Ubiquitous Capture Roundup

Ideas can vanish as quickly as they take shape, so the ability to capture them right away is a critical part of both one's creative process and overall productivity.

I've tried many ubiquitous capture systems (a key component of David Allen's Getting Things Done), but I've yet to settle on just one. As such, I'd like to explore the pros and cons of several systems here.

Note: This article is about capturing ideas and thoughts. It is not about bookmarking things on the Internet or saving articles to read later. I have separate systems for those things. (See: Yojimbo and Instapaper, respectively.)

On My iPhone

Many capture tools are iPhone apps. My iPhone is always within arm's reach, so in many ways it's the ideal ubiquitous capture device. These are the capture-capable apps I currently use, with varying degrees of frequency.

  • OmniFocus: The powerhouse of to-do apps, OmniFocus features an omnipresent quick capture button. This feature allows you to add an item to the app's Inbox at any time, even when syncing data. As I mentioned in my home screen app roundup, I don't love OmniFocus. It's loaded with features, but its utilitarian design and lack of personality make it feel very cold. It's not fun to use, although I know many can't live without it. I suppose they would argue that a task manager isn't supposed to be fun, but regardless, I rarely feel compelled to open the app, even to capture an idea. I've thought about switching to Things, but its update cycle makes me hesitant, and I'm not sure I even need such heavyweight to-do apps at this point in my life. App Store: $19.99

  • Mail: I keep my inbox at zero, so if there's something in there, it means I have something I need to take care of. Sending myself an email is a decent way to make sure I don't forget about an idea because I look at my inbox throughout the day. But, emailing myself is a cumbersome process: tap Mail, tap Compose, type email address, type subject, type message, tap Send. Too clumsy for my taste.

  • Noted: This app solves the problem with using Mail for ubiquitous capture, which is a lack of speed. When you open Noted, you're presented with a blank text field. You type, hit Send, and the message automatically gets delivered to your email address. That's it. Noted does one thing very well. Currently, I keep Noted in a folder on my third screen, so it's not the easiest app to access. I could move it, but I question how necessary it is for my capture system to involve email. App Store: $1.99

  • Notesy: A beautiful and feature-rich notes app, Notesy replaced the default Notes app on my iPhone long ago. It syncs via Dropbox, and it's very reliable. I use it to keep running lists, or to take notes if I ever find myself in a meeting. Notesy opens in the same state you left it, so if that's somewhere you don't want to capture your idea, you'll have to back up a screen and select a different/new note. App Store: $4.99

  • Clear: A beautiful, musical, and innovate to-do list app, Clear is quite wonderful. It occupied a spot on my home screen for a while, but I've since moved it to screen two. List items in Clear can only be a handful of words long, so it's not great for capturing complex ideas, but adding things to lists is quick and easy via its gesture-based UI. I use this app for running lists as well, such as books to read and gift ideas. It's better suited for capturing brief to-do items than it is for remembering complicated thoughts. App Store: $1.99


In the last week or two, a few new capture apps have come onto the scene.

  • Drafts:. Like Noted, Drafts always opens to a blank note, which lets you start typing right away. Several smart folks (including Dave Caolo, Stephen Hackett, Ben Brooks, and Federico Viticci) have all had positive things to say about Drafts. After watching the video on their website, I have to say Drafts looks mighty useful, particularly due to the array of actions you can take once you've captured your idea. You can tweet, email, and copy text easily, and it supports Markdown syntax, previewing, and exporting to email. I don't love the icon, but I must admit Drafts seems like a great app, and one that was specifically designed for ubiquitous capture. It doesn't have sync yet, and there's no iPad app, but I might be willing to overlook those shortcomings. App Store: $0.99

  • Pop: The first offering from Patrick Rhone's brand new development team, Minimal Tools, Pop is like Drafts, but without all the features. That's not a bad thing, as the Minimal Tools philosophy is: "Feature number one should always be as few features as needed to perform the primary purpose." I dig that mindset. Write, Read, and Copy All are the only features you'll find in Pop. It truly is a digital piece of paper. Plus, it's got a ballsy icon. App Store: $0.99

  • Dropkick: A simple and elegant to-do list app, the full Dropkick suite for Mac, iPhone, and iPad will only cost you twelve bucks. It syncs over the Internet and looks like a great, few-features to-do system. Again, it seems better suited to capturing tasks than ideas, but it could be a great option for those who just want lists of tasks with checkboxes. App Store: Free, with an in-app purchase for full functionality.

