once upon a time, some people on my team discussed their strategy for retrieving information about all sorts of things.
v: when in need, i always ask siri. and if siri doesn’t know, i ask gail.
k: seems like he’s got the order wrong.
i’d earned a reputation for being able to hold a crazy amount of stuff in my brain because whenever people came to me with a question, i almost always had an answer ready for them within 1-2 minutes.
even though it’s common practice to take notes in the workplace, i’ve noticed that most folks don’t have a reliable system for actually utilizing those notes. i don’t know how many times i’ve been asked a question that i know the other person should’ve been able to answer by themselves through their notes or email. it’s tempting to chalk it up to them being lazy or stupid, but really, it’s just because they’ve set up their fast, effortless information retrieval system to consist of just asking me instead of setting up their own fast, effortless information retrieval system that doesn’t involve asking me.
since most people don’t always have a gail’s brain they can turn to, i’ll shed some light on how to increase the storage capacity of your own brain.
so. how do i hold so much in my brain? and how can you, dear reader, hold a shit ton of information in your brain, too?
the secret is… don’t.
i’m pretty discriminating when it comes to what gets stored up here and what doesn’t. so the actual secret is… determine what information is most important to you and use your memory for only those things.
for me, that means i store information that fits in at least one of three classes:
various things about people or my interactions with them
example: sunil doesn’t seem to like it when i cry out “MAYDAY!!!!” for no real reason, so i should definitely keep doing it
information i need instant access to in the near future
example: memorizing music for a performance or studying for an exam
how to access all other information i may potentially need in the future
example: next time i’m ready to make travel plans, i should check the ideas i’ve saved in my when it’s time to travel note
in practice, i (obviously) remember much more than that. the key difference is that i consciously make an effort to hang onto the stuff above; everything else i let myself passively remember.
a very wise jk rowling/dumbledore (side note: srsly, wizard people, dear reader is great) wrote something that’s stuck with me throughout my career:
i use the pensieve. one simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. it becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.
one thing she nailed here is that taking an assortment of seemingly unrelated thoughts and allowing them to bump into each other leads to the thing that breeds strategy and creativity.
when my brain isn’t overly stuffed to the brim, it has more room to stew and process. but when i try jamming in too much info, my brain works inefficiently, darting haphazardly from one thing to the next. i waste energy trying to hold onto too many things instead of using that energy to let my brain do its crazy magical thing of connecting the dots. this is partially why i seldom believe multitasking is worth it (as ron swanson said to leslie knope: never half-ass two things; whole-ass one thing.)
my pensieve-inspired system
obviously i don’t have a wand that can siphon things from my head nor a pensieve in which to swirl them, but i do use a pensieve-inspired system that works quite well for me.
the ultimate goal here is to focus my attention on what really matters to me, avoid getting sidetracked, and spend less time asking myself, “what am i doing again?”. in other words, my pensieve allows me to free up cognitive resources and minimize context switching.
the rest of this post assumes you already know how to take effective notes (i can address this topic in a separate post). i’d also like to emphasize that this system wasn’t built in a day; it’s the result of regularly reflecting on what’s been working/ not working and then adjusting accordingly over the course of several years. it’ll probably look pretty different in a few more years as i continue reflecting and tuning it. while my exact pensieve might not work perfectly for you, it’ll hopefully inspire the beginnings of (or improvement of) your own pensieve.
step zero: figure out how you best break/ build habits.
as with any kind of change, the biggest prerequisite here is the ability to break old habits and build new ones. i can throw all sorts of productivity and efficiency tips at you all day errday, but it’s not going to make a difference unless you understand yourself and how to make changes stick (i can address this topic in a different post). for now, i’ll assume you’re the kind of person who’s already adept at this sorta thing.
step one: if it doesn’t warrant your immediate attention, put it in your brain dump.
i do my best to pay full attention to whatever i’m working on or whoever i’m talking to at the time. like dumbledore, i defend against distractions by siphoning those excess thoughts and pouring them into my brain dump.
my brain dump is the one place i jot down things i want to revisit later. some people call this a ‘single capture device’ because it’s the one, single place you go to when you need to remember some piece of information or action item. one place. one.
i can’t emphasize this enough: using ONE dumping ground is crucial!!11!1!
the point of the pensieve is to minimize the amount of stuff cluttering up your mind. you don’t want to drain your brain on silly things like trying to remember where you wrote down the thing you wanted to remember. if you use one precious place to hold your thoughts, you’re less likely to lose track of them. and if you know you have one trusted place to go to when you’re ready to get back to those thoughts, you’ll feel safer letting them go while you attend to something else.
my brain dump is so important and useful to me that it’s the second thing i open up the most on a daily basis (if you’re curious, my calendar is number one).
