How to Never Forget Anything Again

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Systems allow stress-free productivity without wasting mental RAM. (Photo: Fotopakismo)

The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it’s a bit faulty as a tool for remembering things. Luckily for us (and for our frazzled brains), technology has stepped in to help out.

With the proper habits and the right tools, you and your brain won’t have to remember a thing again.

There are a host of tech tools that can help with taking notes, managing projects and to-dos, and manage your email and calendar needs just fine. Though I’ll include the best choices below, these tools are just one piece of the puzzle. There are more elegant methods (ever scheduled something in Google Calendar via voicemail?)…

To really never have to remember a thing again, you have to combine a few tools in smart and comprehensive fashion, and even more important, you have to develop specific habits that will ensure that things don’t slip between the cracks … because the cracks just get bigger and bigger with more time and more data.

In this post I’ll look at some of the requirements of a “Never Forget Again” system, along with 4 key habits for using that system. I’ll include my setup, as well as some other tools you can use to develop your own setup.

A Comprehensive System

What are all the things you need to remember? There are many types of data, from phone numbers and emails to tasks and projects, from follow-ups to status reports, from errands and appointments to websites and photos, and from random ideas to notes for class or about a book, etc..

A comprehensive system will handle all these things and allow you to save them, access them, and be reminded of them with ease. There shouldn’t be a lot of fuss.

Sound about right? Let’s take a look at the system and tools — then the habits — needed to do all this.

My Setup

This might sound a bit complicated to some, but I assure you all of these tools are simple, easy to use, powerful, fast, and fun to use. Those are my criteria. I use a setup the includes Evernote, Gmail, Gcal, Anxiety and Jott. These tools allow me to capture any information, at any time, and retrieve the information quickly and easily.

Let’s take a look at how:

  1. Evernote: This is a great app for storing just about any information you want. In fact, if you wanted to simplify your setup, you could almost just use Evernote to remember everything. It can hold notes, clip web pages, store photos and audio notes, and more. Really cool feature: snap a picture of something on your camera phone, and send it to Evernote … then Evernote will scan the image and you can search for words within the note. This makes sending yourself notes really easy — you can take pictures of business cards, menus, receipts, documents and more … and it’s automatically searchable. Evernote is available on PCs, Macs, on the web and on mobile devices such as Blackberries and the iPhone … and it syncs very easily across all these platforms, which makes it available from anywhere. Need to find a note while on the road? Just access Evernote with your mobile device and do a quick search. It really works well for just about everything.
  2. Gmail: My favorite email app, Gmail uses archive and search (along with labels if you like) to quickly store and retrieve any information you need. I also send quick emails to Evernote from Gmail, allowing me to turn emails into notes that will be retrieved from anywhere. I also use a Firefox plugin to combine Gmail with Gcal (see below) so I can see emails and my calendar in one view.
  3. Gcal: Also known as Google Calendar, Gcal is accessible from anywhere and just works really well. I set up reminders if I want to make sure to remember something, and it’ll send me an email or text message. Need to remember to follow up on something? Set a reminder in Gcal for one week from now. Get used to setting up reminders quickly in your calendar, and you won’t have to remember anything.
  4. Anxiety: I actually play around with lots of to-do apps, but my current one is Anxiety. It’s very lightweight and very simple, and it sits right on my Mac. I don’t like to keep actions in my email program, so when I receive an email that requires an action, I just quickly add a to-do item to Anxiety (it just takes a quick keystroke to do that). There are lots of other great to-do apps that can be integrated with the other apps on this list, but I don’t need anything complicated — I like my apps to be light and fast.
  5. Jott: This handy app ties everything together, and is very valuable for when you’re on the go. Just call Jott from your cell phone and leave a message, and it’ll be sent to your email … or to another service you specify. For example, I’ve set up Evernote as one of my Jott contacts, so that when I send a Jott message to Evernote, it’s automatically added to my Evernote database and is searchable later. I’ve also added Gcal so that I can easily set up appointments and reminders while on the road. Other to-do items go to Gmail, where I’ll process them later to add to my to-do app.

Finally, I use Quicksilver on the Mac to make everything faster. I can easily send an email from Gmail, add an appointment in Gcal, or send a note to Evernote, by using the fast keyboard magic of Quicksilver — with a few keystrokes, the information is entered and sent, with no mouse required, and no apps required to be opened.

4 Critical Habits

If you want a system to work, you’ve got to develop the habits to make it work. It’s that simple — without the habits, the system will fall apart — always. You’ve done it again and again, and so have I: set up a great system that works for a few days, maybe even a week. Then it slowly falls by the wayside.

