When trying to remember something there are two basic parts to it:
- The signal, letting you know that there is something to be remembered.
- The message, with the details of what you wanted to remember.
In his book “The Design of Everyday Things“, author Don Norman explains it in more detail:
There are two different aspects to a reminder: the signal and the message. Just as in doing an action we can distinguish between knowing what can be done and knowing how to do it, in reminding we must distinguish between the signal—knowing that something is to be remembered, and the message—remembering the information itself. Most popular reminding methods typically provide only one or the other of these two critical aspects. The famous “tie a string around your finger” reminder provides only the signal. It gives no hint of what is to be remembered. Writing a note to yourself provides only the message; it doesn’t remind you ever to look at it. The ideal reminder has to have both components: the signal that something is to be remembered, and then the message of what it is.
Technology helps a ton
Don references the old “tie a string around your finger”, but technology allows us to bundle the signal and the message almost by default. 20 years ago, you might have added something to your paper calendar but it was tough to add details in that small square of paper. Today, you can click on that link in Google Calendar and have notes, attendees, location, and everything in one place. The challenge is taking the time to add those details before you need them.
On the other side of things, I still see struggles with “the signal” in a lot of places where notes get lost in the digital void. It’s super easy to add a note to Apple Notes or Google Keep or Evernote or whatever you prefer, but the easiness of it also leads to people putting a lot of stuff in there. Many of these tools allow you set a reminder based on time or location, but it takes effort to do that and many notes just slowly disappear.
Put things in their place
The solution that, at least for me, is my weekly sweep. I toss a lot of notes into Google Keep throughout the week, and deal with them from time to time, but I make sure to completely empty it every Friday into the systems where it makes sense (and includes a “signal” if needed, like on my calendar).
In way, that almost causes me issues with the “message” side of things. If I’m in the car listening to a podcast, I’ll use Google to put a quick note in Google Keep with my voice, but I’m sometimes not verbose enough. I know I’ll see the note again, so the signal is good, but if I don’t add enough detail I sometimes forget why I wanted to remember it in the first place.
This most often happens while I’m driving, so it’s hard to put a lot of detail into a note. In those cases, I’ll often create a few short voice notes instead, like:
- “Write a post about that saying in Founders about Steve Jobs”
- “The one where he talks about xx when you’re doing yy.”
- “It reminds me of (that other post).”
It creates a bit of a mess, but I can quickly combine them into a single note the next time I’m at my computer.
I’m frustrated when something comes up where I’m missing either the signal or the message, so I’m constantly refining my processes to help eliminate both issues as time goes on.