I recently attended a large event with my teenage son. As we navigated the crowd in a large hall, we saw two familiar faces at a distance: a former soccer teammate of my son’s and his mother. I started over to say hello, but before I did, I asked my son to remind me of his friend’s name. He couldn’t remember, too many years had passed. No matter, I told him. I drew out my phone and, after a quick search of my notes, found their names. I walked over said greeted them: “Hi Max, Hi Janet. I’m Dave and this is Koa, remember us?” She was surprised to see us and even more so that I remembered their names. “I’m impressed,” she responded, “you have a really good memory.” I smiled at my son, he smirked. We knew better: my memory is terrible but I’m damn good at writing things down.
You might ask: why write things down? In preceding example, it allowed me to interact with acquaintances with confidence and with information otherwise unavailable to me. That’s all there is to it. I write things down in order to retain important information that I would otherwise forget.
Ideas pop into my brain throughout the day and—unless I write them down—they disappear just as quickly. Interesting connections, insights and aha moments are ephemeral. As soon as they appear they are pushed aside by the next thought that enters my head. Memory is limited and my thoughts are ephemeral. It’s difficult to keep more than a handful of facts in my head at any single moment.
The antidote to my fuzzy memory is writing stuff down.
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, has said that “the mind is a crappy office space.” It’s not suited to an accurate accounting facts and details while simultaneously performing higher cognitive tasks. According to Allen, writing things down is one way to get ideas moved from our short term RAM (which is volatile) to a longer-term more reliable form of storage for that information (paper, digital and analog notebooks, journals, etc.).
A universal example of this is the underappreciated shopping list. If I have a good list, shopping is a breeze. If I fail to make a good list and shop relying on my best memory of what’s needed, the process is slow, inefficient and I’m prone to forget multiple items (which inevitably requires a followup trip). The personal rebuke that usually follows: If only I had written down the things I needed when I thought of them!
If there’s one key commandment to writing things down, it’s this: you must write the thing down at the moment the thought hits you (or very shortly after).* You don’t have time to dilly-dally and cannot leave it to chance that you’ll remember to jot that thought down at a later time. The longer you wait, the more likely you’ll lose it. Remember: the memory in your head is volatile. New thoughts will crowd out the old ones or you’ll hold onto an old thought at the expense of new ones. Either way, it’s counterproductive not to move that thought out of your head and into your notes.
In order to satisfy this first commandment it’s imperative that you have a means for capturing a thought immediately at all times. Don’t be caught empty-handed when inspiration hits. It doesn’t take much to record a note, but it does need to be something. It could be a note-taking app on your phone, an index card you keep in your pocket, a small journal or a pack of sticky notes in your bag. Find the tool and system that works best for you, just make sure that it’s always available should you need to write something down. Interesting ideas are no respecters of schedules or convenience. Shower thoughts can be mind-blowing, but dammit if it’s not inconvenient where they occur.
From a tactical standpoint, I have a two-pronged approach for notes: short-term notes and long-term notes. Short-term notes are notes that I dash off quickly because I’m in the middle of something else and cannot afford to lose focus. But I don’t want to lose the thought either, so I use a stop-gap. For instance, if I’m jogging outside while listening to a podcast and there’s an idea from the podcast that I want to think about further, I’ll pause the podcast and have my phone’s digital assistant send an email to me with a short note or set of keywords that will allow me to flesh out the note once I’m back home in front of my computer.
Once I’m back home, I’ll take that short, stop-gap note and turn it into a proper long-term note. This involves making the note legible and comprehensible so and then putting the note its appropriate place in my file system. To the latter point, you must have a system for organizing your notes to facilitate future access and use of those notes. Information that is incomprehensible and inaccessible is as useless to your future-self as forgotten information.
Skip the short-term step if you are in the right place at the right time to take the note. If I’m home reading and encounter an interesting thought, I’ll go straight to taking the long-term note.
When it comes to organizing my notes, I use a combination of digital apps and paper. Among the apps I use: Ulysses, The Archive and Things. For written notes I maintain a ready supply of 5x8” yellow notepads and my paper planning templates.
Here are some of the different things I record both digitally and analog. This is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you some ideas of what's important to me and how I go about recording it:
- Book Notes: I write detailed notes for some of the books I read, a few examples have been shared on this blog. The rest become a part of my personal reference library. I have a folder in the Ulysses app where I keep these notes.
