The Importance of Capturing Fringe-Thoughts

Capturing fringe-thoughts on a daily basis has revolutionized the way I develop my theories about the world.

Random ideas, quotes, people I need to talk to, a funny conversation overheard at the table next to me at my favorite cafe down the street, a book recommendation from a review in the paper, a gift idea for Christmas, a potential blog post, a short-term task, a long-term project.

Each day dozens of fringe-thoughts enter our brain. They may or may not be relevant to our main work. They materialize in various stages of development.

I used to see fringe-thoughts as a distraction. Now I know they’re essential to shaping my outlook on the world, and I try to capture, record, review, refine, and publish (via this blog) as many of them as I can. In addition to making you a better conversationalist, organizing your fringe-thoughts is on the way to a more intellectually coherent worldview.

The best way to capture fringe-thoughts is with your PDA. I use the "memo" feature of my BlackBerry. In meetings and in meals I use an old-fashioned notebook, since BlackBerry use is super rude. On my bed side table I keep a big notepad. On the web I use del.icio.us. On my computer I keep "stickies" — this is the master list.

The inspiration for this post came from Aaron Swartz’s wonderful excerpt from The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills, with "blog" in place of "file":

    As a social scientist, you have to … capture what you experience and sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman. But how can you do this? One answer is: you must set up a blog…

    In such a blog … there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this blog, you … will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various work in progress. By serving as a check on repetitious work, your blog also enables you to conserve your energy. It also encourages you to capture ‘fringe-thoughts': various ideas which may be byproducts of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard in the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience.

    …The blog also helps you build up the habit of writing. … In developing the blog, you can experiment as a writer and this, as they say, develop your powers of expression.

8 Responses to The Importance of Capturing Fringe-Thoughts

  1. Steve Farber says:

    Amen to that, Ben! It’s what I refer to in my book as a WUP (Wake Up Pad), and I think every person in every company should make a practice–a discipline–of doing exactly what you’re doing. Very, very well put!

  2. Jason says:

    I constantly jot down notes as well– usually things that I find interesting throughout the day.

    It could be something to do with traffic, nature, or more commonly, a conversation I overhear, or just someone who strikes me as unique.

    That being said, I’ve found it’s best not to let people catch you staring at them and then take notes.

    Sometimes they might get the wrong idea!

  3. Can you give more detail on how you organise these notes once they’re on your computer? I did this for a while, but finally got overwhelmed by the volume and need to sort them in some logical way.

  4. Dani says:

    Fringe thoughts are where the bulk of my poems emerge from. I have a leatherbound journal I capture them in. It’s funny to hear my ‘poem process’ in this very different context.

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    Jackie — I’m not terribly sophisticated. I use Stickies, the basic application in Mac OS X. I have a short term list and a long term list. These are mostly tasks. For time sensitive tasks I schedule them in my calendar.

    For random ideas….

    1. Networking — i have a document where I track “aspirational contacts” as well as existing relationships. So this fall, for example, I made my Fall ’06 Top 50 list of 50 people i wnated to re-connect w/

    2. Quotes — I keep quotes in delicious and also in a Word document.

    3. Biz ideas — I keep track of various business ideas I have in a Word document

    4. Philanthropy ideas — another Word document

    5. Gym / exercise — I used to track each time i wne to gym, what i did, etc. Now I don’t, since I go everyday and do the same thing.

    6. Books — keep an Amazon wish list for any books or products I want to buy (mostly books, but sometimes an alarm clark or whatever).

    7. sales leads — my company uses salesforce.com

    That’s what pops to mind!

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  7. Sarah Jo says:

    we encourages you to capture “fringe thoughts”: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams.

  8. Tom Flick says:

    “fringe thoughts” just funny

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