Workflow: Capturing Ideas

Ideas are my lifeblood. Whether ideas for writing projects, grants, or to-dos, I need a simple method to get the ideas out of my head and into my system. An idea might come to me during a meeting, in the car, or on a walk. My system has to be fast, ubiquitous, and flexible. The less thought I have to put into capturing my ideas, the better.

Over time, my workflow for capturing ideas has evolved. You won't be surprised my system revolves around plaintext.

Here is the software you'll need for this workflow (you may also want to read my previous entries on why I use plaintext, Launchbar, and Drafts):

TextExpander allows me to type short key combinations (called Snippets) that expand into words, phrases, or even pictures. I use TextExpander constantly to type things like my email address (.hm expands to my home email, .wm expands to my professional email). I use similar combinations for my home address, my city, state, and my email signature. TextExpander is available for iOS devices (called TextExpander Touch) and is integrated into an increasing number of iOS programs. Under preferences, I choose to keep TextExpander Snippets synchronized using DropBox. I highly recommend this--identical snippets are then available on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad only needing to be entered once.

One must also have nvALT - Notational Velocity Fork installed on your Mac. Notational Velocity Fork is a special version of Notational Velocity that was developed by the genius, Bret Terpstra. It allows me to create text notes seamlessly and has a lightning fast search function. nvALT launches and I just start typing. Whatever I type becomes the title of my new note (after I hit return) while simultaneously searching the nvALT database for matching text strings. Hitting return finalizes the title and move the cursor down to a full note area. It's very fast. You need to check three settings in nvALT. First, be sure to set the "Read from Notes" drop-down menu to your desired folder. I synchronize to my nvALT folder in DropBox. Second, under the "Synchronization" Tab, make sure SimpleNote synchronization is OFF. Finally, under the "Storage" Tab, make sure you're saving as plaintext (not as RTF or HTML). If you choose this set-up, you won't be able to encrypt the nvALT database, but the trade-off in accessibility for me is well worth the price.

Next, make sure you have Simplenote Notesy installed on your iPhone and iPad. Notesy is a note taking program that synchronizes between your Mac and iOS devices using DropBox. Make sure Notesy is configured to synchronize with your nvALT folder in Dropbox hierarchy. I use Notesy as a conduit and for searches, but I rarely use it for writing.

The final programs you'll need are Drafts for iPhone and Drafts for iPad. As I discussed in my previous entry, Drafts is my go-to note taking app and has a place on the coveted home-screen of both my iPhone and iPad. I can get information entered quickly. Only after the information is captured, do I need to decide where to route it. Drafts gives me dozens of possibilities that I can personalize to show or hide.

IDEAS WORKFLOW: when sitting at my Mac and and idea hits me I invoke Launchbar (hitting Command-Space), type nv then return--launching nvAlt. Depending on what the idea is, I use TextExpander snippets. For instance ".wix" automatically types the following: WiPPPx - Untitled - 2012-12-10. I have a similar snippet for project ideas ".idx" expands to IdeaX - Untitled - 2012-12-10, and many others as well. All I have to do is change the "Untitled" to something descriptive, hit return and start typing. My idea or writing snippet is captured to nvALT (and is thus searchable via Spotlight, nvALT, or any other search utility I prefer). Because I've set up synchronization these idea files are available on my iPhone or iPad regardless of location.

If i'm on my iPad or iPhone and want to capture an idea, I use Drafts. Once I've completed the thought (using typing or voice entry), I must enter a title. Since Drafts is TextExpander Touch enabled, I can use my same Snippets to name the idea to convention (make sure TextExpander is open on your iPad or iPhone for the text expansion to work). I then route the completed Drafts note to Notesy (via the Drafts interface). It is saved, synchronized, and available on all my devices, all the time.

I can then search and find single or multiple ideas using the nvALT search interface. If I type "IdeaX" in the nvALT search box, ALL my ideas are returned in neat order. If, instead, I'm searching for a specific idea, I can be more explicit with my search terms, finding related items or even a single item.

Although this workflow takes a bit of set-up, the payoff is immense. Over time, I have accumulated hundreds of potential projects, text snippets, and more using this method. Many of them would have been lost, had I not had a quick and convenient way to capture them.

I hope you find the workflow useful.

Appended March 2, 2013: Read this entry on why I switched from SimpleNote to Notesy.