Ubiquitous capture tool

Brett Kelly:

“Why, then, do I keep a pen and paper on me at all times and, when seated, open in front of me, ready for input? Because that’s how I have ideas.”

I completely agree. In fact, let me tell you about about my childhood.

There is a small, shoebox-shaped house in Scranton, Pennsylvania with faded vinyl siding and an under-performing rose bush in the front yard. Twenty years ago, it was occupied by my typical American family: middle class, happy enough, God-fearing and terribly disorganized.

Consider the kitchen. Open the cabinet to the right of the refrigerator, just above the pink laminate counter top, and you would have found my mother’s recipes. Unlike your mom’s collection, Carol’s never saw the inside of a cookbook. Instead, they hung from the back of the door with yellowing strips of tape.

A Hellman’s mayonnaise label with a potato salad recipe dangled next to my grandmother’s hand-written instructions for stuffed squid. There were pages ripped from Family Circle magazine, supermarket hand-outs, 3×5 index cards, torn business envelopes with their postmarked stamps intact … anything flat enough to write on and light enough to stick to a pine cupboard door  was called into service.

Most bore stains acquired in the line of duty. A sheet of yellow legal paper held a recipe for lemon squares as well as greasy butter stains and a smudge of hardened baking flour about the size and shape of a postage stamp. “David, hand me that sheet of paper,” my mother would say, thrusting her egg-y fingers at me. Another Christmas, another batch of lemon squares and another crop of stains. Buy the time I was in high school, the recipe was nearly illegible.

While the “fly strip method” of recipe storage keeps everything accessible, it’s a poor filing system. Linguine with anchovy paste rubbed up against blueberry cheesecake, which is something that should never happen, not even in print.

Like most messes, my mother’s organizational style had the tendency to spread, like an invading army, or syphilis. The inside of my dad’s garage looked like a yard sale had vomited, and the state of the basement was something I won’t even mention.

What all this means is that I’ve got chaos in my blood. It didn’t become problematic until I started working for myself. Those painful moments of realization — “Oh, I really need to …” — were becoming more common, and always at the least opportune 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 in place, your brain stops pestering you. When you’ve got your pending tasks sorted by context, you relax. What’s more, you get stuff done (I think that’s where he got the name).

One of the crucial aspects of a GTD system is the ubiquitous capture tool. Basically, Dave wants you to “capture” any thought, task, or “open loop” as he calls them for later processing — which is a fancy way of saying “write shit down.” It’s simple, low tech and very effective.


It’s also the part of GTD that’s the most fun and the biggest pain. At least for a geek like me. One of the Seven Great Truths of Geekhood is that we’re always willing to try a new system if we think it’s better than what we’re currently using. Dave leaves his readers’ choice of ubiquitous capture tool completely up to them, and that’s where 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, as described by the great Merlin Mann (by the way, Merlin has the best hair on the Internet. He knows it, too).

The hPDA, for the uninitiated, is a bunch of 3×5 index cards held together with an office clip. That’s it. I brought mine to the next level with some color coding and the D*I*Y Planner templates. My hPDA was tidy, cheap, disposable, recyclable and simple. Occam’s Razor in  my pocket. With a tiny, write-anywhereFisher Bullet Space Pen, my hPDA (which I nicknamed “Shirely,” just to give it a little more personality) was as awesome as a dozen index cards could be.

Mole Skinned

Then it happened. I was tempted by the legendary notebook of Hemingway and Picasso. My head swelled with my action lists whenever I produced my slick notebook and slid back the elastic binding strap, all the while scanning the room for anyone else in “the know.” Fellow notebook aficionados would nod approvingly at the guy writing important things in the same notebook used by one of the world’s most 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 every third page is written in green ink.”

The other hassle was that I couldn’t easily discard spent pages. When an index card ran out of white space, I tossed it. No clutter, no mess. The Moleskine didn’t allow for that.

Field Notes

Next, I bought a 3-pack of Field Notes brand notebooks. For me, these trump the Moleskines. While the Moleskine gives off a certain air, the Field Notes notebook is a utilitarian tool ready for duty. It says, “Let’s work,” not “Sketch a sunset.” Plus, it’s thinner and less bulky in the pocket.

Still, I was still subject to the same cumbersome system of analog tagging and linking. Ultimately, I’ve gone back to my original system — a dozen index cards in my pocket.

One of the great 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.

Thanks to Brett for prompting this post.