Focus on developing these habits for one month. If you can do that, the habits should stick.

  1. Make a note, immediately. This is perhaps the most important habit. If you can teach yourself to make a note of things right away, immediately, without putting it off, you’re halfway there. Someone give you some contact information? Make a note and save it, right now. Receive an email that requires an action? Put it on a to-do list, right now. Want to remember this website, or have a receipt you need to save? You get the picture. Don’t put it off.
  2. Use your lists and tools, consistently. The next most important habit. A list, a calendar, a note-taking app … none of these are worth anything if you don’t use them on a consistent basis. For some of these tools, that means checking them daily. For others, it might be 2-3 times daily or even more often. Tie these actions to something already firmly established in your daily routine: for example, check your calendar and email list right when you get into work, check your email before you leave work, or check your notes right when you get back from lunch. Find what works for you, but you get the idea.
  3. Make it quick and painless. If it’s difficult to add a note or save information, you’ll put it off sometimes. Same thing with retrieving the info — you don’t want to go digging through folders or waiting on a slow application to load just to get something. You want it fast and easy, or it won’t work.
  4. Archive and search, don’t file. Along the lines of the above item, it’s better to use a quick search function than to have to remember where you saved something. If it takes too long to find, you will stop using your system. Archiving stuff (instead of filing into folders) and then searching work fastest — Gmail is one of the best examples of that in action.

Alternative Tools and Set-ups

The tools I use are just some of the great options available. See below for other apps I recommend.

Note-taking Tools

1. OneNote: This is the default note-taking tool for anyone who uses Microsoft Office, and it’s very powerful. Unfortunately for some of us, it only runs on Windows I believe.

2. Yojimbo: A Mac-only program, Yojimbo is beloved by its many users for its power, flexibility, and easy of use. It’s super fast to add things into Yojimbo, which is a great selling point.

3. Backpack and Packrat: One of the best of many web apps for collecting info, Backpack is versatile and easy to use. You can store notes, text, images, links and more … and send items via email and SMS text messages. It also has a calendar and reminders. For Mac OSX users, there’s also a desktop application, Packrat, that works well with Backpack for off-line needs.

4. Text files: The simplest method of all — and one that I’ve used with success. Create a series of text files for different needs, and copy and paste your notes into the appropriate text files. I have text files for ideas, to-do items, errands, notes and shopping lists. Small and fast. Works very quickly if you use a program such as Quicksilver for opening the appropriate text file or even adding text to the end of the file without having to open it.

Email Apps

1. Mail.app: Mac OSX users love their Mail.app, a program that comes with Macs and that has some very powerful filters for manipulating emails and to-do items. Can sync with different computers if you use Apple’s online service.Webmail: If you don’t like Gmail, there are many other types of webmail, including Yahoo or Hotmail. I just think Gmail’s the best.

2. Outlook: Of course, Outlook is the default mail program for PCs, and it’s actually a pretty good program for capturing most of your data, including calendar and to-do items, although I won’t list it in the categories below because it’s already listed here.

Calendars

1. iCal: Free, simple, but great calendar program for Mac users.

2. 30 Boxes: Good online program, but not as good as Google Calendar, in my opinion.

3. Sunbird: Open-source, cross-platform calendar app from Mozilla, the creator of Firefox.

To-do Apps

1. Things: Awesome Getting Things Done app for the Mac. Simple, easy to use.

2. Omnifocus: Another GTD program for the Mac, maybe the most powerful there is.

3. iGTD: Yet another great GTD program for the Mac. It’s hard to choose between these three.

4. RTM: Remember the Milk is probably the most popular online to-do app, and it’s extremely flexible — you can integrate it with Gmail, Twitter, Jott, text messages, email and more. Other good online to-do apps include Nozbe and Vitalist.

On-the-go Tools

1. Mobile devices: the iPhone, Blackberry and various PDAs are all good choices for capturing tasks and information on the go.

2. Pocket notebook: You can also go retro and use a small notebook (or index cards) for capturing data. I use a Moleskine pocket notebook. Enter the data into your computer when you get home.

###

This guest post was written by Leo Babauta.

Read more from Leo Babauta at his blog, Zen Habits, or check out his effort to raise funds for humanitarian causes, Train For Humanity.

Posted on: September 17, 2008.

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158 comments on “How to Never Forget Anything Again

  1. I use Outlook synchronized with a Palm Z22. Plus some sticky notes and a pencil. This setup has replaced my Franklin planner for a major savings of space. Together with my cellphone and my sketchbook I have an office that fits in a couple of pockets.

