Capture, the first stage of workflow, is simple but incredibly effective.  Rather than keeping all our ‘stuff’ in our head, write it down into tools you trust.

If we employ good capturing, stress is reduced as we forget less important commitments and even improve the quality of sleep (See Great British Sleep Survey).

The science behind this is known as the Zeigarnik effect – our brain attempts to holds onto open loops.  Research in the 1950’s suggested that short term memory could hold onto 7 things (± 2), anything after this causes the short term memory to drop the ball or nag you about them until it trusts that you have parked it appropriately.

‘Capturing’ is not the same as writing a to do list, (this is stage 3 of workflow – Organise).  It is merely collecting or catching these things into external tools, the first time they come to us rather than holding them in our head.

Complete the online questionnaire to assess and improve your capture tools.

What has the exercise shown.  Possibly that you’re using more capture tools than you might have initially imagined.  Perhaps your head is the answer to a number of these questions.

If you still doubt that this is the best practice, just think back to the last time you felt overwhelmed and stressed. You may have quickly grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled a quick list.  Just seeing it all out on paper was a help in itself.  You saw a clearer inventory of what initially felt so overwhelming.

This is known as “distributed cognition”.  On its own, this isn’t enough, (cue stages 2 and 3 of workflow).  However, even this first stage – gives a liberating feeling.

 Keys to capturing:

  • Capture, capture, capture – much more stuff.  During the day, the first time this thing comes to you.
  • Into tools that you trust
  • Use as many capture tools as you need
  • But as few as possible (every tool you use is something else to process)
  • Get these tools back to empty regularly
  • And know when not to capture (“send me an email on that!”)

Digging deeper with capture tools

We may have multiples of some of these tools.  For example, we might have an email inbox for our work account and another for our personal email.  These are the busiest capture tools for most but two inboxes are two capture tools not just one.  Many send emails between accounts to act as reminders and this can work well. txt_notebooks

However, these “multiples” can create problems.  Notepads – that’s more places to check.  And when you’re in a hurry, you grab the nearest notebook, even though it was originally for another purpose.

It’s not wrong to have more than one notebook, but keep clean edges; know what is in each one.  And only use if for that thing.  To get them back to empty, either tear pages out (a mini note-taking wallet with loose pages can be a great solution), or if you need to keep your notebooks intact perhaps as audit trails, at least liberate the actions from your notebooks, elsewhere into the system, which we will come to later.

Mobile phones are a key capture tool.  However, it’s important is to remember that they tend to be multiple capture tools all in one.  This can be good and bad.  For example …

  1. Notes app
  2. Shopping list app
  3. Calendar
  4. Email (multiple accounts)
  5. Voicemail
  6. Texting (yourself)
  7. Camera

So even on the phone, if you can get the tools filtering in the right locations that would be helpful.

Apps to try

Office Lens – capturing by photo into OneNote (converting Business Cards into contacts).  Available for most mobile devices.

Evernote – speech to text or photo into Evernote

Braintoss – easy to set up; convert simple speech to text or take a photo and send straight into email (watch the demo).

IFTTT (If this then that) – look for conditions and create actions automatically in other web-based services

Zapier – similar to IFTTT but more powerful (paid service)

The tools you use should be quick and easy, and not require you to be in peak performance to use them.

As a final comment on capture, I would recommend not capturing when you don’t have anything to hand.  If someone catches you in the hallway, you might want to ask the person to drop you an email or speak later.  This allows you to capture more effectively when you’re in the right place.


  1. Are there any capture tools I need to add to my armoury?
  2. Are there any capture tools that I need to get rid of or adapt?

This is where we can help even the most organised people look for improvement opportunities.

Stage two, Clarify … isn’t any more complex, but hopefully will also add real value.