On capturing thoughts

What's the most efficient way to get ideas from your head into some sort of storage? (Hat tip to Ben Reesor for the question.)

I'm a contrarian here, at least with respect to the productivity community. First, I advocate for domain-specific capture. If you're an expert with some software like Drafts, Notes, or Roam and have a good system for getting anything in there, great. But I do better putting tasks into Reminders, facts into DevonTHINK, messages directly into a messaging client, and so on. And I don't know anyone for whom a general-purpose capture system has worked better than a piecemeal system.

There's a line of thought according to which we should resist piecemeal capture systems, with two claims at its core:

  1. You should be able to coordinate (put into a graph structure, search over, or whatever) all your notes in a single system;
  2. You should be able to capture arbitrary thoughts quickly, not just ones you can already classify as tasks, memories, or whatever.

The first of these just seems false to me. Having a single digital system that reflects as much as possible of your mind, life, and history is, for some, an appealing ideal. But why expect that tasks, memories, goals, and everything else should comprise a single software system? They don't feel, behave, or manifest themselves similarly in our embodied lives, so why should they do so in our software lives? More practically, domain-specific tools are so wonderful these days that I'm more eager to bet on the future of a piecemeal system than a fully integrated one.

I'm more contrarian still with respect to the premise behind the question, though: Why think that it's good to capture the marginal thought? I've recently gone through a bunch of my old notes and journal entries. They're terrible.

Empirically, my note-taking is most valuable when it's tied to some long-standing line of thought or established project. This is all the more reason to keep a quick-capture system piecemeal. At least for me, the dream of being able to record arbitrary thoughts quickly is not worth pursuing: The more I've pushed myself toward a general-purpose capture system, the more I've encouraged myself to capture--and perhaps distract myself with--my worst ideas.

There are surely people who have much better random thoughts than I do. If you're one of them, good luck. But remember that reducing friction in the general case often increases it in specialized cases (e.g., as you need to move tasks from a general-purpose system into a task manager). Don't set a goal of reducing that friction without at least trying to assess the tradeoffs involved.

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