How I learned to never forget anything
My memory is unreliable. It’s not that I forget everything all the time, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. Due to this deficiency, I started adopting tools and techniques to make me remember what I want to remember and become more reliable.
It wasn’t a change that happened overnight, but rather a process that has been going on for years. After all, there’s no other way since trying to change too much too quickly never works. I experimented with different approaches and tweaked them to suit my needs.
Fueled by the same spirit, this very article doesn’t define a series of steps to follow or tools to adopt but wants to offer a set of ideas based on my experience.
My dearest organizational companion
If I had to suggest one single tool among the ones I discuss here, that would be the calendar. I am obviously talking about a digital service, which in my case is Google Calendar. It is the foundation of any reliability claim I may have and it has been the first tool boosting my ability to remember all sorts of stuff.
The calendar makes me remember the future when that future arrives.
Life (unfortunately 👀) is a neverending series of things to do. Often these things have precise deadlines and, on top of that, sometimes they involve other people too. This means that I need to be reliable not only for myself but also for whoever has to deal with me.
If something is to be done at or by a specific time then it must end up in the calendar.
- Do I have an appointment with someone? Calendar.
- Do I need to remember to do my taxes? Calendar.
- Did I book a visit to the dentist? Calendar.
- Did I choose to invest some money every month? Calendar.
- Do I need to buy some groceries after work before the shops close? Calendar.
- Do I have to withdraw the money to pay the rent because the landlady still hasn’t figured out that it’s the 21st century and we can use bank transfers? Calendar.
It doesn’t matter if what I have to do is vital or not. Big or small, smart or stupid, if it happens in my future it must go on the calendar. Even if I want to send a message to myself through the mists of time it has to go on the calendar (based on a true story).
Perhaps my existence would collapse without a tool that could be used as a calendar. What else to say? Use it!
As I already said, building habits is a topic close to my heart, mostly because what we do defines who we are and who we become. Therefore sticking to my habits is one of my priorities. But first I need to remember about it.
One of the best tools I used is Habitica.
Habitica is a gamified habit tracking system. It uses techniques similar to those that games employ to motivate you into playing more and more. It’s just that in our case the game is called life (hmmm) and the motivation keeps you on the path to your goals.
You sign up, create your character, and start playing. You level up, go for quests, face challenges, earn coins, buy new items, and so on. How do you progress in Habitica’s fantasy universe? Simple: by completing habits and tasks.
I used Habitica a lot and it helped me build many habits: from reading to listening to podcasts, from studying to working on my projects, from housework (🙄) to the annoying duty of brushing my teeth after lunch at work.
Lately, pushed by my desire for digital minimalism, I have taken refuge in simpler and more boring tools, even though I’m realizing that I may need to do some trimming again.
My habits are split between two tools: the calendar (here it is again 💙) and the to-do list (which is on Google Task for the time being).
All those habits that I want to be sure to complete go on the calendar. This is because I set the notifications to bother me until I manually delete the event. For example, every evening I’ll get reminders to journal and to write down my expenses of the day.
All those habits for which I only need a reminder but that are not essential go into my to-do list. For example, I’ll get a suggestion to read for at least 10 minutes after lunch and to write at least one note around dinner time.
This is more or less what I do to keep myself on track habit-wise. It could probably be further simplified but it works for the time being. If the need arises it’d be easy to change, especially considering the large number of alternative services and apps (perhaps I’ll build my own 👨💻).
Continuous learning is one of my main values. To remember is the basic requirement for learning, as there’s no knowledge without memory. This means that I try to optimize (1) how I learn and (2) how I organize knowledge in my digital second brain.
A big chunk of what I know comes from the content I consumed. Consuming content that is not for pure entertainment is an investment that, as such, has to guarantee some return. If I choose to read nonfiction I do it not only to kill time but primarily to learn something. It doesn’t make any sense otherwise. I’d be better off playing video games.
