Ten power tools for recording your best ideas

Ideas tend to be fleeting creatures, bubbling up from your subconscious mind without warning, and then disappearing just as quickly -- perhaps never to be recalled again. Here are 10 top tools and techniques for capturing your best ideas.

Do you have a method or strategy for recording ideas when they occur to you? If not, you should. Ideas tend to be fleeting creatures, bubbling up from your subconscious mind without warning, and then disappearing just as quickly — perhaps never to be recalled again.

“Ideas are all around you, and they can appear (and disappear) very quickly,” explains creativity expert Charles Cave, an advocate of recording your ideas any time, anywhere. “Be receptive to the world around you. There are times when you may hear a snatch of conversation, or see a funny sign. Unless you capture that thought immediately, it will be gone in matter of minutes. Imagine your ideas are butterflys flying out into the open. You need a net to capture the butterflies and not let them get away.”

Fortunately, ideas are easy to capture and record, and you have many tools at your disposal that you can use to lasso your insights, hunches and ideas. Here are 10 of the most popular and effective tools and techniques for recording your ideas, along with their advantages and disadvantages:

1. Notebook or journal

Notebooks and journals are a great way to capture ideas, and are probably the most popular tool for doing so. They also have an impressive track record of success throughout history: Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison were big believers in this method, and filled hundreds of notebooks with their ideas during their lifetimes.

Some people prefer lined journals, especially if they plan to record mainly words. Other creative types prefer unlined pages, so they can record any combination of words, drawings and images. One unique product that accommodates both words and sketches is the Bienfang NoteSketch, a spiral-bound, paperback notebook that contains pages with lined and unlined regions.

Advantages: Notebooks and journals offer a flexible and portable format for recording ideas. They are also a fast medium for recording ideas. Unlike your computer, which must spend several minutes booting up when you turn it on, a notebook or journal is always immediately ready to capture your ideas.

Disadvantages: If a high degree of portability is important to you, a journal or notebook may not be as useful as some other tools for recording ideas. Also, you can’t easily search hand-written notes, which may limit their utility if you have recorded a large number of ideas.

2. Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)

The Personal Digital Assistant, or PDA, is one of my favorite methods for capturing and storing my ideas. I carry an H-P iPaq handheld computer with me wherever I go. Whenever the muse strikes, I can use the iPaq to quickly and easily jot down an idea or a few key words. Then, after I have synchronized my PDA with my laptop, I can flesh out my ideas further.

Advantages: Handheld computers like the iPaq and Palm are highly portable. Unlike some other methods of recording ideas, a PDA is designed to fit comfortably in your pocket. It is ready to capture ideas as soon as you turn it on — no lengthy boot-up sequence is needed, unlike a PC. One of the biggest benefits of this method is that recording your ideas electronically makes them much easier to search and manipulate than paper-based ideas.

Disadvantages: PDAs are well suited for recording words, but are poorly suited for recording ideas as pictures or images. Also, because most PDAs require that you use a stylus to input text, you may find that spotty handwriting recognition may interrupt your creative “flow.” Finally, a PDA is one of the more expensive tools for recording ideas — but is still a worthwhile investment in my opinion!

3. Index cards

I have used this method for many years, and it has worked very well for me. Index cards are durable, and it’s easy to carry a small supply of them with you, so you can record your ideas just about anywhere. Also, once you have recorded a number of ideas on index cards, you can spread them out on a table, move them around and group related ideas together — or use random combinations of cards to stimulate additional ideas.

Advantages: Index cards are small, highly portable and durable. Also, they are equally well-suited to recording both words and simple illustrations. They are inexpensive and you can buy them just about anywhere.

Disadvantages: To get the most out of this idea-recording system, you really need to transfer your ideas from paper-based index cards into an electronic form — into a word processor, for example. That’s because ideas are easier to manipulate in digital form than they are on paper. But once you’ve accumulated a large stack of index cards containing your ideas, you may find it challenging to find time to transcribe them all. That’s what happened to me, and why I moved away from using this method to record my ideas.

4. Micro cassette audio recorder

A micro cassette audio recorder is a very efficient tool for recording ideas. Several companies make units that are small enough to fit in your pocket; when inspiration strikes, you can pull out your recorder and dictate your ideas immediately. You can even keep a recorder on your nightstand; if inspiration strikes in the middle of the night or as you’re waking up, you can use it to capture those ideas — assuming that you’re coherent enough to speak clearly!

