Ways to keep track of ideas

For as long as I’ve been doing research, I’ve tried to come up with a “system” that works for keeping track of the loose ideas that filter through during talks or in idle moments. Earlier on, the focus was on recording technologies — scraps of paper, an audio tape recorder, the Palm Pilot and its inscrutable Graffiti. The Moleskine reared its sightless head, promising an end to the torment of lost epiphanies. The sad truth of course is that progress doesn’t come in lightning flashes of brilliance while strolling down a boulevard, but instead in obsessive fits and starts. So instead I’m trying to settle on a simpler method of keeping track of research questions — a text file.

Once the medium is fixed (and mutable), the central question is taxonomy. For a while I was using subject matter — Shannon theory, networking, etc. More recently I decided that it’s better to classify things by “how much I have thought about them.” I have 5 categories :

  1. Pie-in-the-sky : wow, that seems interesting… I should think about it for more than 5 minutes…
  2. Nebulous hand-waving : there’s a problem there, but what is the right framework?
  3. Percolating : ok, but what is the actual formal problem?
  4. In progress : finding the proof in the pudding.
  5. Writing : oh no, a deadline! Gotta figure out how to fit the page limit!

This seems to be working ok for me at the moment, but it’s chasing a moving target, it seems. Do any of you readers have systems that have worked out for you? Yes, this is a blatant plea to those lurkers out there…