To remember the content I consume (1) and build my personal knowledge base (2), I use the Zettelkasten method. I already talked about it in two articles, so I’ll just shut up:
What does remembering have to do with my projects? Well, I need to:
- remember the ideas I have
- remember the tasks I need to do
- remember when I need to do them
- (bonus) remember what I already did
I have used different systems, from to-do lists to a pen-and-paper bullet journal, then back to to-do lists and various other magical tools that I don’t even remember right now. In the end, I settled on a process that at a high level goes like this:
- write down any interesting idea that goes through my mind
- track every task I have to or want to do
- decide what to work on on a weekly basis
I’m following a (very) rough version of the PARA method. Every project has a page inside my Notion workspace and it is connected to the relevant tasks. Every Sunday evening, during my weekly review, I check what I completed and plan what to do the upcoming week. On a daily basis, I’ll just need to check my Today dashboard that shows, among other things, the tasks that are yet to be done.
Had I no kind of organization I would forget, within a few hours, a large portion of what I have to do. How do I know? It already happened multiple times. 🙃 My brain is not made for managing a weekly list, let alone a permanent backlog.
Here I’m referring to the process to put in place to get to a result. Remembering, in this case, refers to remembering what this process looks like. It’s one thing to remember what to do and another to remember how to do it.
The two tools I use: checklists and templates.
A checklist is a list of steps to execute or a list of requirements to satisfy in order to complete an activity. As an example, to cook pasta you need to:
- fill the pot with water
- place the pot on the stove
- wait for the water to boil
- add salt and pasta
- wait until it’s al dente
- drain the pasta
If I notice that one of the things I do can be broken down and outlined, then I create a checklist. This is true not only for “important” activities.
I have checklists for:
- publishing an update of my application
- publishing an article or a newsletter
- wrapping up my weekly review
- doing groceries
- preparing my luggage
In the pre-corona era, for example, I used to travel pretty often. In every one of those instances, I relied on one or more of the checklists that I built over time. This way I reduced the chance to forget something.
Some people may object that there is no need to systematize everything. It’s not that difficult to prepare your luggage without following a protocol.
True, it’s not difficult. But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to spend my energies and my time reflecting on what I need to bring, nor I want to be worried about forgetting something. I see no benefit in charging my memory with more responsibilities than needed, however trivial they could be.
If you want to learn more about checklists there’s a whole book on the topic. It’s called The Checklist Manifesto and I saw it recommended multiple times, though I haven’t read it yet.
A template is a skeleton representing the base structure of something. An example many people are familiar with is the résumé template:
- Personal information
Brief description about you
- 2019–2021 Job title
Description of role and responsibilities
- 2016–2019 Job title
Description of role and responsibilities
- 2019–2021 Job title
- 2016 Degree in …
As with checklists, if I notice that a template is asking to be created I create it. Again, there’s no advantage in taking the burden of remembering.
I have templates for:
When I want to write a new article I use the template I set up in Notion to generate automatically a dedicated page. This page will contain:
- base info like categories and publication date
- a space to collect random notes and thoughts
- some prompts
- a space for the outline and the body
- the publication checklist I was mentioning above (yep, a checklist inside a template 🤯)
As with other tools I use, my checklists and templates are evolving continuously. If I notice that something is missing or that some part is not relevant anymore, I’ll update them accordingly.
The rest of my existence, too, is scattered with various systems helping me remember this and that.
The daily journaling works as a log and keeps track of what I do or what happens to me. After all, it’s super easy to forget most of the life we live.
Even the calendar (aaand here it is again) has a role in this process. It’s now more than 11 years that I mark (almost) every event I take part in and every date I want to remember: hangouts with my friends, my first day of work, my trips and their stops, the mornings spent at the beach, my graduation day, the conferences… Through my calendar I can go back to each one of these and other events.
Finally, there’s the big hodgepodge of everything else I want to track. I use GoodReads for the books I read or want to, IMDB for the movies I see, Wallet for the money I spend, and Splitwise for debts e credits.
For a bit, I also tracked my daily calories, but it became too laborious to do indefinitely. It’s useful if you have a specific goal (e.g. losing or gaining weight) or to learn to estimate how caloric something is. In the long run, as far as I’m concerned, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
To be fair, if snapping my fingers was enough to get full tracking and detailed statistics of all my existence I’d snap them immediately. Sadly life is harder than that, so I have to be happy with the data I’m not too lazy to collect.
Anyway, this concludes the overview of the systems I put in place to deal with the fallibility of my memory. I’m sure I’m not the only one regularly fighting against it. It’s just one of the many challenges on the neverending path to learning how to live with being humans.
To accompany you in this quest you now have a few more ideas based on my experience and on all the strategies and processes I used. Well, assuming I haven’t forgotten anything…