Building the habit of Capturing

Building the habit of Capturing

This post kicks off the Summer Challenge, a series for academics and fellow-travelers where over the next 90 days leading up to fall semester, we'll revisit how we approach tasks, projects and information, and build habits that will make us better able to be present, happy, and productive this next academic year.

Let's start with a situation with which all of us academic types are familiar.

You're driving to work and a great idea for a research question comes into your mind. You're taking a shower and suddenly make a connection between two things you'd been thinking about. You get an email from a student, which reminds you of that other email you got or meant to send or reply to, which then reminds you about that thing you need to do for class. And so on. But then later, when we try to recall that research question or important connection, it's gone. And the mental alert to do the thing with the email that was so loud in the moment is either out of mind entirely, or else just a vague sense that we ought to be doing something about email, but we're not sure what, so nothing gets done until the next trigger event.

Thoughts come in and out of our minds, leaving just as rapidly as they came and creating a chain reaction of other thoughts that are just as temporary. Every human experiences this flux of ideas. Academics experience it more intensely because we are trained to have ideas and to notice fine details about the world around us. The pace of this "idea flux" is so great for academics that it can have a serious effect on our work and well-being.

We think that when one of these thoughts comes into our heads that the brain is trustworthy --- we'll hold on to those thoughts and recall them later at just the right moment. But of course it doesn't work like that. One of two things usually happens: The idea slips away, or we somehow have a record of it (email, for example) but all our thoughts, both big and small, are lumped together, undifferentiated and un-dealt with.

Academics sometimes joke about this in search of solidarity with others, in an attempt to normalize this behavior, but it's not very funny. In fact, some of the malaise that many academics were feeling during the pandemic year can be traced back to this phenomenon:

  • We have these great ideas and then lose them, because the capacity of human working memory tops out at just four items. Our thoughts are not like emails or files that come in and then get stored in our brains as on a hard drive. They are a lot more like Snapchat posts that are online and then gone within moments.
  • But not completely gone. The phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik Effect states that interruption of a task increases its presence in our memory. Another way to put that, is that unresolved items from memory continue to consume attention even when we are not consciously thinking about them. If you have a thought, whether it's an idea to investigate or a mental trigger for a task that needs to be done --- no matter how small it may be, it will live rent-free in your head until it's resolved somehow. Maybe the attention cost of a single thought is small; but summed up over hundreds of items, it becomes nearly impossible to be fully present with tasks or people when you want to.
  • Even when we have a record of a thought (an email, or we put it on a list), we often put everything in one pile --- small items that could be done right away right next to large items of great importance. Those items become entangled --- and none of them gets done.

All of this leads to a profound loss of control. We end up living moment to moment, merely reacting to the "latest and loudest" and the needs of other people (many of whom just want to use you to get their own to-do lists done), with little to no attention paid to what's important to you. It's not that you "don't have enough time" or you're "too busy". Everybody has time and everybody is busy; what you lack is control. That loss of control is, I'm convinced, at the core of the anxiety, stress, disappointment, feelings of failure, demoralization, and lack of presence that so many faculty experienced during the pandemic and still experience now.

Our first habit to install in this challenge is directly aimed at stemming this loss of control.

The Capturing habit

The idea of capture means:

If something has your attention, get it out of your head and into a place where you can review it later.

When that idea for a research article pops up, or you make that connection in the shower, or that to-do item is trigger when you see the email, don't trust your brain. Instead: write it down, take a photo or screenshot, make a voice note... something. But do not let it stay in your mind in the hope that it will stay there, or pop up again later at the right time. It won't.

This is a really simple habit, almost to the point of being embarassing, but that's the point --- it's a simple starting point that we can all do with no money or special skill involved. It's just a habit that has to be practiced. Here's how I do it:

  • First of all, it's helpful to note that these days a lot of capture is automated. I don't have to work to capture emails, for example.
  • For everything else, I tend to just use pen and paper. I have a paper notebook that stays open on my desk all day long, and when something gets my attention, I just write it down in the notebook. I also have an unnatural love for Post-It notes. I keep pens and stacks of Post-It notes everywhere --- on my desk, in the kitchen, in my car, on my nightstand. If something comes across my radar, I write it down and then stick the note in my notebook. There is nothing faster or less troublesome than pen and paper.
  • Sometimes pen and paper aren't practical --- for example, in the shower, while driving, or if the thing that gets my attention is digital. My favorite tool for capturing in those cases is Google Keep. It's trivial to save things to Google Keep, and it's especially helpful to use its Google Assistant integration so I can create or add to notes with voice commands. I have Google Home Minis all over the house just like I have Post-It notes everywhere, for just this purpose.
  • I have a space in my office for physical items that get my attention. Right now it contains a business card I need to scan, a pair of racquetball goggles, a couple of cables I'm not sure about, and a picture one of my daughters drew in the third grade that I stumbled across while cleaning. I don't know what I'm going to do with those yet, but to get them out of my attention I stick them in the "inbox" to await further processing.

It's not about the tools, but about the habit: When something gets my attention, I get it out of my head and into an external holding place. The habit to build is ubiquitous capture --- capturing ideas and getting them our of your head any time, any place.

What sorts of things should be captured? The short answer is everything. There is really no such thing as "over-capturing". Later, we'll develop the habit of reviewing what you capture, and many of those things you capture will be "catch and release". But for now, it's better to err on the side of too much capturing rather than too little. Full disclosure: I do not always capture everything. You can do that too, if the idea of total capture is too intimidating. Just realize: If you don't capture it, it's probably going to slip away, and it will with 100% certainty exert some small downward force on your attention even if it slips away. You've been warned.

And to repeat, at this stage we're not going to do anything with the items we capture. Obviously we will, at some point --- that's next week's post. But one habit at a time for now.


This week, do the following:

  1. On a Post-It note, index card, your bathroom mirror, or some other place where you'll see it: List the next seven days.
  2. Each day, practice ubiquitous capture. Capture everything that comes into your attention in some kind of external holding tank. Digital or analog, or both, it doesn't matter. But the act of capturing does matter.
  3. If you manage to do ubiquitous capture more or less successfully for a given day, put a check mark or an X over that day to signify your success. Celebrate!
  4. If you don't manage to do this on a given day: Don't beat yourself up. Just start again tomorrow and try not to miss two days in a row. And think about what was blocking you or making it hard to accomplish the habit.

Next week we'll introduce the Clarify habit, where we'll process all the stuff we've captured, and the all important Two-Minute Rule. I wrote about this in the old GTD for Academics series, and you can read more and get a headstart if you want.

As you work on this habit, you may find it surprisingly difficult because it's new and unfamiliar. Use the comments here to connect with others and share your successes, struggles, and questions. Communities have a great way of bolstering our efforts on hard things.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.