Remembering the good stuff that your brain forgets

There’s a narrative floating around on Twitter (Exhibit 1, 2) that we’re meant to forget things that are unimportant to us.

Forgetting is an incredibly useful feature of the brain. The brain does also have a knack to boomerang really valuable memories or ideas back—often in an exciting, relevant, way. We have a name for this: “Inspiration.”

Still, there are plenty of times the brain forgets the good stuff too. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t need to rehearse a presentation or prepare for an interview; our brains should, pretty effortlessly, call up every relevant piece of information during the performance.

We know that’s not true. How many times after a meeting or conversation have you wished, “Wow, I wish I said that instead.” Just extend the meeting analogy out to the rest of your day.

It’s not that with notes or writing that you’ll remember it all the time; but just that you’ll have an opportunity to practice remembering and retaining what you judge to be the good stuff more.

On top of that, with a note structure that works for you (I use the zettelkasten), you’ll practically be having a conversation with yourself and just the good stuff that you’ve saved from the past. New good stuff emerges when you spend time in there.

The best approach is to do both. Have a note system you review—not a perfect one or anything, as long as you review it regularly—and keep the good stuff in there. Trust your brain to remember some of the good stuff, but write it down anyway just in case.

If you have the opposite problem, like I do, and usually write too much stuff down, then keep a doc open where you can paste links and content into. Each point shouldn’t take more than 10–30 seconds to write down. Once you’ve written down the same idea 2–3 times, then put it into your permanent notes. (It takes me around 10 minutes to write a notecard and find a place for it.)

I started mine at the top of this year and it’s 150+ pages in Google Docs now. There’s a lot of stuff that I thought, “Huh, it was interesting,” in there, but I probably really didn’t need to save. My brain will forget all of that. Still, I’ve found myself going back in really often and pulling things that I want to remember—and to my delight, being able to do it in just a few seconds.

I’ll close with the usual disclaimer: Make sure you take notes to support your work, and not to procrastinate.

P.S., Each note has an identifier with a specific date, all I need to reference it is to copy and paste the date. Sometimes I combine ideas together in there, which is how this series on games emerged.

P.P.S., There’s almost definitely a better tool than Google Docs. It’s getting very sluggish. I just use it because it’s most convenient.

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