so what do non-gails use for their brain dump?
i’ve seen people use a file or note within sublime text, google docs, evernote, quiver, bear, or a section in a physical notebook. any of these will work; i chose not to use them for various reasons (see step three). what works best for you will depend on what tradeoffs you’re willing to make.
what do non-(non-gails) use for their brain dump?
my favoritestestestest tool for my brain dump (and extended brain in general) is simplenote. more specifically, i use a note within simplenote titled brain dump for my brain dump.
what gail dumps
here’s a screenshot of my current brain dump:
this dump contains all sorts of stuff: a video to watch, articles to read, things to research, ideas to execute on later, and a bathroom code. each item happens to be one line right now, but i’ll often have several sentences or even a whole set of impromptu meeting notes in this space.
when gail dumps
if i’m in the middle of doing something else or just don’t want to devote a bunch of attention to the thing right now, i’ll move it to my brain dump. for example:
when i’m talking to someone and they tell me about something i want to check out later (simplenote’s speed minimizes the amount of time i spend with my eyes on a screen instead of on the other person’s face. because it’s so fast, i don’t feel super rude saying, “hang on, let me write this down real quick” because i know it’ll actually be real quick)
when i hear a song in a lyft and want to listen to it later
when i have an idea but am not ready to flesh it out at the moment
when i eat something super delicious at a restaurant and want to order it again in the future
when i’m walking around the city and see an ad for a service i want to check out later
when i need to pick up a few specific groceries
when someone asks me a question that i want to make sure i answer later
how gail dumps
let go of perfectionism.
knowing that my brain dump is for my eyes only, i don’t bother correcting typos or format my notes in a specific way. when i’m in a rush, i usually write the minimum number of words for me to remember whatever it is i want to remember. when i go back and read it later and think, what is this nonsense?, i’ll just google it and most times will be like, ohhh yeahhhhhh. that’s why i wrote that down.
add new items to the top.
in some cases, i’ll find that chronology is helpful, so i generally add new items to the top of the note. (there’s nothing wrong with adding them to the bottom if you want; i just prefer the top because i’m already in the habit of scanning for new items at the top of my email.)
step two: commit to triaging your brain dump on a regular basis.
a long list of unrelated thoughts isn’t really useful until you do something with it. schedule time on your calendar for triaging your brain dump and commit to doing it at least once a week.
looking at my brain dump pretty frequently (multiple times a day) prompts me to take action, so the important stuff ends up clearing out on its own anyway. this means that the lower priority notes are the only ones that start piling up.
during weekly triage time, my goal is to take my mishmash of thoughts and organize them. by the end of the triage session, my brain dump is back to a clean slate. in practice, i look at each item and:
if it’s an action and
it’ll take less than two minutes —> i’ll do it right now
it needs to be done soon-ish —> i’ll schedule it on my calendar
it should be done upon some sort of trigger (e.g., next time i need to order glasses) —> i’ll move it to my list of triggers within my extended brain
i’m not sure when i want to do it —> i’ll move it to my toDo list within my extended brain
if i can’t imagine realistically doing anything with it in the future —> i’ll delete it
if it’s information i want to hold onto for later —> i’ll move it to my extended brain
step three: set up your extended brain.
choosing simplenote (or some other information-storing/ note-taking app)
my brain consists not only of my squishy grey and white bits but also all the places i’ve tucked away information to be retrieved at a later time. one of the coolest things about our brains is that we can recall a bunch of unrelated things really quickly without thinking too much about it. for example, try answering these questions:
when were you born?
what’s the capital of the united states?
what are the colors of the rainbow?
what fruit is wine typically made out of?
none of the answers have anything to do with each other, but you were probably able to answer them relatively quickly. neat! when developing my extended brain, i wanted to mimic this phenomenon as closely as possible. so when searching for an app to help store most of my knowledge, i evaluated each on:
search and/or filters
tags/labels (versus folders)
simplenote scored top marks on all three categories and knocked it out of the park with its speed and super clean minimal interface alone.
there’s virtually zero loading time when i need to jot something down on my phone, and there’s maybe a two-second delay for the time it takes for a note i typed on my phone to sync and appear on my laptop. search results load instantly, and finding what you’re looking for becomes even faster when using tags.
the interface isn’t littered with a buncha words and icons and photos and colors and formatting and other distractions. this means simplenote helps limit my attention to what’s important -- taking notes, organizing them, and accessing them.
i love love love simplenote, but this doesn’t mean everyone should necessarily use it. figure out what’s most important to you and evaluate a few different tools based on that criteria. will an ugly tool discourage you from using it? then find something aesthetically pleasing. will a super slow tool discourage you from using it? then find something lightning quick. does a wall of plain text without images hurt your soul? first off, i’m surprised you made it this far in this post, and second, you should find something that allows you to insert images or mess with the fonts.
