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Use digital notes and strategic forgetting to be more effective at work

This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Create little systems to collect digital notes (post two), and Use digital notes to do creative work (post three).

A man named Hermann Ebbinghaus attempted to illustrate what we’re up against in our battle with remembering with what has become to be known as the forgetting curve. Various academic studies have attempted to quantify the rate at which we forget, yet I believe it’s sufficient to know we’re good at forgetting, and we’re good at forgetting quickly.

It’s natural for our knowledge to degrade unless we give it attention and that natural forgetfulness has certain species-adaptation benefits. But forgetfulness in the workplace can be inefficient, frustrating, embarrassing, perilous, and generally disadvantageous: To be forgetful is to be ineffective.

When we don’t take notes, we forget. Actually we’re likely to forget whether we take notes or not, so it’s more appropriate to say digital notes transfer the burden of remembering to a software application such as Evernote. 

Along with our best ideas, digital notes make more accessible the knowledge we’re responsible for knowing, such as what was discussed at last month’s meeting, where the last conversation left off, important deadlines for the budgeting process, and the long list of “working memory” responsibilities all of our jobs include.

As I’ve written elsewhere: “Amid overflowing inboxes, packed-to-the-hilt calendars, and lists of priorities all of equal priority, the healthcare administrator’s job is the same as it ever was: keep things running smoothly, and as different as it will ever be: make change happen.” 

It’s a dichotomous reality pulling us in contradictory directions. That’s the challenge of working in complexity

And digital notes help to make it possible through strategic forgetting. 

Have you been in an interaction (meeting, 1:1 with the boss, annual review for an employee, etc.) and have limited memory of something you wished you recalled more completely?

A note would have helped.

Have you found yourself searching Google for a resource, something you know exists because you’ve used it previously, and found no luck in finding it again? 

Have you had a thought during a meeting, in the middle of the night, or in the shower only to forget an important point when it came time to use it? 

Has your memory of an influential series of events differed from someone else’s memory of that same series of events?

Strategic forgetting is the practice of transferring the burden of remembering to our digital notes because digital notes are memories stored outside the brain.

Transferring this burden of remembering, writes Building a Second Brain creator Tiago Forte, “allows us to outsource our memory, instead of trying to keep every detail of our work and lives in our heads. It is like having a brilliant collaborator, thought partner, and personal assistant always available, ready to serve up our best ideas at a moment’s notice.”

Imagine arriving at a meeting well-prepared and well-informed on the topic because you’d been collecting information, stored in notes, for the past two weeks, six months, or even ten years—and reviewed that information before the meeting.

Imagine taking notes on the interesting things you read related to your job, or the job you might want to do in the future, and having that information available in the moment you need it.

Imagine taking notes about the thoughts you have, as they come, on whatever it might be, comprising thousands of notes, and then being able to consult them as they’re useful in support of your creativity.

The thing about taking (and collecting) notes is the value notes bring in having them. We (almost always) don’t know what information is going to be valuable until we’ve realized we don’t have it. Then we’re lucky if there’s a trace of a memory at all. 

So if you read something and it captures your attention—why not take a note? If you’re already attending a meeting—why not take a note? If you have a thought in the shower—why not take a note?

If you’re already doing the work—why not take a note?

While the details of the February 17, 2016 department staff meeting may or may not be important to you right at this moment, there’s a heck of a good chance that the blog post you read and have been thinking about all day is something that should influence your thinking in the future. Because that’s work, too. 

And in my estimation, if you’re already doing the work then it’s worth knowing what you’ve already learned. You just have to remember it.

It’s easy to get started with digital note taking. Here’s a guide to get you set-up.

Once your set-up is complete, you can create little systems to make note collecting easier. “Your job is to collect good ideas,” writes artist Austin Kleon in his book Steal Like an Artist, “The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” Here’s a guide to do just that.

The point of taking and collecting digital notes is to use them, something we’ll do more and more as our jobs continue to shift toward creative work. So here’s a guide to using and improving notes for the creative (and tactical, too) healthcare administrator work you’re already doing.

Tiago Forte is the closest person to a digital note philosopher—if such a philosopher can exist—as there is. His philosophy on note taking is worth adopting:

Notes are personal, informal, quick and dirty. They are not for public consumption, but for your own personal use, like a leather notebook you keep in your backpack.

Notes are open-ended and never finished. “Taking notes” is a continuous process, in which you can noodle on ideas without an immediate purpose in mind.

Notes have low standards for quality and polish. They are easy to jot down, because it’s fine if they are messy, incomplete, or totally random.

Notes naturally mix diverse types of media. Just like a paper notebook might contain drawings and sketches, quotes and ideas, and even a pasted photo or post-it note, notes naturally combine different kinds of media in one place.

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