We’re pretty forgetful. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something we need to work with.
Think about it. We’re exposed to a massive amount of information each day. Never mind the news and social media—did you know that there’s 82.2 years of new videos uploaded to YouTube every day?—it’s hard enough to stay on top of just what we’re doing.
How much gas is left in the car? What’s the thermostat set to? Did I lock the door behind me when I left? How many eggs do we have left? Do I need to pick up milk on my way home or did I pick it up yesterday? Have I contributed to my IRA yet this year? Are we getting together with my parents for dinner this Sunday or next Sunday?
We can’t retain it all, nor do we really want to. We have to be selective of what we pay attention to in the moment (ever carry on a conversation in a crowded coffee shop?) and what we commit to memory. (The art gallery on the fridge can only fit so many drawings of flying horsies.)
If we had to make do with what we could store in our brains, we’d never accomplish anything meaningful. We’d spend all our time putting out the latest fire, greasing the squeakiest wheel, and chanting our to-do list like some weird mantra.
This is why we write things down. This is what our trusted system is for. It’s a place where we write down the things we need to so we can use our brains for more important things, like coming up with ideas and joining the moment.
- What you need to do. Productivity systems start with a simple task list. Write down what you need to do tomorrow, in order. Then work your way through the list.
- Where you need to be. The second most-common element of a trusted system is a calendar. Record the time you’ve committed to others. Block out chunks for deep work and having fun. Leave yourself margin.
- What you’ve done. No matter how disciplined we are, there will always be off-book tasks that creep in. (The [two-minute rule] all but guarantees it.) Write them down, too, even if you’ve already done them. It feels good and completes the record. It will help you better estimate how long tasks will take and how much you can get done in a day.
- What’s on your mind. We are constantly growing, but it can be hard to notice. Day-to-day, we feel pretty much the same. Then one day we look up and realize just how far we’ve come. Keeping a journal can help you see this growth more clearly, process the past more thoughtfully, and live more intentionally.
- What you want to do in life. If we can’t remember what we wanted to do today, what hope do we have of remembering what we want to do in the next year, or the next ten years, or the next fifty? Write down your goals and your vision for the future. Review them regularly. If you don’t, you may find that despite an impressive streak of productive days, you’re not actually getting anywhere.
- What you can spend. One of the strongest predictors of financial success is the ability to follow a written budget. A dedicated budgeting app like YNAB will let you write down your budget, track what you’ve spent, and see what’s left.
- Your passwords. It’s impossible to come up with a unique, strong, memorable password for every web site, app, and service you use. Instead, use a dedicated password manager like 1Password to create, store, and fill-in your passwords. You’ll never have to request another password-reset email again.
- Any crazy idea that pops into your head. If you can’t get it out of your head, write it down. Even if your brain is having fun thinking about it, you’re going to think about something else sooner or later and you’ll want to remember it. Write it down someplace where you know you’ll process it again later and let your brain think about something else.
Those categories are fairly universal. Each one should have a dedicated place in your trusted system. When you need to capture something, you can capture it without thinking. When you need to look something up, you know where to find it.
If you need to track additional information, see if there’s a structured way to record it. Are you tracking what you eat? Grab LoseIt!. Travel a lot? Sign up for a service like TripIt. You can always capture unstructured information (like in a plain text file), but an app that knows how to structure the information will make it easier to retrieve and act on.
“Write it down” doesn’t mean it has to be on paper. Paper and digital complement each other wonderfully. Use whichever technology works best for each component of your system.
If you’re not sure whether you should write it down, write it down. You can always discard it later. Don’t trust the results you get out of life to your fallable memory.