Stop forgetting ideas, use this note-taking system

Are you always too “busy” to focus or plan? This is rarely the case. You probably just have too much going on in your head. Uncategorized to-do items pile up throughout the day. You might feel daunted attempting to sort through them. Simplifying your process for categorizing ideas and tasks that pop up throughout the day will vastly improve your life and your efficiency. It will allow you more time to focus on the task at hand. The perfect structure for you may not be identical, but it will probably be similar to the below. Take the time to test out these principles and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a more effective person.


Get ideas down

From now on, every thought that inspires any future action gets written down. This alleviates the anxiety of forgetfulness. If you can trust your notes, you won’t have to trust your brain nearly as much. You can complete your tasks throughout the day with only the normal stress of those tasks, not the existential stress of feeling your life is out of control. Quantify your ideas and tasks to stabilize your life.

Identify the locations you frequent during your day. Where do you come up ideas? Is there a place you often forget ideas because you didn’t write them down? Go out tomorrow and buy yourself cheap notepads (Dollar Store or WalMart) and a decent pen (Pilot V5 is a classic). Every place you could have a thought gets a pen and paper. Assuming you’re not deep in a peyote trance or comatose (relax, I’m kidding), you’ll probably get an idea that requires some form of action pretty soon. WRITE IT DOWN. “Action” is anything that affects the future in any controllable way. That could be a reminder to research the cardiovascular capacities of squirrels or an idea of what color of pants you want to wear to the beach this summer. It doesn’t matter. If you are involved in doing it, write it down. When you move locations, tear that sheet of notes and put it in a spot that you’ll notice later. I use my pocket. I compulsively check my pockets. I don’t forget papers in there. As you go throughout the day you’ll find ideas piling up. It’s cool. You don’t have to worry, they aren’t going to disappear like they would in your brain. You now have some time to get these ideas organized.

Note: For safety and ease when driving, consider utilizing a voice memo system like “OK Google” for notes. Just say “OK Google” on your Google-supported phone and then “remind me in x hours to look into that property on N High St.”


Get it into a system

These ideas on paper are items for filing. This should be done fairly quickly. Ideas wither like lilies in the desert sun. The intricacies of their context and application go beyond the notepad and lose relevance over time.

The destination for your idea/items will depend ultimately on the type of action they. Here are the rules I follow based on the categories most of my ideas fall into:

“Someday” items go into an (a cool app you should check out) list. This I reference occasionally to see if any ideas have become more relevant over time. For instance, I may note there is a particular Broadway show, Dogs, I’d like to see. This may not have been relevant last month,but now that I have a trip planned to Manhattan, it has become relevant. I may now see that idea on the “someday” list and include it on my optimized itinerary of NYC.

“Buy” items go into an list I name “Buy” I pull up every time I’m at the grocery store or Walmart. Do you see how this could help? I don’t forget to buy that mouthwash I just ran out of.

In I also have lists for restaurants I want to check out, books I’d like to read, expenses I’ve incurred with my roommate, time I need to ask off at work, and random tips that may be useful in the future (e.g. my bike tires’ tube size or the combination to my gym lock.) All these categories help me worry less about various cognitively and temporally disparate sectors of life.

“To do” items go into a slot on Google Calendar. This will automatically send me an alert email 24hrs before the time slot. I’m a believer that effective people schedule and act on their ideas frequently. Developing long lists of free-floating tasks is burdensome. Make an effort to practice wringing the action items out of your ideas. This aids in the natural progression of your life towards learning, failing, improving, and succeeding. A common trait of worriers and ineffective people is to have long wish lists with no action items.

If there are ideas in my notes that are more casual, like fun articles or Youtube videos, those don’t get a list. I email myself the next time I think I’ll be able to actually review them. 

I’ve gathered from “productivity experts” that if a task takes less than 5 minutes, you should do it right away. This cuts down the micro tasks that jam up the system and cause unnecessary cognitive load with respect to their level of difficulty. The feasibility of this rule depends on your current schedule, however. If you are saving a kitten from a tree and the idea pops into your head that you need to download a Norton Anti-virus update, please save the kitten first.

Following these rules will help you reduce a ton of stress over forgetting ideas. It will allow you to be more efficient and focused. It also gives you satisfaction that you’re not wasting ideas you have in meetings or in the car. Most people don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, but a lack of organized notes. Try this out and see if it doesn’t work. Don’t dismiss it as being too easy to work. This shift will have a massive impact.

I’m off to Europe next week on an epic adventure. It’s gonna be a wild combination of frugality, eating, partying, airports, massively blundered Germanic languages, and an old friend with a penchant for world travel and reckless decision-making. I’ll take notes.

  • Michael Vogel

    I’ve had a tremendous success with the powerful app, Evernote. Not only is the app well organized, it is even capable of scanning PDFs and miscellaneous hand written notes for content that are uploaded to the app. A subscription is require for that service I believe.
    Furthermore, I’m pretty sure there are ways to take notes while driving, such as calling a certain number and talking into the phone or through Bluetooth to that number. That number will then email you what you said. I’m not sure of the service but I’m confident it exists.

    • Jack Maguire

      cool, Michael. Thanks. I never got into Evernote because I felt I needed a system that was eminently simple and could come with me anywhere. Especially in situations where I didn’t want my phone, like in bed. I’ve heard very good things, though. In my experience, using OKGoogle has been super simple. I’m not saying other things might not work better for other people though.