Advantages: A micro cassette recorder is small and highly portable, so you can carry it just about anywhere.

Disadvantages: Using this method, ideas are recorded in audio format. For best results, you should transcribe them into a journal or personal idea database on your computer, which can be time consuming. One possible solution is to buy a digital voice recorder with the capability of transferring your voice recordings to your PC, where they can be transcribed by a voice recognition software program like Dragon NaturallySpeaking or IBM’s ViaVoice.

5. Mind Mapping

Mind maps, whether you create them by hand or using a software program like MindManager or Inspiration, are a great way to capture ideas. That’s because mind maps do an excellent job of leveraging your brain’s powers of association. Also, because you’re only populating your mind map with key words and phrases, it’s a fast and efficient way to transfer ideas from your brain into a more tangible form. Mind maps are also a powerful and proven way to share ideas and information with other people. In addition, they convey not only meaning but context, showing the relationships between your ideas.

Advantages: Mind mapping is easy to learn, and is a fast and easy way to record your ideas in an engaging visual format.

Disadvantages: Mind maps are not quite as portable as some of the other methods reviewed here, like carrying index cards, a PDA or a pocket voice recorder around.

6. Leave yourself a voice mail message

Another simple but very effective way to record your ideas is to leave a voice mail message for yourself. In other words, you dictate your idea into your own voice mail box, as if you were a customer or coworker leaving a message for you. This is an excellent technique to use if you don’t have a pen and paper, or other means of recording ideas.

Advantages: This technique leverages technologies that most businesspeople already have available to them — cell phones and voice mailboxes — and utilizes them in a creative way. You can use this technique just about anywhere you have access to a telephone.

Disadvantages: Once you have dictated your ideas into a voice mail message, the only way you can utilize them is to transcribe them in writing or type them into your PC. Also, you may not always have immediate access to a telephone to call your voice mail and dictate your idea.

7. Flip chart

The humble flip chart has become a fixture in corporate conference rooms all over the world. It is frequently used as a tool to record ideas in group brainstorming sessions and other types of meetings. It does this job remarkably well, enabling team members to quickly record ideas for everyone in the meeting to see and consider. Here’s another use you may not have considered: why not keep a flip chart in your office, near your desk, available to capture your ideas as they occur. Its size and prominent location will help to keep your ideas in front of you. It’s also great for recording ideas during small meetings with one to two other people in your office.

Advantages: Flip charts are very easy of use, relatively inexpensive, and require a minimum of materials (all you need is a flip chart and some colored markers!). Speed of recording ideas is very good. This technique is a very effective way to encourage group collaboration; participants can build new ideas upon the ones that have already been written on the flip chart.

Disadvantages: The effectiveness of using a flip chart for recording ideas may be highly dependent upon the person you have selected to be the scribe (the person who writes the group’s ideas on the flip chart). Sometimes, if a group gets fired up and starts producing lots of ideas, the scribe may not be able to write them down fast enough. Also, a poorly-trained scribe may not write down the idea the way it was presented. Because of space limitations, a 20-word description of a valuable idea may be capsulized on a flip chart in only 3 to 4 words. Or the scribe may put his or her own “spin” on the idea while writing it down. As a result, some of the nuances of the idea may get lost in the process.

Because of the relatively small size of the average flip chart, it may not be suitable for larger group meetings (it may be hard to read ideas from even 20 feet away) or large quantities of ideas. Unless you rip off each completed sheet and attach it to a conference room wall for all to see, ideas may become hidden as you turn over a filled up sheet to begin recording ideas on the next one. You can overcome this limitation by using mind mapping software with a laptop and LCD projector; as ideas are contributed, the scribe can immediately record them in the mind map, which is displayed on screen for all to see. All ideas are visible on screen, a big advantage compared to flip chart sheets.

Finally, someone must transcribe all of these written ideas into electronic form, which could be time-consuming if the group has generated a lot of ideas. Also, there’s an opportunity (albeit a small one) for the person doing the transcribing to re-interpret or misinterpret ideas during the transcription process.

