Why is it all the best ideas show up when at the gym, in the shower, or incapacitated in some other way? Are you someone who struggles with capturing ideas and turning them into actionable plans? You’re not alone. Many of us have ideas that come to us at the most inconvenient times, and without a proper system for capturing and organizing them, they can quickly get lost or forgotten. Following are 10 idea capture tools to increase your productivity and innovation and organize all those great ideas.
I’m an idea-generating machine . . . when there is no way to document it! As it turns out, there are two instances when many of us do our best thinking – when we exercise and when we’re relaxed. The blood flows more freely to the brain thereby allowing the thoughts to flow freely. After years of struggling with the proverbial, “I had a really great idea early this morning. Now that I have paper, what was it?” I’ve come up with a few ways to capture those ideas.
If you struggle generating ideas, check out this article: How to Improve Creativity
IMPORTANT NOTE: Before you head down the path of “oooooo, cool new app to try,” I can’t stress enough the importance of narrowing the tools you use so you can remain organized and focused. It doesn’t do any good to document your great ideas if you can never find them. It also goes without saying you should choose the tool(s) that work best for you, your lifestyle, and your unique preferences.
Paper-Based Idea Capture Tools
Studies have shown we have better retention when writing. It turns out that writing and drawing activate a different part of the brain than typing. I mean, it worked for J.K. Rowling – rumor has it she wrote much of the Harry Potter books on napkins at coffee shops.
One of my favorite idea capture tools is a pen and notebook. Sitting on the porch watching the sun rise or set seems to be one of many ways the floodgates of ideas are opened up and ready to flow. There is something about getting my thoughts down on paper that just opens up my mind to creative thoughts. And I know from experience I’m going to want to capture that information. I’ve found the best way to stay organized while using paper and pen is with dedicated journals and/or a daily planner.
1. Daily Planner with Notes
When it comes to capturing ideas via paper, the greatest challenge for most people is then finding the paper they wrote the idea on. This is why I use a Daily Planner as an idea capture tool and keep all my ideas on the blank pages in the back.
While I still rely on an electronic calendar for appointments, I always found myself wanting to capture notes from meetings. So I created a planner to track appointments, tasks, and ideas all in one place. I start each day with it and have it open all day long. It is an integral part of my day. You can check out my custom planners and notebooks here or just find one that works for you.
2. Idea Journal
An idea notebook is different from a journal or planner in that its only purpose is to document new ideas. I have kept idea notebooks through the years – one for business ideas and one for personal ideas. This is actually my favorite way to capture ideas. While I use the back of my daily planner for ideas over a 90-day period, at the end of that 90 days, I review all those ideas and transfer the ones I want to keep into my idea notebook. Writing them again actually helps me to retain the original idea as well as generate new ideas.
I also love this leather notebook. There is something about a leather notebook that just feels so damn special!
If you love notebooks and journals, check out My Favorite Notebooks and Journals on Amazon
Electronic Idea Capture Tools
Many of us spend our days on the computer. And one of the greatest detriments to focus and productivity is all the random ideas that show up while trying to focus on something else. It’s easy to make the mistake of heading down a rabbit hole that has nothing to do with your current project. One way to mitigate this risk is to find a way to capture the idea without feeling the need to focus on it. If you have a place to jot it down, it frees your mind to continue to focus on your current task. This section starts with desktop idea capture tools and moves into apps that would likely be used on your phone. Just know that most desktop solutions also have phone apps if that’s how you choose to work.
3. Electronic Document or Spreadsheet
My personal go-to electronic idea capture tool while working on my desktop is to keep an idea spreadsheet open on a second monitor. I use a basic Excel spreadsheet as new ideas come to me throughout the day. There are different category pages and as I research keywords and ideas, they are added to the spreadsheet. Being able to get the idea out and documented allows me to maintain focus on my current project.
When I worked in a corporate role, I did something similar. At the end of the week, generally Friday afternoons, I’d review the list and determine if action should be taken on any of the items listed.
You could also use a .doc file or whatever program you prefer to use.
The trick here is to not fall into the trap of having 25 of these files and not remembering where they are stored.
If you are a Microsoft user and aren’t using OneNote, you should try it out. OneNote is basically an electronic notebook where you can create your own divider tabs, add sketches, images, and emails, and attach any other electronic file. The file can be shared with others and used as a collaboration tool. While OneNote is a great option, there are still many pros and cons to consider as indicated below.
- Integration with Microsoft Office: OneNote is part of the Microsoft Office suite of applications, which means it can easily integrate with other Office applications, such as Word and Excel.
