How to Remember Your Next Great Idea

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: if my rear end weren’t permanently attached with gorilla glue (don’t ask), I’d never remember to bring it with me. I remember completely ridiculous stuff like every single lyric to Baby Got Back, but when it comes to remembering my wedding anniversary, I resort to getting married on Tax Day so I have a reminder. Yeah, I’m that lame. (And no, that’s not really why we got married on tax day… entirely).

My brain is constantly racing, and once in every 150,000 or so thoughts, I have one that’s worth keeping. The problem is, that if I don’t record it RIGHT NOW, it’s gone for good. I don’t know if you’re like me, but letting the idea go stagnant for even 10 seconds without tracking it somehow, and it’s gone forever. No matter how hard I try to bring the idea back from whatever black hole it’s been sucked into, my efforts fall short.

I feel like this diagram illustrates the problem I face every day quite well:

Because I have the attention span of Dug (SQUIRREL!), I’ve had to put methods into place to ensure my ideas don’t ride off into the sunset and disappear forever. I’ve used variations of all these methods to some extent, but sometimes I don’t remember to use them at all (see what I did there?). Maybe I need to develop a method for remembering to use these methods to remember?

Mind. Blown.

Anyway, if you try any of these and they work for you, I’d love to know!

Tips for remembering ideas

    1. Use a digital voice recorder - Better yet, for those of you with smart phones, add the voice recording app to the home screen of your phone. I’m absolutely terrible about remembering (ha!) to carry a notebook around, but I always have my phone with me. Once I got in the habit of blurting out the idea to my phone whenever a great idea came to me, not only did I have a record of my ideas, but I feel like my memory actually started to improve. If you don’t have a smart phone you can get a digital recorder for pretty cheap at Amazon. It’s also a good idea to check your phone for a voice recording function even if you don’t have a smart phone. I had a super ghetto phone for a while and even it could record my voice. The biggest drawback was audio quality and storage space, but it did the trick.
    2. Take longer showers - This is going to sound really strange, but my absolute best thinking happens while I’m taking a shower. I’ll figure out coding problems that have been stumping me for days while I’m lathering up with a bar of Dove. The only downside to good shower thinking is that you have to remember the idea until you’re completely clean. For some of us that could take hours. I wouldn’t recommend showering with your smartphone — electronics are so anti-water — but they do make erasable white boards that are waterproof. I haven’t purchased one myself but I will soon. If nothing else my kids can use it for art time!
    3. Carry a notepad - Even though I have a hard time remembering to carry a notepad, they definitely have their advantages. If you really need to get an idea down in a hurry, like at a conference or in a meeting, it’s quicker for me to jot it down than it is to thumbtype it. Besides, in meetings it can seem rude if your head is buried in your phone while someone else is talking. The other HUGE advantage to a notepad is the ability to draw. Sometimes us creative types visualize things as opposed to generating a new idea and it’s definitely simple to draw a quick something on a notepad. Lots of people are big proponents of Moleskine notebooks, but I can’t really justify the cost for my needs. 79 cents at Staples usually does the trick.
    4. Use Evernote – Evernote is an app that can be used with any browser, smartphone, etc. Essentially what you do is you “clip” things that you read or see and then Evernote catalogs everything for you. Somehow it can even read text from photos or graphics. It clearly a devil tool! I started using Evernote a few years ago and due to some bugs in the software or the fact that I may not have known what I was doing, I gave up on it. Just recently I started using it again and it is GOOD! You can catalog any type of file like text, a photo, audio clip, etc. and reference it later so you can turn your quick idea into something amazing. This video is a quick overview of how Evernote works if it seems like something you’d like to try out.

Get it all out of your head

David Allen of Getting Things Done has the following advice for us:

If you’re still trying to keep track of too many things in your mind, you won’t likely be motivated to use and empty your inboxes with integrity.  Most people are relatively careless about having seamless collection tools because they know they don’t represent discrete, whole systems anyway: there’s an incomplete set of things in their inboxes and an incomplete set in their mind, and they’re not getting any payoff from either one, so the thinking goes.  It’s like trying to play pinball on a machine that has big holes in the table, so the balls keep falling out: there’s little motivation to keep playing the game.

