Saturday, April 13, 2024

You Need an “Idea Bucket”

Laptop and notebook on the Harber London Leather Desk Mat
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

The 2000s ushered in a period of intense interest in productivity methods and strategies. Not all of them stood the test of time, but one certainly did—and if you’re not using it, you’re missing out.

Ubiquitous Capture Is a Superpower

Way back in 2001, David Allen published a personal productivity book called Getting Things Done. To say it had an enormous influence on the burgeoning “life hacker” movement would be an understatement. You can check out the book if you’d like, but there are plenty of good summaries online these days (like this summary from The Process Hacker or this run-down from the folks at Todoist).

It might not get as much press time these days, but back then and well into the 2010s, it was A Very Big Deal in productivity circles, and it influenced a whole generation of life hackers and optimizers.

The Getting Things Done system is all about time management, optimizing what you do when, and ensuring that the small day-to-day actions you take are moving forward bigger life projects that align with your goals and ambitions. The system has been criticized for being overly biased towards information workers and people with white-collar jobs and, in fairness, that’s a legitimate criticism. Not everyone finds the system meshes well with their job, their lifestyle, or their way of thinking.

But there is one element of Getting Things Done that I think literally every single person should adopt as part of their daily lives. The “Ubiquitous Capture Tool.” In the GTD system, it has a very fancy name, but what it ultimately functions as is an “idea bucket.”

And what is an Ubiquitous Capture Tool or idea bucket? It’s simply a tool, be it a dedicated productivity app on your phone like Todoist or a small notebook you keep with you at all times, that you use to capture every idea or new input that comes your way.

You’re effectively turning the tool into a digital or physical version of your short-term memory. I call ubiquitous capture a superpower because committing the contents of your short-term memory to a long-term storage system means you never forget anything, and you can make the most of all the great ideas and information that comes your way.

What Does an “Idea Bucket” Look Like In Practice?

On any given day, you likely think, hear, or read many things that would be useful to remember. Every day, however, we all experience these things and inevitably forget almost all of them.`

You hear a friend talking about something you realize would make a great gift for their upcoming birthday, but you forget it. You’re away from your computer, and you remember an important change you need to make to your retirement account—but you forget, and another quarter goes by without you making any adjustments.

You’re reading an article that mentions an interesting book, but a few days later, you can’t remember what the book was. Your boss mentions a distant but important deadline, and you think to yourself, “it would look really good if I got a head start on that project,” but you forget, and the project comes and goes without you standing out.

The inevitable “and then you forget” problem could be solved in all of those examples using any ubiquitous capture tool. By simply making a quick note when the thought is fresh in your mind, like “The Body Keeps Score by Bessel van der Kolk,” “order replacement filters for furnace,” or “buy watt meter to test TV,” you capture those thoughts.

I’ve been using Todoist as a ubiquitous capture tool (as well as a to-do list and personal project management tool) for years, so that’s the tool I lean on. From articles to ideas to reminders, everything I come across that I want to save for later ends up in my Todoist account’s “Inbox.” Your inbox might be a physical notebook, the basic Notes app on your phone, a stack of index cards, or any other capture tool.

The important part is that by capturing all those ideas, you ensure that they don’t float away into the ether, never to be thought of again. And you avoid a situation where if you do think of them again, it’s after they are useful. It’s not very helpful to remember to call a plumber to deal with a slow drain after the drain has finally flooded your basement, after all.

Don’t Forget to Empty Your Bucket

There’s a crucial second half to the process of ubiquitous capture. Emptying the bucket. If you don’t take the time to process everything you captured, then it’s no better than meticulously putting everything on a calendar, only never to check the calendar to see what’s on it.

Depending on how prolific you are in putting things in your ubiquitous capture tool (and how fast deadlines in your life approach) you might process your capture inbox once a day, a few times a week, or once a week.

But to make the capturing process worthwhile, you need to process every captured inbox item into something else. If it’s an article to read later, it needs to go on a read-later list. If it’s the start of a project, like updating your home office, you need to create a separate list or project entry to think of everything a home office update requires and what order you’ll do it in.

If it’s a one-off task like ordering a replacement part or sending a quick message to somebody, then just do it and cross it off your list (or transfer that one-off task to a list of one-off tasks you can rip through when you have free time).

However you choose to manage what happens to all the ideas and inputs you’ve captured with your idea bucket, the best part is that they are there to process in the first place—and lost, leaving you without the good idea or the reminder to do something important.

And if you need a little nudge to try it, here’s my supreme seal of approval. Over twenty years of life hacking, productivity book reading, and otherwise being a human guinea pig for every optimization under the sun, the only thing I’ve consistently used across all methods and eras of my life has been ubiquitous capture. It’s the life hack on which all other improvements are built.


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