When you work in a creative profession like marketing, it pays to have a good system in place for capturing ideas. Good ideas are rare, and you never know where you'll be when one hits -- standing in line at the store, lying in bed, or out walking in the park.
Some people carry around pen and paper or a stack of index cards for recording ideas. But I'm a digital guy. I've evolved a system where I use my iPhone or iPad to record ideas, wherever I am, and I transfer them over to my MacBook Pro to explore them further.
I do almost all my work in plain, unformatted text files. Text files are much more portable than Microsoft Word and other rich text formats; you can read or write plain text on just about any platform invented in the last 25 years. Also, text files are less distracting than rich text; fewer opportunities to fuss with fonts and formatting. Almost all my writing lives on the Web and has to be rendered as HTML -- a form of plain text -- before it's published. So it's best to keep the words away from rich text editors.
I the use the Notesy ($4.99) app for capturing ideas as plain text notes on the iPhone and iPad. It's simple, easy to use, and attractive. And it syncs to Dropbox, which is extremely important. More on that later.
I outlined this blog on Notesy on my iPhone one night last week as I was getting ready for bed. The idea hit me suddenly, as ideas often do, and I knew that if I got it out of my head and into a text file right away, my life would be a lot easier the following workday.
Inspired by work and creativity guru Merlin Mann, I use keywords in filenames. The keywords make it easier to find documents later. #CBI is for blog ideas for The CMO Site.
I do all my writing for The CMO Site and much of my writing elsewhere in TextMate ($58), my workhorse writing tool on the Mac. For taking notes and recording ideas on the Mac, I use nvALT (Donationware), which provides a fast way to create and find text files.
My nvALT and Textmate files, as well as all my other document files, live in a common folder named "Current Documents" on my Mac. I sync that folder to Dropbox, where it also connects to Notesy and other creative apps on the iPhone and iPad.
I'm also messing around with outliners, specifically OmniOutliner for the Mac ($39.95 starting price) and iPad ($19.99), as well as Carbonfin Outliner for the iPhone ($5). I'm finding outliners useful for quickly fleshing out ideas, information, and links I want to include in a blog post. I also use outliners as repositories for all documents, links, and notes pertaining to larger projects. But syncing between the iPad, iPhone, and Mac are clumsy compared with plain text files. I outlined this blog in Notesy rather than Outliner because it seemed easier.
If I get an idea worth saving while I'm exercising or doing something else where writing is inconvenient, I open OmniFocus on my iPhone and record a note as an audio attachment to a task, then write out the idea later when I'm at my desk. OmniFocus is the to-do-list app I use to keep track of what I need to get done for all the different projects I'm working on; it runs on the Mac ($79.95), iPhone ($19.99), and iPad ($39.99).
My system seems complicated written out like this, but I've worked it out a little piece at a time, so it's not overwhelming. And it's fast. When I'm out and about, I can jot down an idea without much fuss, get back to whatever I'm supposed to be doing, and then work on the idea when I'm back at my desk.
How do you keep track of ideas? Let us know on the message board below.
— Mitch Wagner , Editor in Chief, The CMO Site
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