So what can you do to improve upon this? Make collection tools a part of your lifestyle. Keep them close by so no matter where you are you can collect a potentially valuable thought. Think of them as being indispensable as your toothbrush or your driver’s license or your glasses.

I guess what he’s saying is that the tool is a tool. Different tools and methods are going to work differently for all of us, but the important thing is that we find what works for us and we keep doing it. We need to make sure that our ideas have the opportunity to get out of our brains so they can be used for something cool. Otherwise our ideas will be gone for good — and as Mr. Allen puts it — our balls will keep falling out.

And none of us want that!

What your favor or most effective way to remember an idea? 


  1. says

    I love Evernote it is an extension of my brain, for sure. Notice that it has voice recording too.

    As for your long showers (hope you leave some hot water for the rest of your family), there are waterproof notebooks (REI used to carry them years ago, maybe they still do).

    I always thought most of male’s brain was preoccupied with sex. Hmmmm…. ;-)

  2. says

    I need to try Evernote one of these days. Right now, I’m operating off of an old school legal pad of paper. I have three pages full of things I need to get done by next Friday for our move. If I lose that pad of paper, it would be bad….very very bad. ;)

  3. says

    I do some of my best thinking when I’m riding my bike outside. So frustrating when I can’t remember stuff by the time I get to write it down:( As my memory has gotten worse, my notepad count has increased. I have one in each car and one by my bed that has a little light on it so I can maybe actually read what I wrote come the next morning! I also sometimes send myself a text message with ideas if I have my phone handy.

  4. says

    I use google tasks, which is a little pop up (and collapsable) app in the gmail web interface. I am always on gmail so I see it constantly and you get the satisfaction of checking the task off.

    Also for things that need reminders (like cancelling free trials of pay for web apps) that offer free 30 day trials and such, I set 2-3 reminders (via gcal) at times I’m generally at the computer or home, so I get the email, pop up and phone ring and remember to go and cancel them.

    When I had a studio/office, I had a big (re: 18×24″) tablet of paper that hung on the wall right behind my computer screen so I could both write and NOT miss notes,dates and such.

    I have learned, Ryan, that I too have a memory for old NES cheat codes, song lyrics and trivial pursuit-esc facts but nothing of importance haha!

    • says

      yes! google tasks/calendar are lifesavers too. i put my auto-pay dates on my gcal so i can remember when it’s happening and make sure i’ve got enough money in my acct! :)

  5. says

    OK, I pinned that graph with a link back to you!!!

    Longer showers – hmmmmmmmm, I already break the bank on my showers so… ;-)

    I have a couple things. I text myself like Carla but I also have Notepad on my phone.

    Actually, I always said if I could remember every little part of my crazy dreams when I woke up, I would be rich with all the books I could write! ;-) I wish the dream imagination would come out when I am actually awake! ;-)

  6. says

    i totally text myself! i just found out that i have a ‘memo pad’ app on my phone though, so i’ve started to use that.

    when i’m on my work computer, i will usually start a draft email and save whatever it is that i want to read later, new blogs to follow, dinners to make, etc. it’s my own personal pinterest of sorts.

    and lastly, i have been known to resort to notes on my hand so i REALLY DON’T FORGET. yes, i’m still in middle school.

  7. says

    As a successful entrepreneur and the founder of the best weight loss clinic in Andheri – a suburb of Mumbai City, India, I often get ideas for new business start ups throughout the day. A great way of remembering it is to actually call up a friend or a close confidante and actually narrate and bounce off the idea as soon as the thought enters your brain. That way not only do you get valuable feedback from a real person but you also receive pointers on how valuable the idea is. Which in the end would spur you to action on the idea rather than have it hibernate on some digital device among a clutter of other ideas that have not yet been acted upon thereby losing it’s power and effectiveness.

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