    I’d like to like Google Calendar but Google is pretty stupid about synchronizing calendar and contact items with other apps such as Outlook and Yahoo!

    Data is periodically offloaded to backup USB drives and Yahoo.

    Like

  2. I completely agree that it’s absolutely crucial to make a note IMMEDIATELY.

    Not only is it the only way to make sure you don’t forget – it’s also very freeing, because your brain is free from trying to remember the stuff that you wrote down.

    Like

  3. Gmail is the best thing since sliced bread!

    “1: Make a note, immediately”

    This is always key. The second I put something down, it becomes swallowed up by the chaos of life.

    This post is filled with some great apps and ideas. Great job and it’s good to see you, Leo, in the house of Mr. Ferriss.

    Like

  4. Some nice ideas, Leo. And thanks for the links to Anxiety, Jott, and Things. I don’t read lifehacker as much as I used to so I miss out on a lot of these apps.

    BTW, awesome picture.

    Right now I am simply using txt files on the computer (with quicksilver) and a small notebook (not moleskine… I know, I know.. I’m sorry). But I will look into a few of these ideas.

    Thanks!

    Like

  5. What a great blog post and I absolutely love Zen habits. I remember things by writing down notes when I know I need to remember it. That is the easiest way to remember things because you can always come back to your little notes. The hardest thing is when I am laying in bed and I think of something I need to remember but I do not want to get out of bed to remember it. But the best thing is that you usually remember it in the morning. It is kind of like when you study late at night. It has been proven that we all remember things if we study right before bed. So if we are laying in bed and remove a think about what we want to remember you will most likely remember in the morning. It really works for me, I’m sure it will work for other people also.

    Like

  6. Hey Leo,
    I too love the moleskin notebook. I take it with me as I’m traveling around the world filming and can use it to record thoughts- in kind of a Hemingway sort of way. I also like the Omnifocus program but have found the “Things’ program way better especially as an app for my iPhone. Either way terrific post as always.
    Rob

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  7. Thanks Rob! Yeah, there’s something really pleasurable about using a Moleskine notebook, and that in itself has a lot of value. If you love using a tool, you’re more likely to use it.

    I’ve also found Things to be pretty great, but I’ve opted for simplicity in using Anxiety.

    Btw, thanks to Tim Ferriss for publishing my guest post … it’s an honor to be here!

    Like

  8. As for the Moleskines, I have them as well but my favourite for sticking in a back pocket are the “Pentalic Modeskin” knockoffs which have similar but heavier paper and soft leather covers bend to fit my butt. You have to patch the Modeskins a bit after some use but they’re a third the price of Moleskines.

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  9. Things now has a version for the iPhone that will sync to-dos and whatnot automatically via WiFi. Enter on the Mac, check off on the iPhone, and vice-versa.

    Great for having your to-do list with you at all times, and, unlike some of the other options mentioned, doesn’t require that you always have a WiFi/3G internet connection.

    Like

  10. Off topic for this item Tim but an interesting heads-up if you hadn’t come across it. (I can’t recall a post about it, and there’s nothing on Search.)

    You recommend ProfNet for PR. Well Peter Shankman of http://www.helpareporter.com (aka HARO – help a reporter out) has usefully similar service for free. Peter is very contactable too.

    Worth researching for your readers, I’d suggest.

    Like

  11. I use just about the same habits, only I am using paper instead of technology. I know it’s less environmentally friendly, but since my life goal is to save the planet, and I recognize the fact that I’m using the paper, I think it’s a small sacrifice in the long run.

    What I do is I put a blank index card in my pocket every day, with a pen, and whenever I think of anything I have to remember, I write it on the card. Then at home I have a looseleaf sheet of paper I use as my to do list, and a week-by-week calendar for longer-term duties. I also have a very detailed weekly schedule make up using the facebook application, and I have it printed out and set up in my study area. I also have an index card with the names of books that I want to buy in my wallet, and an extra copy of my weekly schedule in case I need to add anything new.

    It’s a relatively new system for me but it works! and it’s cheap! I don’t have to remember ANYTHING anymore, and my brain can finally relax.

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  12. I was a bit disappointed coming to this post only to find its not about actual memory improvement, such as the methods taught by Harry Lorayne, Tony Buzan , or my favorite author, Dominic O’Brien. His methods for having a mental diary have helped me IMMENSELY and I now can instantly remember any phone number given to me without hassle. I even can memorize a deck of cards in under 3 minutes!

    Although I will concede there is certain advantages for these online apps.

    Like