of Life: Capturing the Stray Thought

At one time or another, we all need to capture a phone number, write down an address, or remember to buy cat food. Frequently, the note is lost or buried where it cannot be found. Stray ideas may have almost nothing to do with anything else. They belong in a capture mechanism which ensures they will get to the next step. Here are some basic strategies for keeping these notes where they belong so you have them available as needed.


Perhaps the easiest approach is a pad of paper with edges that can be torn off cleanly. A separate section in a loose leaf notebook or planner works equally well. The rules of engagement are as follows:

·         A piece of paper collects only one piece of information. For example, during a  phone call, you are given the name and number of someone else you need to call. Don't write it at the bottom of a page of notes, use a new piece of paper. Capture the name of the person you are calling and the phone number. You might also want to capture who suggested the call, why it is useful, and the date the note was made. Another call or another lead goes on another piece of paper.

·         Never use the back side of this paper.

Your goal is to do something with that sheet of paper at the first opportunity. You might make the call, in which case the paper can be discarded without losing anything else. If you decide to make the call later, the paper can go into a tickler file or a calls folder, again without creating a problem elsewhere. Finally, you might want to copy the information onto a calendar or a contacts list for later use. If the paper has anything else on it, you are forced to handle it more than once.


Plan B is to reserve a section of your notebook or planner for input, capturing multiple items on a page. In a situation where many things may show up in a short amount of time, you aren't constantly looking for more paper. Also, the list may give you a better sense of how close you are to being caught up. The down side is that you will have to transcribe each item into its own calendar entry or list unless you can take action  on each item in turn. Effort saved at the front end comes at the cost of more handling later on.


Electronic organizers can emulate either of these approaches. I prefer to put each thought or potential task as an item of its own and leave its category unspecified. Later, I can update it or change its category to include in an appropriate list, for example call, visit, or email.


Decide now how you will capture the stray thought that may show up and how you will integrate it into your life. In the end, a thought is not captured until you store it where it will be available when needed. Success is measured by the potentially conflicting goals of easy to capture, easy to find, and easy to handle when needed.



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