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Pickle jars, text files, and creative idea capture

In Hold That Thought!, David Seah wrote a delightful piece about using a pickle jar to hold ideas he doesn't want to loose, but isn't ready to act on. The jar is (was) an actual pickle jar, and he wrote the ideas on small pieces of paper. There are a number of sweet ideas at work here:
  • "Pickling" the idea is weirdly cathartic - you can get back to work, trusting that it's captured.
  • The act of formulating satisfies the urge to follow up on it.
  • The size of the paper also prevents you from writing too much.
  • You can see that you've got the ideas queued up.
He goes on to say it works for him to have something that "encourages easy deposit but prevents casual withdrawal".

In my case I have a similar scheme for saving ideas, but with different goals in mind. My goal is to have an idea capture (not containment) system that supports rapid netting of ideas and the attendant minimal relevant information, including URLs, the main point, and any related ideas or posts. I store the ideas in a plain text file that I edit via Emacs, using the simple format that I talked about in My Big-Arse Text File - a Poor Man's Wiki+Blog+PIM. For example, my "ideas to blog" entries (168 of them as of today) look like this:
IDEA: IdeaMatt: from JasonWomack: you teach what you most need to
learn. in my case: ...
(2005-11-15 21:40:42)
IDEA: IdeaMatt: the irony of trying to set something up (take action)
with people who need help taking action - slow email responses,
unreturned phone calls, etc.
(2005-11-15 14:38:14)
IDEA: IdeaMatt: idea of copying todo lists when reach 1/2 full
from "Time management for dummies"
(2005-11-15 13:40:49)
Using the system is straightforward. To capture I simply switch over to Emacs, type it in (using completion and other features as necessary), plus two macros to grab a URL's title, and to finish an entry by adding the timestamp and "----" separator characters. To retrieve I just do an incremental search for "IDEA: IdeaMatt" (or use the occur function to list them all) and pick the next one that jumps out at me. Really, any list manager, text editor, etc. will work, but the most important feature is fast capture, so that you can get back to work and not procrastinate fleshing out the shiny new thing.

Finally, like David, I also periodically purge stale ideas, but I admit there's sometimes sadness letting them go - kind of like a plant that looked great in the store, but is now too much work to water.

What's your approach for capturing ideas?

Reader Comments (6)

I have put ideas into my "Next Action" list in the past, which works ok and keeps the idea in front of me but it does tend to clutter and trivialize the status of the Next Action List.

A virtual Pickle Jar would be a better solution. I could then just search for "Pickle Jar" in my big list of everything. Thanks for the post.


November 16, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterTom

You make a great point about cluttering the NA list(s), Tom. Thanks for reading and commenting.

November 16, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Pickle jars are much better used for holding pickles, hee hee.


September 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJon's B-World

Ha! Thanks for the pickle pointer.

September 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I enjoy capturing ideas too, and knowing they're safe in an accessible system. I prefer to use outliner software (MyInfo).

If I'm doing a brain dump, then I create a document in the outline, title it with the date, and start typing. Later, I'll mine and categorize specific ideas worth keeping in the Topics portion of my outline file.

If I have a specific idea about a specific topic, then I create a new document in the outline, title by topic, and enter the idea. Topics are sorted by alpha, as recommended in GTD, and it works great. If I need to search, I can do a keyword or filter search across the whole outline file, or scroll down to a topic.

At work I get ideas all the time. I type them in e-mails, e-mail them to myself, and put them in my Next Action folder for outline file entry.

I write ideas a lot on paper too, but don't have a smooth system for that yet. :(

November 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJohnn Four

Thanks for your comment, Johnn, and the details on how you use an outliner for the task. I appreciate your reading!

November 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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