Old School

Sometimes, it feels good to write with a pen and paper. Despite my atrocious (and worsening with age?!) handwriting, I keep a pen and scratch pad on my desk so I can scrawl ideas, thoughts, and to-dos immediately while I'm at my computer. This works very well, because when I get an idea, I don't have to wonder about which app I want to use to capture it. I just jot it down and go back to what I was doing. I highly recommend keeping a blank notepad next to your computer for this reason.

I've also just recently started carrying a small notebook with me at all times, for when I feel like writing something down by hand.

There are two components to capturing ideas longhand:

The Pen

At my desk, I prefer writing with the Pilot G2 0.38mm in black ink. (I don't acknowledge blue pens.) I used to use the 0.7mm, but my handwriting is too messy for such a thick line. The difference between the two is drastic. Obviously, the 0.38mm has a much thinner line, but it also has a scratchier feel, which I wasn't sure of at first, but I've grown to love it. However, my yoga studio uses the 0.5mm, and I always love writing with it, so I might try a happy medium in the future.

The problem with pens is carrying them in your pocket. While I often have a backpack with me, I don't always, and so into the pocket the everyday-carry pen must go.

I'm wary of putting anything extraneous in my pockets. I throw out most receipts immediately, and spare change always goes into my piggy bank or my car's center console. If I'm going to disrupt my pocket-carry system (iPhone front-left, wallet back-right, keys front-right), it better be because of something awesome.

The Fisher Space Bullet Pen is pretty awesome. Designed by Paul C. Fisher, it promises to write anywhere and everywhere, even in zero-gravity, underwater, or in extreme temperatures. When closed, it measures just 3.75 inches — perfect for a pocket. When open, it's a standard 5.25 inches. Despite its size, it has an impressive weight to it. That's what she said. The Fisher Space Pen writes very smoothly, although not like the Pilot G2. It feels more like a (shudder) Bic pen to me, but I might not be used to it given the scratchiness of the 0.38mm G2. The Fisher Space Pen is refillable, and people claim to go a full year on a single ink cartridge. I think the pen comes with the medium point by default, so I'm going to try the fine point for my first refill to see if it makes a difference. Special thanks to Patrick Rhone for introducing me to the Fisher Space Pen via this post on his daily pens.

The Paper

Obviously, you can't carry a full-sized notepad in your pocket, and I'm reluctant to put a napkin in my pocket (gross) regardless of how brilliant an idea it may contain.

When it comes to pocket-sized notebooks, the two frontrunners are Moleskine and Field Notes. I have limited experience with Moleskines, and while they look very nice, they seem too thick and heavy, and too fancy to get beat up and sat on all day in a back pocket.

Field Notes, on the other hand, are made to be used and abused. You can get a three-pack for $9.95 (less than the price of one Moleskine), and they come in blank, lined, and graph paper varieties, as well as special edition colors and more. Field Notes are thin; they have just forty-eight pages, which is plenty for jotting things down. Field Notes are also made in the USA, which feels good.

I ordered a three-pack of lined Field Notes a while ago, and I still haven't filled them up yet. I think my next pack will be graph paper, as it allows you to write both horizontally and vertically. Not that my handwriting adheres to lines of any sort, but you know.

A Perfect Ubiquitous Capture System?

Together, the Fisher Space Bullet Pen and Field Notes make a great on-the-go capture system. I've only been carrying them for a few days (pen front-right, paper back-right, for now), so I'm going to stick with it and see how it goes.

At the end of the day, I still haven't decided which ubiquitous capture system I'm going to use longterm. But, it's great to have options, and hopefully this has elucidated some of them for you. If and when I settle on one, I'll be sure to update you.

The ability to capture ideas quickly and without friction is very important. If you've never thought about developing your own ubiquitous capture system, I highly suggest you try it. Your brain is full of stuff; don't trust it to remember all of its brilliant ideas.

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