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The TL;DR version:

  • Write notes about action items
  • Record instructions for complicated tasks
  • Jot down what you’re doing at the end of the work day
  • Put reminders in your path, physically and with technology
  • Utilize search to find all of the above when needed

Your CEO has called a meeting to lay out their master plan. This is it, your chance to make a big impression and earn that promotion you want. You walk out of the meeting, pumped about this big opportunity, and suddenly it hits you:

You forgot half of what the CEO just said 😧

Bad memory is awful. Trust me, I get it. I’ve had bad memory for as long as I can remember, and the above scenario is my worst nightmare.

Over time, I’ve developed habits that compensate for my forgetfulness. Here are some habits that work for me and will hopefully help you too:

📝 Notes

I know, it seems obvious, but seriously: write stuff down!! A lot of people (myself included) end up missing details while trying to write down too much. So what should you be writing down?

🎯 Action items

If somebody assigns you something or you tell a person “I’ll get back to you about that,” write a note that says what you owe them and when. You don’t need much - it can be as simple as a Jira ticket number that you can refer to later. One way or the other, notate your action items!

🤔 Instructions / Documentation

Documentation - the thing engineers love to read but hate to write. That’s why documentation is usually lacking, to say the least. But do yourself a favor: when somebody walks you through an undocumented process, write down the steps! Even if it’s just shorthand, make sure it’s enough that you could repeat the process a second time. Later, you can add more details and put your instructions somewhere official for your coworkers to use. Helpful little actions like this make you seem like a rock star, and it definitely helps your case for promotions and raises! 💵

🤝 Hand-off to Future You™

It’s 5PM, you’ve been working on the same problem for hours, and you’re “this close to finishing!” If you’ve been here before, you know that you will probably A) keep working on it all night and B) not make much progress. For the sake of your mental health and for your productivity: please, stop doing that!

Instead, write a little note to yourself. Make a habit of it, even when you’re not in the middle of something intense. Stop right at quitting time, save your code, then write down things like:

  • What you’re in the middle of
  • Pain points you’re experiencing
  • Deadlines you’re worried about

This can be very brief. It only needs to be enough to get you back on task when you return the next day. I’ve been doing this for a while now, I’ve noticed something uncanny. I usually wake up the next morning and immediately figure out the thing that had me blocked the day before. That’s a subject for another blog post, but something magical happens when you get a good night’s rest.

⌚ Reminders

So far you’re creating a lot of notes, but they aren’t much good if you don’t do anything with them! This is where reminders come into play.

🎀 Physical Tricks

People put their grocery list on their fridge because they’ll see it without having to remember to look for it. You can do the same thing with your notes and reminders.

That end-of-day note you leave yourself? Place it on your keyboard so you can’t miss it! Put sticky notes on you monitor. Sandwich important papers into your closed laptop. Make the important things unavoidable so you aren’t relying on your memory!

📅 Calendars Reminders

Physical reminders are a hardware solution, but there are software solutions that serve the same purpose. I know some people love the tactile feel of paper, but a paper calendar can’t send you a push notifications! Put important dates in a calendar app. When you do, make sure to set a notification so your phone will alert you even if you don’t look at the calendar app!

I’ve been using Todoist for a while now, and it lets you set dates for your TODO items. If you tend to make a giant TODO list and do none of it, it’s perfect. You can quickly assign due dates in Todoist by putting text like “next Tuesday” in the TODO item. Todoist then shows you the tasks due just today which makes it more likely that you actually do each thing!

🔊 Smart Speakers

Amazon is constantly running deals on their smaller smart speaker, the Echo Dot#ad, and I may have a bit of a shopping problem 😅. Over time, I have bought enough to have a smart speaker in every room, and I use them extensively for reminders.

They remind my kids to leave in time to catch the bus. They tell me when to take my vitamins. They are constantly blasting out little reminders that I have set up. Any time I think “I better do that thing tomorrow,” I holler at the nearest smart speaker and set a reminder. Don’t have a smart speaker? Use Siri or Google Assistant on your phone to do the same thing! A quick “Hey Google, remind me every morning at 9 to do XYZ” and you’re all set.

📃 Leave a paper trail

Alright, you’re in a meeting and you take notes. Easy. You’re completing a tricky, undocumented task and you document it. Makes sense. Now you’re in a one-on-one, verbal conversation with a coworker. What now?!

📲 Can you text that to me?

A little bit of honesty goes a long way. Don’t hide your bad memory - let everybody know. Say “Sorry, I’ll forget this if I don’t write it down!” as you whip your phone out. Instead of looking rude, people will appreciate your intent to help them out.

Another favorite of mine is to tell people I have bad memory and ask them to send me things in writing. Have you ever said “just text me the address” when somebody was giving you directions? Do that sort of thing at work. If somebody asked you to do something during a meeting, ask them to pull their phone out and email/text what they needed and when they need it. It puts a tiny bit of work on them, but I’ve found that most people will gladly send a text since it makes it more likely they will get what they need.

📧 Dear Future Me™

This may seem weird to you, but consider emailing yourself. When I suddenly remember something for work at 9pm, I send a quick email to my work address. I don’t even write a body to the email, I just put something like “Don’t forget about XYZ” in the subject line. The next day I sit down at work and see an email (okay, usually several) from myself. Oh yeah, I need to do XYZ! Works like a charm!

📂 Organization and Search 🔍

If you’re keeping track, you’re probably thinking that all of the above is going to generate a ton of notes. You’re not wrong.

Two things: 1) You don’t have to do everything above. These are the things that work for me, and you may have better memory than me and only need a couple of them. 2) If you did all of the above on paper it’d be overwhelming, but we live in the future, folks!

Pretty much any Google product is searchable. I have notes in Keep, Drive, and Gmail - all three of which are easily searchable. If you’re deliberate about how you write your notes, they can become really easy to find. As in code, I write TODO in my notes so I can search for “TODO” and quickly get tasks I may have forgotten. In Gmail, you can enter searches like to find those reminder emails you sent - better yet, you can save that search as a filter for later!

As your pile of notes grows, it becomes more and more important to get good at searching. Put some effort into how you phrase your notes and keep that in mind when searching. The one thing I do commit to memory is how I write notes, so I can quickly find anything I’ve written via search.

🏁 Summary

Don’t let bad memory hold you back. We’re living in some sci-fi futuristic times, and there’s enough technology around you that you can use as a second brain. Computers are way better at remembering things so you don’t have!

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