I can tell you precisely when I first began outsourcing my memory. It was on 02/02/2002 – the date when our domestic webcalendar installation shows its very first entry.
Up until then, I’d used some kind of physical diary for one-off events, and relied on my memory for regularly repeating tasks like putting the bins out. This meant that I was in danger of coming unstuck if I lost the diary, and also that I regularly forgot the wretched bins (cue much rushing into the street in my dressing gown at the sound of the approaching bin lorry). Additionally, my partner had a separate diary, so I had no accurate idea of his schedule.
By setting up a webcalendar, we benefited from a diary which was accessible wherever there was network access, which could be automatically backed up, and which could remind us about important events via email. We could see each other’s events, and easily set up repeating events such as bin collections and birthdays. In the nine years since then, the webcalendar has become one of our most relied-upon tools.
In terms of simplifying my life, the reminder function is the most useful aspect of the webcalendar system. Knowing that I’ll be reminded of my calendar events means that I don’t have to keep checking some mental diary, concerned that I’m going to forget something – a process that wastes energy and generates anxiety. I now rely on the reminder function completely – as was brought home to me when I accidentally broke it during an upgrade, and within a couple of days appointments had been missed, and the bins had reverted to their habitual state of not-put-outedness.
Unfortunately, the webcalendar didn’t solve all my memory-management problems. While it was great for date-specific events, it didn’t give me a way to record more nebulous tasks with no fixed deadline. I typically kept track of these in a hotchpotch way: emails to myself, multiple “Things To Do” lists for different projects, and a lot of half-formed intentions floating in my head. Quite often, when I was busy or just tired, I’d start to suffer from headswim: that hassled, almost paralysed feeling that comes when you’re drowning in a soup of seemingly pressing but ill-defined tasks, and anxious that you’re forgetting something important.
Last year, inspired by my webcalendar experiences, I decided to try outsourcing my “Things To Do” memory. I liked the idea of a web-accessible task manager; I chose to install an open-source one called TaskFreak. It’s taken me a little while to work out the most effective way to use it, but I’m now finding it pretty helpful in decluttering my head.
In the spirit of “works for me”, here are my top five suggestions for outsourcing your things-to-do memory (which should work regardless of what system you use for tracking tasks, up to and including a sheet of paper – anything but your head, in fact!):
When you think of a task or project that can’t be done immediately, record it in your task tracker right away. This applies equally to concrete tasks and vague future projects. That way, you don’t have to expend mental effort remembering the task.
Keep the tasks fine-grained, so they can be achieved in a day. If you have a large, vague task in the list (e.g. “Write a task management software suite”), break it down into more manageable sub-tasks when you’re ready to begin working on it.
At the start of each day, decide which tasks you’re going to tackle; make the number small (I aim for three). Choose only one hard / annoying / procrastination-inducing one, and do that first. If you complete all the tasks on your short list, recognise your achievement. Complete another task or two from the list (preferably something fun) if you want to, but allow some time for rest and recreation. (Ok, I’m really bad at this last part.)
If a task has a fixed deadline, note it, but otherwise leave tasks undated until you’re ready to start them. Don’t apply arbitrary deadlines, because it’s demoralising and a waste of effort to have to keep pushing them back.
Periodically (e.g. once a week or once a fortnight), take a little time to review your whole list, pruning out any now-irrelevant tasks and noting any changed deadlines or priorities.
This general strategy is working well for me right now; I’d love to hear what works for you.