How to Capture Your Ideas and Accomplish More

Unless you’ve been stranded on a deserted island for the past few months, you’ve likely heard the news: the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, “Hamilton,” has finally arrived. And while it may have taken five years for the show to get from Broadway to the big screen, that’s nothing compared to the seven years it took Lin-Manuel to write it. Along the way, he created material in some unusual places: riding New York City’s famous “A” train, in the Dominican Republic—even on his honeymoon!

That Lin-Manuel found inspiration all around him isn’t surprising; breaking out of the everyday is a great way to spark fresh ideas. But ideas can be fleeting. Evernote’s founder Stepan Pachikov once said, “An interesting moment in life lasts only a moment.” The challenge is grabbing hold of those moments—those brilliant ideas—so they can live forever. To do that, you need a strategy for capturing them when inspiration strikes.  

Propelling the creative process forward

It may seem obvious that capturing ideas in the moment helps you remember them and clears your mind to focus on other things. But the benefits don’t stop there. While the seed of an idea can begin to grow in your mind, it can’t fully flourish until you get it out of your head.

  • Refining your thoughtsFacts and feelings can all swirl together in your mind, making it difficult to get perspective. When you write everything down, it’s easier to see the big picture, identify patterns, and understand what’s most important. 
  • Sparking new ideasAs you’re working through one idea, you may get inspired to go in a totally different direction. Or, you may revisit an idea you had months ago and find new ways to bring it to life. 
  • Boosting productivitystudy found that vividly describing your goals makes you 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to accomplish them. This same theory can apply to creative planning: capturing all the details about an idea increases your chances of pursuing it. 

How to get ideas out of your head and into a note

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to documenting your ideas. It’s best to experiment with a variety of media—words, drawings, images, audio, or video—to see what resonates with you. The goal is to find an approach that feels intuitive and complements your individual thought process. 

Here are four ways to capture your ideas:

  1. Quiet your doubts with freewriting

    It’s easy to feel confident when you’re alone with your thoughts. When you have to turn those nebulous ideas into words, however, you can start doubting yourself. Your momentum stalls and what was once an exciting idea fizzles out on the page.

    Author Seth Godin blames our ‘lizard brain,’ or amygdala, for this resistance. In his book, “Linchpin,” Seth writes, “The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, the reason you don’t do all the art you can, the reason you don’t ship when you can.” It’s the voice in your head that questions your decisions, pushing you to play it safe. However, you can train yourself to fight against this doubt with freewriting. 

    The goal of freewriting is simple: write without stopping. Choose a time limit, put your pen to paper or your hands on the keyboard, and don’t stop until the time is up. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling, and if you can’t think of anything to say, keep repeating your main idea or write something like, “I’m waiting for an idea to come.” 

    Freewriting not only helps you express an idea, it also allows you to build your confidence. By regularly freewriting, you’ll become more comfortable describing your thoughts. Then, when you do stumble upon a great idea, you’ll be faster and more confident capturing it in the moment. 

  2. Dictate your ideas, wherever you are

    You articulate ideas differently when you have to write them down. Think about how you sound when you’re writing versus talking out loud; you’re bound to use a separate vocabulary and your tone can differ. You may also find it harder to communicate your thoughts when writing, even with effective strategies like freewriting.

    If you’re feeling stuck capturing your creative ideas with a pen or keyboard, record yourself explaining them out loud. Let’s say you’re brainstorming new ways to run your annual user conference at work. How would you summarize it in one sentence? Pretend you’re describing your ideas to your best friend. What else would she want to know? What questions would she have? 

    Dictating also helps you capture ideas wherever you are, whether you’re driving in the car or taking a walk around your neighborhood. In fact, a Stanford study found that walking can improve creativity by as much as 60 percent. Dictation allows you to capture this creativity and stay in the flow, rather than having to stop mid-walk and find a place to sit and type. 

  3. Draw a mind map for nascent ideas

    For fully-baked ideas, the goal is to record as many details as possible so you can immediately act. With smaller, growing ideas, it’s impossible to focus on the specifics. Instead, capture that small spark—a single word or image—with the goal of jump-starting new streams of inspiration. 

    Mind mapping is the perfect way to capture these sparks. Rather than describing your idea in sentences, simply write a word in the center of a sheet. Then add related words or thoughts around that central topic, connecting each of them to the center with a line. Repeat the same process for subtopics, continually adding layers around your main idea. The end result is like a tree, with all related thoughts and topics acting as branches. 

    The beauty of mind maps is their freeform nature—you can record your ideas as they come to you, in any order. This freedom helps with creative planning: According to one survey, mind maps can increase productivity and creativity by 30 percent. 

    Pro tips

    • Use an app such as MindMasterXMind, or TheBrain to create your mind map.
  4. Create a space for collaborative ideas

    Writing, dictation, and mind maps are powerful ways to capture your own ideas; you can work at your own pace and create whatever output makes sense for you. However, not all ideas flow through one person. When you’re working with a team, you have to account for different ways people come up with ideas, process them, and articulate them. 

    Creating a shared space can offer the right level of flexibility for everyone. Think of it like a digital melting pot, where each person is free to use whatever medium best represents their ideas: words, images, videos, or even existing content like news articles or blogs. 

    To begin, simply create a notebook in Evernote and click the Share button to invite your colleagues to contribute. They can add content and suggestions to your notes, or create their own notes. The end result is a collaborative, multimedia representation of everyone’s ideas. 

Preserving your big ideas

There are thousands of ideas flowing through your brain every hour, so it’s crucial you have a plan for capturing them. By bringing your ideas to life—through words, drawings, or audio—you can preserve them forever. Then, when you revisit them later, you’ll be transported back to that experience of thought—free to pick up where you left off and explore the new possibilities your mind has created.