so how do you use simplenote to store your mumbo jumbo?
one of the beautiful things about simplenote is that i can use it like one gigantic list of lists where some of those lists are actually just lists of more lists.
before i explain further, here’s what you need to know about simplenote:
the most basic thing you can do with simplenote is create a note.
by default, the first line of each note becomes its title.
you can assign zero or more tags to each note.
there are three panes within simplenote; from left to right:
a list of tags
a list of notes associated with the current tag
i use tags as broad categories that help me group together various combinations of notes in meaningful ways. for example:
i use the MASTER tag for any notes that i update on a frequent basis. this tag is attached to notes like my brain dump, a list of questions i use to help me prep for meeting with new people, a dump for work-related thoughts/ notes, or a list of favorite quotes.
i use the books tag for all notes or quotes associated with books i’ve read.
i use the ideas tag for notes dedicated to (durh) ideas.
i use the weeklyReview tag for notes containing my weekly review notes.
i use the toDo tag for any notes containing stuff i might potentially want to do in the future.
since you can apply multiple tags to a single note, tags are an easy way to quickly view a list of notes that are related to each other. for example, i have a note called toArt that contains ideas for potential art projects. this note is tagged with both toDo and art so that it shows up whenever i open up the toDo or art tags. you can create as many tags as you want, and you can attach as many tags to a single note as you want.
while i use simplenote to store most things, there are other places that just make much more sense in specific situations. i think of organizing information the way i organize my home: whenever possible, i try to minimize the distance between where the information lives and where i would actually use that information. i don’t store my toilet paper in the kitchen, nor do i store my list of books to read in simplenote.
for example, i listen to music using spotify. when i’m ready to explore new music, i won’t pull up a list of songs i wrote down in simplenote and enter them one at a time in spotify; i just start playing my toListen playlist. my workflow looks like this:
someone recommends a song to me but i’m not ready to listen just yet.
if i’m in a hurry, i’ll add it to my brain dump. when it’s triage time, i’ll move the song to a playlist in spotify called toListen (instead of moving it to another place within simplenote).
if i’m not in a hurry, i’ll take the time to open up spotify and add the song directly to my toListen playlist.
when i’m ready to listen to new music, i start playing toListen on spotify.
where else do i store things?
instapaper for articles i want to read later
the save for later section of my amazon cart for stuff i might want to buy in the future from amazon
goodreads for books i might want to read later
google maps for specific places i want to visit
a single google spreadsheet for any kind of thing that works better in spreadsheet format. for example, within that spreadsheet, i have tabs/sheets called:
32char, which i used to use to track food items i ate at various restaurants
wage modeling, which i used to compare total compensation from different job offers
krav, which i use to track which parts of the krav maga curriculum i’ve learned
llama sessions, which i used to help organize a no small talk party
croatia cycling, which i used to calculate my biking distance and time in croatia
calendar event descriptions for anything relevant to the event
if it’s a meeting, then agenda items or links to meeting notes
if it’s at a place i’ve never been to before, then arrival instructions (e.g., “turn left at the green gate and text 555.555.5555 when you arrive”)
if it’s an airbnb, then the check-in/check-out info, lock box codes, and wifi info
if it’s a performance, then the venue, set list, and dress code
step four: search your extended brain.
all the hard work you put into developing your brain extension will go to waste if you don’t actually use it (much like your biological brain). at the beginning of this post, i listed three types of information i actively try to store in my brain. the third item, how to access all other information i may potentially need in the future, is what enables me to answer questions and get things done faster than i normally would.
google, but for gail
i think of my extended brain as a deeply personalized version of google. when i need objective facts and information, i’ll google it. i don’t really think about where to look; i automatically start entering keywords into chrome’s address/ search bar and go.
i’ve developed the same habit with my extended brain. when i need information dependent on my particular desires, tastes, opinions, etc., i open up simplenote and start searching.
welp. practice makes perfect.
setting up my extended brain took a lot of time and energy, but it’s also enabled me to track and work on a zillion projects simultaneously, minimized the amount of time i spend looking for stuff, and lowered my stress levels.
one awesome side effect is that i reduce the amount of work i repeat. sometimes it’s easy to accidentally repeat work i’ve already done because i either lost the results the previous time or don’t remember that i already did it. for example, sometimes i’ll be in the mood to do some writing, but then i’ll start to feel demotivated as i start thinking ionno what to write about. as soon as i open up my toWrite note containing a list of gail-curated ideas, i pat past-gail on the back for saving present-gail from having to go through the exercise of generating ideas again.
like all skills, the more you practice using your pensieve/ extended brain, the easier (and faster) it becomes.