On refrigerator notes, the fear of forgetting, and the craft of organizing

Don’t forget to remember important things!” said a note on a friend’s refrigerator. How true and how sarcastic! True, because our information-age lives are filled with the angst of forgetting. Sarcastic, because each thing is important in its own context, that’s when it most needs remembering. And for most of the important things their main context is not looking at a refrigerator. David Allen writes a lot about the fact that we remember important things at wrong times. He concludes that “The mind is a great place to have ideas and a terrible place to keep them“. His solution?  Distributed cognition to keep our ideas out of our minds. Oh, yes, telephone numbers, project notes, appointments, to-do lists, and favorite poems as well! All of this has to be saved in your computer to free your mind for more productive work. But here is one problem. We have so much information, that it may become challenging to remember where you saved something. If you saved it but don’t know where, the angst of forgetting settles in. This means your brain will be as much preoccupied with remembering where the damn email (note, file, address) is as in the first place. That’s why many people keep 1000+ messages in their inbox. It’s their electronic refrigerator door. They look at it every day. They will surely not forget.

But how the rest of us, who believe in Inbox Zero and still don’t want to lose information, how do we organize our emails and other electronic stuff? Before I go to technicalities, let’s come back to the main principle: each thing is important in its own context. Thus, a piece of information, be it an email, a note or a file, should be saved in a context where it will be most likely needed. Smart organization requires knowing yourself and the types of situations you are in. Think as follows: “when I will need this information, how will I look for it?”

The answer might be: “In writing my article“. Well, I am writing The Article in Scrivener . The information goes right into the Scrivener project under the Research tab. Another answer might be “In thinking through my project” (note it’s thinking, not doing!). Clip it to the Project Notes (I keep these in OmniOutliner). Or else it may be “In preparing a yet-not-started-something about nuclear energy”. Well, sounds like a note tagged “energy:nuclear”.

The last example is especially important because you don’t know when you will prepare that “something”.  Therefore Brett Terpstra speaking in the 45th episode of MacPowerUsers recommends to think as follows: “How will I look for this file if I need it in one year’s time?” This is, in fact, a very difficult question to answer. You can only guess. But if you run your system for at least a year you’ll be pretty sure. Then you will start trusting your system to such an extend that your brain will stop worrying about losing information and you will stop getting distracted by thousands of notes places on wrong refrigerator doors.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Central European University and Associate Professor of Lund University. He is also the coordinator of MESPOM, an Erasmus Mundus Masters course operated by six Universities in Europe and North America.
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5 Responses to On refrigerator notes, the fear of forgetting, and the craft of organizing

  1. Pingback: Organizing email | Academic workflows on Mac

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