- Cross-platform compatibility: OneNote can be accessed from a variety of devices and platforms, including desktop, web, and mobile applications, ensuring that ideas can be captured and accessed from anywhere.
- Collaborative capabilities: OneNote allows users to share notebooks and collaborate with others in real time, making it a great option for teams or groups working on a project together.
- Free version available: OneNote offers a free version with many of the same features as the paid version, making it accessible to users who may not be able to afford a premium app.
- Learning curve: Like Evernote, OneNote has a lot of features and can be overwhelming to new users, which may make it difficult to get started with capturing ideas.
- Formatting issues: OneNote can be finicky with formatting, which may make it difficult to format ideas in a way that looks good and is easy to read.
- Limited organizational capabilities: OneNote’s organizational capabilities are not as robust as Evernote’s, which may make it difficult to organize ideas in a way that makes sense to the user.
- Limited rich media support: While OneNote allows users to capture and store images, audio, and video files, its rich media support is not as robust as Evernote’s.
As far as idea capture tools go, OneNote is an excellent tool that goes far beyond list-making.
Evernote is much like OneNote but not a Microsoft product. It’s also an all-in-one productivity tool that’s well worth checking out.
- Organizational capabilities: Evernote provides users with the ability to create notebooks and tags, making it easy to organize ideas and thoughts in a way that makes sense to the user.
- Cross-platform compatibility: Evernote can be accessed from a variety of devices and platforms, including desktop, web, and mobile applications, ensuring that ideas can be captured and accessed from anywhere.
- Search functionality: Evernote’s search function is powerful, allowing users to find specific notes or ideas quickly and easily.
- Rich media support: Evernote allows users to capture and store not only text-based notes, but also images, audio, and video files, which can be helpful for capturing a wider range of ideas.
- Cost: Evernote offers a free version, but the premium version can be costly, which may not be feasible for all users.
- Learning curve: Evernote has a lot of features and can be overwhelming to new users, which may make it difficult to get started with capturing ideas.
- Privacy concerns: Evernote stores user data on its servers, which could be a concern for users who want to keep their ideas private and secure.
- Feature overload: While Evernote has a lot of features, some users may find that they don’t need all of them, which could make the app feel cluttered or overwhelming.
MindMeister is a mind-mapping tool. This is a unique way to capture ideas in a visual format. If you aren’t familiar with mind mapping, you can learn more about that here. It’s really a great way to organize thoughts and ideas!
- Mind mapping capabilities: MindMeister is specifically designed for mind mapping, which makes it a great option for capturing and organizing ideas in a visual format.
- Collaboration features: MindMeister allows for real-time collaboration, making it easy for teams or groups to work together on a mind map.
- Cross-platform compatibility: MindMeister can be accessed from a variety of devices and platforms, including desktop, web, and mobile applications, ensuring that ideas can be captured and accessed from anywhere.
- Customizable: MindMeister allows users to customize the look and feel of their mind maps, which can help to make them more engaging and visually appealing.
- Limited formatting options: While MindMeister allows for customization, its formatting options are not as robust as other apps, which may make it difficult to format ideas in a way that looks good and is easy to read.
- Limited organizational capabilities: MindMeister’s organizational capabilities are centered around mind maps, which may not be the best option for users who prefer to organize their ideas in a more traditional format.
- Cost: MindMeister offers a free version, but the premium version can be costly, which may not be feasible for all users.
- Limited rich media support: While MindMeister allows users to add images, audio, and video files to mind maps, its rich media support is not as robust as Evernote’s.
Trello is also much more than a place to store ideas and the mobile app is so easy to use! It is a powerhouse of productivity and collaboration tools.
- Easy to use: Trello is very intuitive and easy to use, even for people who are not tech-savvy. You can create boards, lists, and cards to capture your ideas quickly and easily.
- Collaboration: Trello is designed for team collaboration, so it’s easy to share your ideas with others and get feedback. You can add members to your board and assign tasks to them. This ability to collaborate will take your idea capture tools to an entirely different level!
- Organized: Trello allows you to organize your ideas into boards, lists, and cards, making it easy to keep track of everything. You can also use labels, due dates, and attachments to further organize your ideas.
- Mobile app: Trello has a mobile app that allows you to capture ideas on the go. You can add cards, create lists, and assign tasks from your mobile device.
- Limited features: Trello is a simple tool, so it may not have all the features you need to capture and manage your ideas effectively. For example, you may need more advanced features like time tracking or custom fields.
- Not ideal for long-term planning: Trello is best suited for short-term planning and task management. If you need to plan out a project or a long-term goal, you may need a more comprehensive tool.
