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Upgrade Your Brain’s RAM With An Idea Journal

The first and best tip I can offer to anyone wanting to be more creative and innovative is to start carrying and Idea Journal… Something to write your ideas on 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

This could take any form ranging from 3×5 cards tucked into a pocket or purse, to a computer-based system. No matter which system you choose, the secret is selecting something you can keep with you at all times that allows you to quickly write down thoughts whenever they come to mind.

An Idea Journal will accomplish a few of things for you…

First… and the point of this post… It’s going to allow you to capture the things you think, hear, see, learn, and all sorts of raw material for ideas.

Using an Idea Journal will re-wire your senses to be more receptive to information you may have previously overlooked. These notes are building blocks for new ideas. After you’ve written them, review your notes at a later time. Write a specific challenge in your journal and let it just sit there and incubate. After a few days, come back to that problem and see what answers you have hatched in your mind.

Second… You can write and store important notes to free-up brainpower. Since you’ll always have your journal with you, you’ll always have your important lists as well. Remembering lists and random thoughts uses valuable brain RAM. Just like an application on your computer running in the background, it can cause the other apps to be sluggish. Your brain is processing “I’ve got to bring home a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, and a stick of butter,” when it could be working on something more critical. Write it down in your journal.

Finally… your journal will come in handy to capture and recall a phone number, book title, website, or other reminders. You will no longer need to frantically pat yourself down or hope to find an old receipt in your wallet.

So, which tool is best? Whatever is best for your style. Perhaps your current planner can work as your single tool, or maybe you need to add something new. There is something in the idea, if you want to think different, act different.


Here are thoughts from personal experience…

  • Use permanent ink or pencil… something that won’t wash away if your Idea Journal gets wet.
  • Use something as accessible as possible. As excited as I was to have a Tablet PC… It isn’t convenient if you need to jot something down, say, in a restaurant with your family. You won’t want to use it in the rain, and sometimes the 20 seconds it takes to wake from hibernation-mode is enough to lose that great idea nugget forever.
  • What do I use? My tool lately has been the pocket Moleskine* sketchbook. I use the larger sketchbook when I’m working on a specific project and need more space. There are no lines, which allows free-range writing, and the pages are think enough not to allow ink to bleed.
    *By the way, Moleskine is pronounced moe-lay-skee-nay, not mole-skin as I once thought.

No matter which format you select, if you stick with it, I guarantee you will impress yourself with the thoughts you capture and the new ideas that are sparked!


Do you use some form of Idea Journal now? How is it working? If you start an Idea Journal… Please share your experience! Questions or reactions? Please leave them in the comments section.


A list of tools ranging from simple paper-based to electronics…


  • 3×5 cards, Small Assignment Pad, Composition Notebook – you can find these everywhere from office supply store, drug stores, to the grocery aisle.
  • Planner Systems – of course you can use your current Franklin Planner, Daytimer, or other calendar/notebook tool. Just get in the habit of having it with you always. Alternatively, carry a smaller pad and tape or transcribe notes you gather back into your planner. (See also the DIY Planner option below…)
  • Levenger – If you like the 3×5 size, but want your system to look more professional, check out the Levenger Company. They have an entire system with pre-printed cards, “shirt pocket briefcase” leather cardholders, the works.
  • Moleskine – These small black notebooks have been around for centuries and have been carried by the likes of Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Hemingway. A plethora of sizes and formats to choose from. Get inspired by other passionate users at the Moleskinerie site and images on Flickr.
  • Hipster PDA – The Hipster PDA, introduced a few years ago on the 43 Folders website, a stack of 3×5 cards held together with a binder clip. It’s a PDA requiring no batteries, never crashes, and won’t shatter if dropped.
  • D.I.Y. Planner – The DIY Planner is a do-it-yourself system of templates for printing. Hundreds of templates have been created and are available free. Check out the Hipster PDA templates you can print on 3×5 cards.


  • Digital Voice Recorders – If you prefer to take voice notations use this selection found on Amazon as a guide, or a voice recording add-on for your iPod.
  • Computer Software – I don’t recommend software as capture tools because of the lack of quick accessibility. However, digital scanners, handheld PDAs, and software such as OneNote for the Tablet PC and Curio for the Mac are nice for transcribing written notes into digital format.
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  1. @Stephen
    @StephenAugust 13,09

    My name is a link to a post I wrote a while back about how I made my capture notebook, used for this very purpose. I agree and stress your point that this exercise makes you think a little bit more about your surroundings, especially if you can jot down a reminder to review your thoughts and impressions.
    .-= @Stephen´s last blog ..In Search of Simplicity and RSS Feeds =-.

