Research Hacks # 6: Capture every important thought you have, even on the go

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

I forget which episode it is, but in season 3 of The West Wing Toby Ziegler declares one morning that he has nothing more to do in the day. It is a situation no doubt rare for a White House Communications Director, but  unheard of for a research academic. Here’s why: for a research academic work is thinking, and you can always think.

You can think in the shower in the morning; you can think as you brush your teeth; you can think as you walk or drive to work; you can think while eating; you can think in bed, and someone has no doubt proven that you can also think while asleep. So the reality of the academic life—by turns exhilarating, grim and just plain exhausting—is that the only time you are “off” is when you force yourself to be off.

Capture every thought you have, even on the go

This clearly has implications for “work-life balance”, and I hope to address those implications in future posts. What I want to focus on today is a great way to capture those precious “anytime thoughts” that can so easily escape. Here’s a frustrating scenario many academics will find all too familiar:

You’re cleaning your teeth and as you contemplate your foaming mouth in the mirror it suddenly strikes you that there is a great way to re-structure Chapter Four (this might sound weird; researchers will know what I mean). You think “I’ll definitely write that down when I get in front of a computer”. An hour later, at your desk, your mind draws a total blank. You remember that the idea was important, just not what it was, and it gnaws away at you for the rest of the week.

What you need is a quick and easy way of recording thoughts as you have them, so that you can capture everything and say goodbye for ever to that awful feeling of “just what was that thought I had earlier?”

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

You could carry a pencil and notepad with you, but in my opinion this slows you down too much and you can’t easily write while doing other things. I prefer to use a dictaphone, which I try to carry round with me wherever I go. It is the equivalent of the artist’s sketchbook for those of us who primarily work with words rather than images. My own model is an Olympus WS-853:


Here’s why I like it:

  • It’s small and fits easily in my pocket
  • I can operate it without looking at it
  • it stores 5 X 200 audio notes even without the optional micro-USB storage
  • It has built-in USB connectivity so I can download notes to my PC without any extra gear
  • It charges directly from USB so I don’t need to worry about new batteries
  • It has settings for personal dictation (which minimises extraneous sounds in a noisy environment) and conference recording (which does a decent job of picking up voices from all parts of a large room)
  • It has a voice-activated option, particularly useful when doing hand-intensive jobs like cleaning the house, exercising or driving. Just attach a lapel mic (I use an Olympus ME 15), set the voice activation level and you have a hands-free solution for recording whatever you say with no tracts of silence to fast forward in between).

Another advantage of this sort of note taking is that, as you begin to record a thought, it can often expand to the point where you find yourself saying much more than you had planned when you began to speak. You don’t know what you think until you try to express it, and the final results are often a pleasant surprise.

This productivity hack has served me very well over the years. I remember, for example, hitting on the conclusion to Difficult Atheism while waiting for my order in a kebab shop, scurrying outside to record my thoughts. The kebab tasted so much better afterwards.

A dictaphone may not be your thing, especially if you work in a graphically rich area or like to think in images, but if you want to avoid the dreaded “What was that thought I had earlier?” moment, then try to figure out your best way to capture everything.

Just to be clear, I have no relationship with Olympus and I’ve received no benefit, financial or otherwise, in exchange for recommending their gear in this post.
CC Image courtesy of Victor Rosen on Flickr.

What solutions work for you to take advantage of the useful thoughts you have at “random” times?

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3 thoughts on “Research Hacks # 6: Capture every important thought you have, even on the go

  1. Until I got a smartphone, I used my digital voice recorders often for just this (my inspiration usually hits when I’m in the shower, and departs my mind very soon after I dry off). After getting a smartphone I discovered the Android Tape-a-Talk Voice Recorder. With it I can instantly send recordings to my computer via email (or upload them to Dropbox). This app also allows for appending notes, which is very helpful for me. If I should get rid of my smartphone, though, as I occasionally threaten to do, my older Olympus WS-321M is still there to be put back to work.

    • Hi Rick! I tried with a smartphone for a while, but for me an exclusively hardware button solution works best. I tried to remap the hardware buttons on my old phone so that I could have one-button record from a standing start, but I couldn’t get it to work. What I love about the dictaphone is that I can go from the device being off to me dictating in a couple of seconds, with only one hand and without having to look at the device at all. No unlock codes, no touch screen: I just feel my way around the buttons. I also sometimes listen to blog posts or other material on my phone and make notes as I go (via text-to-speech: I’m planning a future post on it as it saves me heaps of time) and for that I like having the device I’m listening on and the device I’m dictating on distinct so that I can pause/unpause and record/stop simultaneously.

      • If I may mention one other benefit of using a recorder for notes (whether dictaphone or smartphone), I find it helpful simply for working through ideas by voicing them, even if I don’t listen to the recordings later. In such cases the benefit lay in the verbalizing alone.

        I look forward to your ideas about text-to-speech.

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