- Security: Trello stores your data in the cloud, which may be a concern for some users who are worried about data security. However, Trello does offer some security features, like two-factor authentication and SSL encryption.
- Cost: While Trello offers a free plan, some of the more advanced features are only available on paid plans. If you need these features, you may need to pay for a premium plan.
8. Audio Recorder
My best ideas seem to come when I’m out on a five-mile hike or working in the garden. During those times I don’t want to mess with typing something into an app so I’ll just record my ideas via audio recorder or video. While this may not be the best of the idea capture tools, it serves the purpose when necessary. Periodically I’ll go through my phone and transfer those ideas into a more permanent location.
- Convenience: Recording ideas with an audio recorder is very convenient, as you can capture your thoughts quickly and easily, without having to worry about typing or writing.
- Flexibility: An audio recorder allows you to capture ideas while on the go, whether you’re walking, driving, or doing something else. You can record your thoughts in real-time without interrupting your workflow.
- More natural: Some people find that speaking their ideas aloud is more natural and effective than writing or typing them. An audio recorder allows you to capture your ideas in the most natural way possible.
- Easy to share: Audio recordings are easy to share with others, either by sending the audio file directly or by transcribing it into text.
- Quality: The quality of audio recordings can be affected by background noise or poor recording conditions, which can make it difficult to understand your ideas later.
- Transcription: If you want to turn your audio recordings into text, you’ll need to spend time transcribing them manually, which can be time-consuming and tedious.
- Not searchable: Audio recordings are not easily searchable, which can make it difficult to find specific ideas later on.
- Storage: Audio recordings can take up a lot of storage space, especially if you have a lot of them. You’ll need to make sure you have enough storage space and backup options to ensure you don’t lose your recordings.
9. Google Keep
- Easy to use: Google Keep is very easy to use and navigate, even for people who are not tech-savvy. You can create notes quickly and easily, and organize them with labels and colors.
- Integration with other Google apps: Google Keep integrates seamlessly with other Google apps, such as Google Drive and Google Calendar, making it easy to access your notes from different devices.
- Collaboration: Google Keep allows you to share your notes with others, making it easy to collaborate on ideas with colleagues or friends.
- Reminders and notifications: Google Keep allows you to set reminders and notifications for your notes, so you never forget important ideas or tasks.
- Limited features: Google Keep is a simple app, so it may not have all the features you need to capture and manage your ideas effectively. For example, you may need more advanced features like time tracking or custom fields.
- Not ideal for long-term planning: Google Keep is best suited for short-term planning and note-taking. If you need to plan out a project or a long-term goal, you may need a more comprehensive tool.
- Security: Google Keep stores your data in the cloud, which may be a concern for some users who are worried about data security. However, Google does offer some security features, like two-factor authentication and SSL encryption.
- Ads: Google Keep is a free app, but it does display ads. If you find the ads distracting, you may need to pay for a premium version or switch to a different note-taking app.
If I’m hanging out in the waiting room of a Drs. office, waiting for a meeting to start, or standing in line somewhere, I’ll use the ColorNote app. While it would probably seem normal that I’d be standing in line talking to my phone about my next great idea, it just feels weird. I love the simplicity of this app and the color coding of my ideas just adds another dimension.
- Simple and easy to use: ColorNote is very easy to use and has a simple interface, making it a great choice for people who prefer a no-frills note-taking app.
- Color coding: ColorNote allows you to color-code your notes, making it easy to differentiate between different ideas or categories.
- Reminders and notifications: ColorNote allows you to set reminders and notifications for your notes, so you never forget important ideas or tasks.
- Widget support: ColorNote has widget support, which means you can add notes to your home screen for quick and easy access.
- Limited features: ColorNote is a simple app, so it may not have all the features you need to capture and manage your ideas effectively. For example, you may need more advanced features like time tracking or custom fields.
- No collaboration: ColorNote does not have any collaboration features, so it’s not ideal for team projects or brainstorming sessions.
- Not ideal for long-term planning: ColorNote is best suited for short-term planning and note-taking. If you need to plan out a project or a long-term goal, you may need a more comprehensive tool.
- Ads: ColorNote is a free app, but it does display ads. If you find the ads distracting, you may need to pay for a premium version or switch to a different note-taking app.
People who have a lot of ideas can find maintaining focus to be challenging. That’s why it’s so important to find the best idea capture tools for you, jot the ideas down, and get back to what you were working on. If you get the idea written down, it’s no longer taking up space in your brain. The trick is resisting the urge to flesh every idea out right when you have it. If you struggle with this, I would recommend setting aside time each week where your only purpose is to review your ideas and think about where you want to focus your energy.
Did I miss one that you like? Let me know in the comments.