  2. Ivan Orozco
    Ivan OrozcoAugust 14,09

    I recommend Evernote not only desktop suite but web application when your own PC or laptop is not with you. Of course I agree Moleskine is the best option!

  3. QuinnCreative
    QuinnCreativeAugust 14,09

    Most important–don’t think you’ll remember. The shortest pencil beats the longest memory. I like index cards–have used them for years. Then I discovered an easy way to make a Tyvek cover. Tyvek is the material Fed-Ex envelopes is made of, and it won’t tear or soak through. Here’s the tutorial:
    .-= QuinnCreative´s last blog ..Too Many Fresh Cherries? Try This. =-.

  4. Aimar Niedzwiedzki
    Aimar NiedzwiedzkiAugust 14,09

    After 18 months of active use of a idea journal, tens of blogs and articles have matured who would otherwise have most likely been forgotten. More importantly, I’ve been able to put words or descriptions of creative ideas that I can use in my daily biz.
    I think you are spot on in your description.
    Using a swedish little black book from Rationella.
    .-= Aimar Niedzwiedzki´s last blog ..OOO Marketing =-.

  5. arturo
    arturoAugust 15,09

    I loved this post. Very inspirational! A footnote regarding the pronunciation of Moleskine: Since it was developed originally in France the correct (original) pronunciation would be Mole-SKEEN (rhyming with ‘whole-seen’). The Italians & Spanish may pronounce it the way you indicate, however.

    • Paul
      PaulAugust 16,09

      Arturo – Thank you for the original pronunciation. I always wondered why the French book sounded Italian.

      I guess it can be pronounced any way you want as long as you don’t think the cover is made from the skins of moles!?

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. Julian
    JulianAugust 19,09

    Paul, I loved this post. My Father is also an inventor, and always has a notebook with him. Between formal collaborative design sessions, he works for long periods by himself, so the notebook is perfect. I tend to work in a much more dynamic, iterative, and constantly-collaborative mode with teams that are spread around the world. I need to get my ideas in a visual digital form quickly, so that I can share them. Because of this work style, I’ve used notebooks less and less in recent years.

    Are you sure that someone wasn’t pulling you leg about the moleskin pronunciation? Here is Merriam Webster’s pronunciation for Americans:

  7. Julian
    JulianAugust 19,09

    Paul, regarding the pronunciation: mystery solved. A moleskin notebook (as I was referring to generically) is something that I know from my childhood. It is called “moleskin” because it’s cover was traditionally made from the durable fabric called “moleskin.” In French these journals and the associated fabric were called “moleskine”–apparently a bastardization of the English word ( … if you read French). In English “moleskin” is a clear reference to the durability of the fabric. In French the skin is “la peau” and a mole is “une taupe,” so you see why I assume that the French “moleskine” is similar to the word I had to learn to pronounce in Paris last week–“startupeur” (French for “startup-er” … very difficult!).

    So Arturo gives you a great approximation of what the pronunciation of “moleskine” would be in French. But remember that it’s a mispronunciation of an English word, so don’t feel any pressure to use a non-English pronunciation. There’s not an ancient “de Moleskine” family who will be offended.

    In ancient times (1997), a little company in Milano registered the name “Moleskine”–which is probably why you were given a pronunciation closer to what an Italian salesman might use. But now we’ve turned the bastardized word “moleskine” into an Italian proper name “Moleskine”–the bastardization of a bastardization. The legend of the “Moleskine” is just something cooked up over the last 12 years by a talented Italian firm (see them lay it on here: ). Notebooks like this have been around for generations (yes, Chatwin might have experienced a shortage in the 1980s in Paris, but that doesn’t mean that the notebook format was “nearing global extinction”). “Moleskine” as a registered name is just a great way for a company to charge a premium price for a commodity product. I’ll stick with my moleskin. ;o)

  8. Jen Meadows
    Jen MeadowsAugust 20,09

    Just ran across your article on Twitter and for some strange reason felt I had to comment. I am an artist and find that I would be out of a job without my little notebook. Those little blips of inspiration, if written down for a moment where you can later revisit them, can become great works. The computer world cannot compare to a quick sketch in a Moleskine (no matter how you pronounce it.
    .-= Jen Meadows´s last blog .."Sisters of Steel": Inspired by Tosca Reno =-.

  9. Chelsea
    ChelseaAugust 21,09

    Its a very good idea, I used to have a notebook in college which served a similar purpose and it was very helpful so Im going to start using another idea notebook:-)

    X Chelsea
    .-= Chelsea´s last blog ..Icebreaker: Congratulations =-.

  10. Bill Bartmann
    Bill BartmannSeptember 2,09

    I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work

  11. Bill Bartmann
    Bill BartmannSeptember 5,09

    Hey good stuff…keep up the good work! :)

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