8. Butcher block paper

Butcher block paper is recycled paper that comes on large rolls. It can be pinned up in long, horizontal strips on the walls of your conference room. Unlike the flip chart, which has limited space where you can record ideas, a large strip of butcher block paper gives you a much bigger canvas upon which to jot ideas, create mind maps and other visual representations of your ideas. Some creative companies even hang butcher block paper on the walls of selected hallways, and encourage employees passing by to read the problem or challenge statement and jot down their ideas. This is a great strategy to get more employees involved in generating ideas for your company.

Advantages: Butcher block paper works well for capturing a larger quantity of ideas, because it provides a much bigger “canvas” than a flip chart, as well as keeping all of the previously-recorded ideas visible — so they can trigger additional ideas. When your team is done brainstorming ideas, you can use colored dots to enable workers to vote on the ideas they like the most.

Disadvantages: Butcher block paper has all of the limitations of paper-based idea recording: To share the ideas generated, someone must transcribe them into digital form (into a word processing document or an e-mail message). Also, rolls of butcher block paper aren’t very portable, which limits their usefulness as a personal idea recording tool. Because of their size and bulk, their real strength lies in helping groups to brainstorm and share ideas.

9. Pocket sized notepad and pen

This technique is another favorite of mine. Over the years, I have used a number of different types of pocket-sized notepads and miniature pens. Because they fit comfortably into a pants or jacket pocket, these tools almost beckon you to take them just about everywhere. Here are several systems that I’ve come across lately:
The NoteTaker Wallet from the David Allen Company, an executive organizational consulting firm. The NoteTaker Wallet includes a Rotring expandable Esprit pen. The Moleskine Pocket Notebook is useful for recording simple sketches or notes, wherever you are. You can use it to keep a to-do list, maintain a pocket diary, jot down addresses and phone numbers and much more. This pocket notepad keeps its contents secure with a black elastic band.

Advantages: The pocket-sized notebook and pen comes closest to the ideal characteristics of a toolset for recording ideas: It’s eminently portable and easy to stow in a pocket or purse, which means you’re more likely to carry it with you everywhere. Pocket notepads are also very versatile: They can be used to record a variety of notes, sketches and more.

Disadvantages: Like any other paper-based solution, you will probably want to transfer your hand-written notes and ideas into a digital format, which requires an extra step and an investment of time. Also, depending on the style of the pocket-sized notebook you decide to use, pages may become damaged or torn. Worse yet, loose pages can become lost, causing you to lose track of some potentially important notes or ideas.

10. Idea file/database

This idea recording device encompasses any tool you can use to save your ideas in a safe place – anything from a storage box for 3×5 index cards to a software program like Microsoft Access, Ashley Software’s Writer’s Blocks or MicroLogic’s InfoSelect. Both of these programs can be used to store thousands of ideas in a centralized electronic repository, and perform keyword searches on them. The advantage of this technique is that it keeps all of your ideas in one place, for easy retrieval at a future date. Even index cards can be divided by general subject area or type of idea, and placed behind tabbed dividers. And idea databases enable you to do speedy full-text searches of all of your ideas, a big advantage if you have recorded hundreds or thousands of ideas and observations over the years. I recorded creativity and innovation book and article ideas for years using InfoSelect, never knowing if or when I would ever use them. After I started to develop InnovationTools in 2001, I realized that I had this treasure trove of article ideas, and I utilized it to generate some of the early articles added to this Web site.

Advantages: To get the most out of your ideas, it’s best to keep them organized and easy to find, because you never know when an idea you jotted down 6 months ago might come in handy next week. An idea file or database saves you time by making it easy to search for and locate that one killer idea you came up with last week or last year. Software tools like InfoSelect or Microsoft’s new OneNote are even more powerful allies, because they enable you to store all of your ideas electronically in a free-form text format, and then perform keyword searches on them.

Disadvantages: For maximum benefit, you must be really disciplined, recording, storing and organizing your ideas on an ongoing basis.


As you can see, there are many tools and techniques that you can use to record your ideas. Some are best suited to individual ideation, while others are aimed at capturing the creative output of teams. Some require only a minimum of materials and investment, while others are more sophisticated. But they all share one common goal: To help you to capture your fleeting ideas now, so you can profit from them later.

My suggestion is to try as many of these techniques as you can, determine which ones are the best fit with your work style, and retain them as part of your creative repertoire. Have fun!