Floating on top of it all is the ubiquitous capture tool

This post is a follow-up to my recent decision to accept my messy nature. You should read that post first, because it’s really good.

I’ve always been a stacker, but it didn’t become especially problematic until I started working for myself. Those heart-freezing moments of realization — “Oh, shit I was supposed to…” — were becoming more common, and always at inopportune times. Remembering to tell the cable company that I’ve been issued a new debit card is useless at 60 m.p.h. on Route 3.

Thankfully, I found David Allen’s Getting Things Done (or “GTD”) and it changed my life. When you’ve got a trusted system [1. Monumentally important. Keep reading.] in place, your brain stops pestering you. Today I (try to) sort tasks by context and get stuff done (more or less).

A crucial aspect of  GTD is the ubiquitous capture tool (UCT). It’s used to “capture” any thought, task, etc. for later processing — which is a fancy way of saying “write shit down.” It’s simple, low tech and effective.

Provided that you use the UCT. Or can find it. Or remember to look at it. Or don’t lose it. Here’s how I keep the damn thing where I need it when I need it. First, some history.


Picking a UCT is a lot of fun and a huge pain. It’s completely up to you, the GTD practitioner, and that’s how I got into trouble.

Initially, I went out and bought a snazzy Palm Tungsten E2. With a calendar, contacts app, notepad and software synchronization, I figured it would be the ultimate. A month later, I realized I was using it to store lists. A $200 PDA to hold lists. I sold it and created a Hipster PDA, or hPDA, which is a fancy way of saying “Clip  3×5 index cards together.”

It was tidy, cheap, disposable, recyclable and simple. Occam’s Razor in my pocket. When paired with a Fisher Space Pen, my hPDA was as awesome as a dozen index cards could be.

But I lost them constantly. The problem was that I could take it apart. I’d remove a given project’s card, or the “@reference” card, put it down it’d be gone. I needed non-removalbe pages.

Mole Skinned

I succumbed to the lure of the legendary notebook of Hemingway and Picasso. I’d pull that puppy from my pocket, slide back the elastic strap and scan the room for anyone else in “the know.” Fellow notebook aficionados would nod approvingly at the guy writing important things in the same notebook once used by famous alcoholics and a psychotic, self-injurious painter.

I adopted an elaborate system of tags, numbering, incantations and logic puzzles to “hack” my Moleskine for GTD. When the voice inside my head told me, “This is kind of annoying,” I rebuked it. “Oh hush,” I’d say, “and help me remember why all of the odd pages are written in green ink.”

What the hell was I thinking? I can’t remember to buy milk unless I’ve safety-pinned a note to my shirt like a pre-schooler. How was I to adopt such an elaborate system?

More so, this “system” was nothing more that productivity-killing, mindless work fidgets. The only context I omitted was @notgettingshitdone. And I spent a lot of time there.

Field Notes

Next, I bought a 3-pack of Field Notes brand notebooks, which I like. Where the Moleskine gives off a certain air, the Field Notes notebook is a blue-collar tool ready for duty. It says, “Let’s work,” not “Sketch that sunset.” Plus, it’s thinner and less bulky in the pocket.

Still, I kept losing them. And then buying more. And then finding the originals. Or I’d start one, lose it, then start a new one, and then find the original. Now, I’ve got this embarrassing testament to my tendency to lose notebooks.

My notebooks. Plus a keyboard. And some Disney pins. And a Patriots hat.

Finally I decided to find a home for my notebook. I got a small wooden box and put in on our “telephone table,” which is the table that holds our phone. [2. Smart.] With it came a new rule: the notebook and pen are only allowed to be in one of two places. First, my pocket. Second, the box. If the notebook ever — and I mean ever — leaves my hand, it must go into one of those two places. Must. I forgot for the first few days, and then employed my wife to nag the shit out of me about it. Now I’ve got it. In fact, the sight of the notebook in my hand has become the prompt, or Sd, to put it in its place. I’m much more relaxed about knowing that I’ll capture what needs capturing.

Here’s the entire point of this post. Your choice of UCT doesn’t matter. At all. Trust does. If a granite tablet and a chisel works for you, use it. Fancy notebook, iPhone, whatever. Just ensure that you know beyond a doubt that it will be available if and when you need it, 100% of the time. [3. 99.9% won’t cut it.] Floating on top of my mess is a ubiquitous capture tool. Thanks to some hard core behavior modification, I always know where it is.

One of the tennants of GTD is “Capture-Process-Organize-Do.” The other is “To each his (or her) own.” David’s bare-bones system is flexible enough to accomdate any work style or process. This is what works for me. Here’s hoping you found it useful.