Getting Things Done: Capture

Oct 31, 2014
Joe Buhlig
~4 mins

Capture is the process of collecting ideas and actions. You’re accumulating task items, reference material, or even trash and putting them in an inbox of some kind.

Why capture?

Quite simply, capturing allows you to get something off your mind. When a thought hits your brain, it can (and will) suppress all other thoughts until you do something about it. You can act on it right away, write it down, hope it comes back later, or lose it forever. If you choose to act on a thought right away, go for it. I wish I could do that for every idea that comes to me. But I don’t have time for that. There are too many ideas and things I want to do. Hoping for it to come back later just sounds like a bad idea, and losing it forever will certainly get me in trouble. So writing things down it is. If you write it down (and you can trust that you’ll come back to it), you free up your mind to focus on the task or person in front of you. But you also give yourself a way to see just how much you have on your plate. You can see the crazy amount of stuff you want to do. And that’s a sobering experience.

What should you capture?

Capture everything that you want to do someday or want to remember. But you should also capture anything that’s on your mind. If it’s occupying your thoughts and you need to do something about it, write it down.

  • I need to send out that development update.
  • I want to learn how to make bread.
  • I really enjoy airplanes.
  • We need toilet paper.
  • Is an iPhone 6 really worth it?
  • I need to winterize the lawnmower.
  • We want to replace the car in 3 (maybe 5) years.

It can be anything. If it’s something that comes to mind that you might want to act on in the future, write it down. You can come back to it and make decisions about it later. You want it off your mind.

Two times to capture

Write things down when they come to you. That means you need to have some way of doing this at all times. It’s frustrating to have an idea come to you and you can’t find pen and paper anywhere. So you need to have tools with you at all times to capture things when your mind decides to ambush you. There’s also a time for doing what David calls a Mind Sweep. It’s a list of triggers to help your mind think of things that you need to capture or do something with. These are helpful when you’re first starting out, but I’ve found them to be great to do on a weekly basis as well.

Where to put them

Inboxes. Whether it’s a physical tray that you put pieces of paper in or a digital system, you want your bits of captured information to go into an inbox. In the next step of the workflow you’ll process these bits and determine what you need to do with them. But at this point you just need to throw it into an inbox. For reference, here are some of my inboxes:

The fun part - ubiquitous tools

If you’re planning to write things down and your mind can fling things at you whenever it wants, then you need to have tools with you at all times. The most popular ways to do this involve small notebooks that you carry everywhere and apps for your phone. I use both. I’ve found the easiest way to capture to be an hPDA that I carry everywhere. I always have a piece of paper with me and as a bonus, I have a way to write things down for other people as well. I simply give them one of my index cards. Any time I go near my physical inbox beside my desk at home, I throw any cards that I’ve written on into the tray. I know that I’ll empty it later, so I don’t have to think about those items anymore. The other way I capture is using Drafts on my phone. It’s super easy. I launch the app and start typing right away. When I’m done, I can send that text to a number of places, but mostly it goes to my Omnifocus inbox. Again, I know that I’ll process those items later. Between these two methods I find that writing it down is easier. It’s nice to have it collected digitally, but it seems to take longer that way. But I do it anyway.

What comes next?

Now that you’ve piled stuff in your inbox, you need to do something with it. Otherwise it’ll sit on your desk and die from lack of attention. You need to come back to it and Clarify what you’re going to do about it. We’ll jump into that in the next post.

This is a series about the productivity framework Getting Things Done by David Allen. You can find the entire series at the following links:

  1. Getting Things Done: Introduction
  2. Getting Things Done: Capture
  3. Getting Things Done: Clarify
  4. Getting Things Done: Organize
  5. Getting Things Done: Reflect
  6. Getting Things Done: Engage
  7. Getting Things Done: A Day in the Life