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  • A Primer to Quick Capturing for GTD – Part 1 of 4

Everything starts with an idea

Every great work of art, revolutionary product, or new technology started with somebody’s good idea. Everything starts with an idea. The problem is that many times we give ourselves too much credit and trust our brains to recall these ideas at will (which they weren’t designed to do) instead of writing them down and “capturing” them into a system.

Capturing (or quick capture) allows you to quickly record your ideas and move freely to next one without having anything “fall through the cracks”. Quick capture is a foundational principle of any productivity system. It’s just as important for the small tasks (like remembering the milk) as it is for the “bigger” tasks (like a home remodeling project or product launch).

Let me give you a real-life example of quick capture.

Let’s say I’m out to dinner with my wife and I have a fleeting thought that tomorrow I have to give a big presentation at work. I can handle this a couple of ways:

  1. I can do “nothing” – choosing to do nothing is still choosing to do something. This is not a good option because there’s a good chance I’ll forget completely and I’ll show up for my presentation unprepared.
  2. I can be preoccupied with the task – this also is not a good option because my focus and attention is not on who I’m with and what I’m doing. Doing this will inhibit you from developing the relationships that are important to you and will wear you out. I used to operate this way. Trust me – this won’t end well.
  3. I can “quick capture” the task – I can write it down and deal with it later. This is the preferred method because I can be “present” and fully engaged, and still deal with the work that needs to get done when the time (context) is appropriate.

This is the first post in a four-part series on quick capture. In this post, I’m going to explain the importance of capturing information into a trusted system and how that fits into the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. In subsequent posts, I’ll show you how to implement this on Mac and iOS using some specific apps that I’ve adapted into my everyday workflow.

You can watch the screencast of this presentation on the basics of capture or you can read along with the text underneath the screencast:

UPDATE: If you’d like to download a PDF version of the video outline, you can do so here.

Mind Like Water

mind like water
David Allen (the author of GTD) says that your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. He says that “our brain is like a computer – if you fill up the RAM with things you have to do you’ll never get anything done.” The goal of GTD is to help you achieve “mind like water”, which is a state of perfect readiness – no matter what happens, you’re able to respond appropriately.

For example: if you throw a small rock into still water, the water will respond appropriately to the force and mass of the input; it will produce ripples from the point of impact, then eventually return to a state of calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact – it reacts appropriately. Only when your mind is clear and your thoughts are organized can you achieve effective productivity. If your mind is overloaded trying to remember everything on your shopping list because you haven’t captured that information into your trusted system yet, you will not be able react appropriately when something unexpected (read: life) happens.

Important vs. Urgent

work/life balance
If you don’t have a system for dealing with input and disruptions, even the smallest thing can cause a major disruption. When you’re life is unbalanced, you can overreact or under-react pretty easily – that “urgent” email that you “need” to respond to right away probably isn’t that urgent and the things that are truly important (like remembering your wife’s birthday) can easily be forgotten.

I personally don’t check my work email after I leave the office because it can very easily steal my attention away from my family, and the truth is that even if I responded right away the other person probably won’t get it until tomorrow anyway. I’m better off being fully present and engaged when playing with my kids. I need to be able to decide between what’s important (playing with my kids) vs. what’s urgent (the impulsive need to check my inbox) and complete tasks accordingly. You need to be able to decide between what’s important and what’s urgent and complete tasks accordingly. Dwight Eisenhower once said “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” A good productivity system (like GTD) helps you sort the wheat front the chaff and correctly classify your tasks so you can focus on what really matters.

Any productivity system (including GTD) hinges on your ability to decide what to do when. In order to decide what you need to do, you need to first know what you need to do (I know – deep, right?). That’s where the idea of “capture” comes in. The easiest way I know of to make sure that nothing slips through the cracks is to capture a thought the moment I have it.

Emergency Scan Modality

Unfortunately, many people don’t do this and they operate in a continuous state of “emergency scan modality”. Because they aren’t organized, they have no choice to respond to what life throws at them. Because they don’t have a system and haven’t told their day what to do, their day tells them what to do instead – they end up repeatedly trying to put out fires that spring up because they didn’t capture important information, and they’re constantly worried about what they might be forgetting. They’re continuously “scanning” for the next fire to put out and can never focus on one thing for any length of time. They can’t react appropriately because they’re constantly stressed about what they may be forgetting, and instead of looking down the road they’re stuck trying to survive day-to-day. It’s impossible to achieve goals this way because everything appears urgent and important – even if it’s not.

David Allen, the author of GTD, once said that you only have 2 things you need to do:

  • What you’re doing right now
  • Everything else

It sounds kind of ridiculous to say it like this because you probably have a long list of things you need to do today (if you made one), but the premise is simple – you show your priorities by how you spend your time. At any given moment you are deciding subconsciously that this is the single-most important thing you could be doing right now. You have decided (either intentionally or by default) that what you’re currently doing is the best possible use of this moment.

Efficient vs. Effective

You cannot say “yes” to everything, no matter how productive you are, and the only way to feel good about saying “no” to things is to know what your “yes” is. You need to be both efficient and effective, not just doing things right but doing the right things.

Seth Godin says, “no is the foundation that we can build our yes on”. A good productivity system (like GTD) will help you identify your “yes” and say no the the things that don’t really matter, then help you achieve your goals as you move walk out your vision.

5 Steps to GTD

There are 5 “steps” to the GTD methodology:

  1. Capture – collect what has your attention
  2. Clarify – process what it means
  3. Organize – put it where it belongs
  4. Reflect – review frequently
  5. Engage – simply do

The most important step (and the focus of this series of posts) is capture. Without capture, the rest of the steps won’t happen because there’s nothing to clarify, organize, or reflect on. Capture is the foundation of any productivity system, and is actually pretty easy to implement – you just need to write things down. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a notebook or on your smartphone. What matters is that you have a system and you know what to do with that next. You need to know without a shadow of a doubt that it is in your system, and you have to develop a habit for processing that inbox regularly.

When you quick capture, you get that task into your system (whatever it looks like) with the idea that you can come back and process it later. You can make appropriate decisions about it at a later time/date, but it’s now in your system so you don’t have to think about it again. You don’t have to have that thought again or worry about forgetting it because it’s in your system.

Sometimes you’ll be able to make decisions about what to do with that information very quickly and you’ll know exactly where to put it. For example, if you know what you’re quick capturing is a task, you may decide to put it right into a task management system like OmniFocus. But what if you’re just not sure where this piece of information fits in your system? If you want to quick capture information without making judgment decisions about it, there are a couple apps that I use on a daily basis that fit this role very well. They allow you to quick capture text without knowing exactly where to put it yet. In the rest of this series, I’m going to show you how to set up and use the 2 apps that I use daily to accomplish this on Mac & iOS: nvALT and Drafts.

Click here for Part 2 of this series.

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Last Updated: February 2, 2021

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Hi Mike,

    Great stuff. Love your articles! Been very inspired by the Hazel stuff. Anyway, trying to set up a quick capture system based on your tutorial but like organizing the final content in outlines (using OmniOutliner currently).

    Any ideas? If not it could be a great topic with a tutorial on how you would approach that.

  2. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for sharing! Would it be possible to upload a pdf with a higher resolution? For me it is not possible to read the smaller text in the circles….?

    1. Sorry Maaike, the export settings on the tool I used to make the presentation don’t allow me to increase the resolution. The PDF does include enlarged versions of the individual circles, though.

  3. This is so great! Thanks for taking the time to create this. Could you make the starting (overall) mind map as a downloadable PDF?


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