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Create a "thought pad" to record your *draft* ideas & thoughts

Problem

I often lose thoughts and ideas because I fall into the trap of wanting to completely flesh them out before I write them down

This usually results in me just not writing them down at all.  My tendency toward perfectionism with regard to writing is part of why it took me so long to start blogging; I never wanted to make the investment in time & effort to write stuff down because I set fairly high standards for myself to meet before I consider something ok to publish or share.  I still struggle with this, which is why I have several draft blog articles.  In fact, my "Blog Articles I Plan to Write" was one of my early attempts to force myself to just get some ideas recorded, even if not fully formed or explained.

I've always thought of myself as a decent writer, but writing for my blog is a good reminder that writing well is quite a challenge, and editing is where much of the effort really goes.

 

Solution

Create a "thought pad" for quickly jotting down draft ideas & thoughts

I needed to give myself a way to record my thoughts in rough form, before I do any processing on them, so I don't have to worry about whether or not they're fully formed or presentable.  So, I started keeping a "thought pad", where I can jot down stuff that occurs to me during the day, and save it for future reference in case I want to think about it more, write a blog article, or discuss it with someone.

Thought pad concept

I've written before about the benefits of taking notes, which I think is great in many circumstances, but I see this as a less formal/structured, more "personal" activity; it's more like doing periodic "brain dumps".  So far, it's been working great!

 

Benefits

Record thoughts quickly & get stuff out of your head 

Many of my thoughts and ideas "recirculate" through my attention from time to time.  This is inefficient and distracting when it happens in an unstructured way.  It's great to revisit ideas, but not when they're just bouncing around in your head while you're focusing on something else. 

Writing thoughts down (or otherwise recording them) somewhere helps get them out of your head, so you can revisit them if and when you choose.  Eventually, you can start trusting yourself to have recorded a given thought and purposely expunge it from your head until you are ready to consider it further.  This idea of getting stuff out of your head is one of the concepts David Allen discusses as part of his Getting Things Done method.

 

My Approach

On-going draft in Gmail, or send myself email from my smartphone

Currently, my thought pad consists of sending myself a daily message to my Gmail account, which is just one of many ways to manage stuff like this.  If I'm not at a computer, I send myself email via a text message (SMS).  Yes, I can use Gmail mobile from my smartphone, but it's a lot faster to just compose a new text message, address it to "121" (Cingular's SMS-to-email gateway) and use the Insert Text feature to paste in my email address.

Here are some of my methods:

  • Keep an on-going Draft email each day (if I have something to write down, which is more often than I realized!) with the subject "THOUGHT PAD - YYYY.MM.DD".  Gmail makes saving a draft quick & easy (automatic, even!), and unlike Yahoo mail, once you create a draft, future saves are updates to that same message; Yahoo Mail creates several copies, each is a later revision with the most current updates.  I'm sure that works for some people, but I don't care for it.
  • Send it to myself before I go to bed, and label tag it "thoughtpad", so I can easily review all my entries.

  • Date stamp each entry  - By using a daily email message, this happens automatically.  (For me, daily is enough granularity for date stamping; I don't need to know that I had a particular thought at 10:13 on a given day)
  • Keep it all in one place - If you let your ideas get scattered among different systems, it'll be harder to manage them and refer to them.  As I said, if I'm not near a computer when I have a thought to record, I email myself from my phone & tag it "thoughtpad" later.  (Yes, I know I could auto-tag it by sending to "myaddress+tp@gmail.com", but even choosing that  particular email address slows down the process; it's trivial to tag it later from a computer.)   Whatever system you choose to record your thoughts, be consistent in using it. 
  • Keep it simple & quick! - The point is to reduce the burdens of further consideration, putting thoughts in context, formatting, organizing, and the other various things that can make it feel like a lot of time & effort are required before writing something down. Just getting it written down is the point.  You can save all that other stuff for blogging!
  • You don't even have to write full sentences - Sometimes, just a phrase or couple of words is enough to trigger the rest of the thinking about an idea

 

Nothing is set in stone 

I'm not sure that email is the best for doing this, but I confess, I like using Gmail's rich text editor, and I'm having a hard time reconciling that with my general recommendation to use plain text for taking notes, a related activity.  And there's the benefit of Google search, since it's in my Gmail.  But, it's not available off-line (but with my phone, it's really rare for me to be in that state).   I'm also not sure that daily is the right boundary (maybe a weekly thought pad would be better, but then I'd probably wish I'd date stamped each day's entry anyway), but that's one of the reasons I'm such an advocate for recording information in digital ("electronic") form; it's very easy to change.