- Daily/Weekly/Monthly planning: These contain my immediate and long-term projects and all the smaller tasks and milestones associated with them. I keep track of immediate to-do items here as well. I have a set of templates that I print out regularly for this task. This is one of my analog processes.
- Ideas/thinking concepts — I maintain a Zettelkasten of interesting ideas in human knowledge. Sample entries: OODA Loops, Goodhart’s Law, a taxonomy of high-level business problems and the Red Queen hypothesis. If I’m reading a book or listening to a podcast and hear mention of an interesting concept that I’m not familiar with. I’ll pause to figure out what the author or podcast host is talking about and add it to my Zettelkasten if it’s interesting. I have a large archive of interesting topics that are tagged and cross-referenced with other entries.
- People: Companies have CRMs for their sales teams and medical clinics maintain detailed health records. I don’t have anything near as extensive (that might be creepy), but I do have a very basic database of the people I meet. Why? It lets me remember their names, their interests and other personal details. You don’t need anything fancy here, I just have a long list I keep in Ulysses (I previously used Evernote and Apple Notes for this) with some names and keywords for easy searching.
- Reading Lists: I keep annual lists of books I’ve read. I’ll include any short thoughts about a book here as well. I also keep a list of books I want to read so I always have something to read once I’m finished with my current book. I keep these lists in Ulysses (I formerly used Evernote and Apple Notes for this). I something similar for movies, podcasts and piano pieces that I’m learning.
- Shopping Lists: I keep a running grocery list but also a list for clothes and other household needs. I also have a running list of gift ideas for family members based on offhand comments someone might have made or recommendations or just seeing something out in the wild that strikes me as something a friend or relative might be interested in. This makes things so much easier than being put on the spot and trying to come up with a gift idea. I use a no-longer supported iOS app called Grocery IQ for this.
- Short-Term/Stop-gap Notes: When I need to jot down a quick note, I have 3 means of capture: a brief email to myself, a note at the top of my Mac’s “Stickies” app and my trusty yellow notepad. At the end of each day, I review my inbox, my stickies app and my notepad and will spend a few minutes moving those items into their respective long-term repositories for future use.
- Subscriptions: I have a list of all my subscriptions. These are grouped by current subscriptions (along with the subscription term and renewal date), subscriptions to be cancelled, past subscriptions and a short list of subscriptions to consider. I keep this in Ulysses as a set of alphabetized bulleted lists.
- Swipe File: I have lists for fiction ideas and another set of lists with non-fiction ideas. I’m don’t write fiction, but someday I might want to take a crack at it. When I do, I’ll be ready! As for non-fiction, when I’m deciding what to write for my blog, I have a list of ideas ready and waiting. Because I will return to these lists to rework and add to my ideas, some of the initial “seed ideas” eventually grow to multiple paragraphs and bullet points by the time I’m ready to write a draft on that topic.
Once I have my notes organized and squirreled away for future access, I can enjoy the ultimate benefit of note-taking: revisiting my notes. I’ve already touched on the value of accessing my notes, when needed, to recollect important information. That’s one important part of the equation. The other is revising, editing and expanding upon your ideas. I cannot emphasize the value of this benefit enough. Write things down so you can build upon your ideas in the future. Do this diligently and you will discover the tremendous advantage this gives so many of your activities.
Recap: The benefits of writing things down:
1. Avoid forgetting important information.
2. Access that information in the future.
3. Revisit that information to revise, edit and expand upon it.
Is it hyperbole to state that writing things down is a superpower? Maybe. But I am convinced that writing things down is one of the most profound habits you can cultivate. I am not an expert in this habit today, but I am committed to continuously improving my methods and to enjoying the resulting benefits.
Write things down (especially your most interesting thoughts and ideas). Do it well and, over time, you will be amazed at the ways it will amplify your creativity, efficiency, and productivity.
I haven’t spent much time in this article on what to write down. That aspect of note-taking is idiosyncratic. Practically speaking, you’re not going to write everything down. But you will be writing down the things that are important to you.
Experience will teach you which things are important to remember and which are not. It will likely be a combination of ideas prompted internally and externally and they will range from the mundane grocery list items to abstract ideas in human thought.
They key idea is that if you think you’ll need a thought at a later time, you’ll want to write it down.