Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Do You Really Need to Remember Everything?


Once upon a time, the tagline for Evernote (a popular tool for collecting information) was Remember Everything. And a lot of people did just that. They used Evernote as an external backup drive for their brains.

You have to wonder how much of that information they ever used. You wonder how much of it was relevant a week, six weeks, or six months later.

When I hear people say how great a tool is for amassing notes or collecting every bit of information they need, I ask Do you really need to remember everything?

The answer is usually No.

The Dangers of Trying to Remember Everything

The biggest of those is winding up with megabytes (or more) of information. Notes, documents, links, images. Unless you organize them properly (and many people don’t), you’ll have a hard time finding what you need to find when you need to find it.

Worse, you might forget that you have the information. Maybe you collected it for a reason, but maybe the time for that reason has passed.

If you’re not careful, you can lose the context of what you’re saving. That happens to me every so often, and I try to be careful — tagging my notes or adding a short, explanatory blurb. It doesn’t always work out though.

Questions to Ask Yourself

When you’re gathering information, ask yourself:

Why am I doing this? Are you saving notes and links for a project? To collect material to read later? Instead of saying something like This looks interesting, I’ll save it, have a compelling reason for gathering information. Otherwise, you’re just collecting trivia and ephmera.

When will I use what I’m collecting? If your answer is someday, chances are you’ll never use it. Or, you’ll have forgotten about it. Having a store of information is one thing. It only become relevant to your life or work if you actually use it.

When will this information become obsolete? Much of the information you collect probably has a short life. It might not be, to paraphrase Harlan Ellison, something that bursts into flame 60 seconds after appearing on the web, but chances are it has a limited life span. Think longer term. If what you’re collecting will be out of date by the time you get around to it, there’s no point in collecting it.

If you don’t have a good reason to save something, if you can’t see yourself using it any time soon, if it’s use-by date is coming up fast then resist the urge to click Save.

The Delete Button is Your Friend

Do a periodic purge.

Every six to eight weeks, go through your notes. If there’s anything in there that you haven’t looked at in the last six to eight week, delete it. Why? If you haven’t used that information already, you probably aren’t going to. Ever. The information might be out of date or you might stumble across a newer or fresher source.

You don’t want to become a digital hoarder. Why? As you collect more and more information, it becomes harder to part with it. You find ways to convince yourself that you’ll need that information for some reason. You’ll find ways to convince yourself that you’ll use it sometime in the future.

You won’t. Period.

Instead of trying to use tools to remember everything, just use them to remember what you need to remember. The important information for your work or your life. Not bits of useless information, like the answer to the question How long is a piece of string. Save the information that will help you do your work, that will actually make your life better.

If you’ll excuse me, I have some purging to do …

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