Let Go of Trying to Remember

There’s a big secret to being productive that’s so meta, people forget to talk about it.

Those of us who do it, usually do it naturally. Those who don’t do it, well, I wonder if it can be taught. I think so, although I’ve never seen any studies that have tried.

The trick is this: Stop trying to remember.

Don’t store information in your head. Instead, write down important things you need to remember. Write down the tasks you need to do and when you need to do them. Jot down when the dog needs her medication and how much. Let a map app be the place you save recommended restaurants. Put your passwords in a password manager.

There’s a lot of information we need everyday, but not all of it belongs in our heads. Don’t waste your time or energy struggling to remember anything that’s bet kept as a note.

There’s a second part to the equation, however. The only way “stop trying to remember” works is if you trust another system to remember for you.

Here’s an Example…

Ask me what time is my next flight. The answer is I don’t know. It’s in my calendar, and it’s in my note-taking app. I don’t worry about remembering because I trust the information is recorded in multiple locations and that I’ll receive reminders about it in advance.

A few days before my flight, when I’m packing and in general getting ready to leave town, I’ll look over all my travel details and make sure they’re saved offline in a note-taking app on my phone. That way, even if I lose connectivity during my trip, the information will be at my fingertips. Also, a day before my trip, I’ll get an email reminding me to check into the flight, and that email will also contain information about what time I need to be at the airport.

The point is, off the top of my head, I don’t know. It’s not important for me to know, so I told my brain, “Let’s not bother with it.” And my brain says, “Okay,” because we have a history of letting this information reside somewhere else, and that system has never failed us.

Building a System You Trust

If you’ve ever read or listened to David Allen of Getting Things Done fame (he wrote a book with that title and trademarked the phrase; I interviewed Allen in 2018), he’s an advocate of this same idea. Don’t use your brain for anything you can write down. It’s an inefficient use of your mind.

When I first learned about Getting Things Done and Allen’s premise behind it, I thought, “Yeah, of course. Doesn’t everybody do that?”

I had no idea that other people didn’t write things down, that they didn’t know they didn’t have to try and remember everything. It was something I did naturally, so I assumed everyone else did, too.

Allen’s books are step-by-step guides for how to create a system you trust so that you can stop trying to remember important information and free up your head space to tackle real work. His method is not a bad one by any means, although some of it feels like overkill to me. Additionally, you might have to tweak his method to suit your own work or household management, although you can still use his principles to create your own systems as needed.

How Does ‘Not Remembering’ Help Productivity?

When you let go of trying to remember, you free up your brain to do other work or be creative or simply feel less stress. The less you have to juggle information in your head, the less stress you feel worrying about what you’ll forget.

More importantly, when you record information in a way that’s useful to you later, you end up creating a system in which finding information is lighting fast. When you write down the tasks you need to do today and as you rely on that list to guide your efforts, it suddenly takes you no time at all to sit down at your desk at get oriented as to what you should tackle first today. You end up doing a lot less sifting through information to arrive at a conclusion. The information that you need is there when you need it.

The best ways to get started are to identify any instances where you already write down information and stop trying to store it in your head. Do you use a to-do list for your tasks? Do you use a calendar to store appointments, holidays, and travel dates? Maybe you use a social network to keep track of people’s birthdays.

Once you’ve identified how you already use this idea, try to extend it. What information do you need today to start your day? What information do you need today to make tomorrow go smoothly? There’s a ton of value in letting go information from your head and letting some other system that you trust handle it.


Image by Henti Smith, CC.



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