Johnny Mnemonic

Scary realization: more and more often, I’m finding I have no useful recollection of the details of conversations I’ve had in the recent past. You might have sat with me in a meeting last week, say, and we may have come to perfectly lucid agreements on what steps we’d take next to advance whatever project was at hand. But lately the chances are increasingly good that when you ask me about them next, those action items will have escaped me. I’ll probably recall that we spent some time in a meeting together, sure. And maybe even that we had arrived at some mutual understanding, too. But little else.

This is really inconvenient, not to mention frustrating. At first I thought this condition was a symptom of the sheer number of projects I deal with each day (lots), but more and more I worry it’s just a function of getting along in my years. Office life is making me old.

Misty Water-colored Memories

This made me think of how it used to be customary for those who worked at The White House to keep diaries of their day-to-day meetings (in the days before such diaries became inevitably subpoena-able). Not that my job responsibilities are remotely comparable to anyone in that realm of public service, but I think I now understand at least part of the motivation behind work journals: everything is forgettable until it’s written down.

Reluctantly I’m coming to the realization that I need to start writing everything down if I truly intend to hang on to their particulars later on. I need to take the time out after meetings to actually record what happened and what conclusions were reached, what decisions were made. I need the right software to do this, something simple and flexible, and that allows entries to be tagged and easily searched, so I welcome all suggestions. And what the heck, to run the software, let’s just say I need a MacBook Air to carry around with me to do this, too.

  1. I’m surprised you don’t already have something similar just for setting expectations between teams.
    When I was at Yahoo!, one of the most important things Girish Patangay told his team of interns was to take notes of what was agreed on in meetings. These notes were then posted online and a link was sent out to the other people at the meeting (and relevant managers not there). This ensured everyone agreed on what the notes said about the decisions made and the reasons behind the decisions.
    It is an approach that not only helps you remember things, but can save your ass when people change their minds and pretend you’re not doing what was agreed on.

  2. Khoi, I find it very helpful to carry around a pocket Moleskine notebook to capture ideas and thoughts as they hit me. I also happen to use it for my personal schedule. Uniball Signo 0.38mm pens seem to work well for this purpose, drying very quickly (no smearing).

    As for Mac journaling software, I’ve really been enjoying Phil Dow’s Journler, which does a nice job of integrating a variety of Mac OS X tools like Mail, Safari, iPhoto, iTunes and more:

    I’m slightly biased since I designed the icon for Phil, but I really do love the app for how well it suits my information management needs.

    Hope that’s helpful! 🙂

  3. iCal for dates and todo lists, Mail’s notes or Google Notebook for random typings, and a notebook and pen for everything else. (Well, or an iPhone / bb which works well with Google Notebook)

  4. Khoi, i hear you man. me and my partner were struggling with this 2 weeks ago, so i set out to find the perfect model to frame our documents. it’s a 43signal product called HighRise.

    Absolutely spenldid app. you can use as a complete data bank of emails, contacts, cases with option of third party invites. i wont bother with describing it any better since you can just goto the site and see for yourself.

    without plugging too much of someone else’s product, i have to say Highrise is my recommendation. probably my fav. application in recent years!


  5. Although I can absolutely empathize with you on this, and it is downright frightening how getting older affects your (my) ability to hold all that “stuff” in the brain…. I wonder… how well are you sleeping?

    I recently readabout how crucial good sleep is to things like memory. I’ve noticed personally that if I’m not getting adequate sleep, I’ll forget my mother’s name. But when I’m good and rested, remembering stuff just “works”.

    Just wondering if rather than software (Yojimbo is great btw), you might consider an extra hour or two of sleep and see if you still need it. 🙂

    Good luck!!

  6. Crazy! I’ve never seen John Gruber post anywhere, but I though he has to be out here somewhere, so I have kept my eye out. For the past couple years, I have been waiting for this moment. Crazy!

  7. I’m not sure what’s available software-wise, but I went to a seminar entitled “Managing Multiple Priorities” during the course of which it was suggested, several times over, that mind-mapping software works very well for this sort of thing (as well as for things like quickly pre-planning a call/meeting/speech to keep from going off target). Mind-mapping essentially replicates how our brains functions, and lets up visually see connections between ideas, which in turn assists our brains with filling in the gaps (for some reason, that’s less likely to happen when you simply jot down a list of important points).

    That said, while I took away and implemented quite a bit from that seminar, I don’t do mind-maps, simply because they doesn’t fit well with my job function (hense why I can’t suggest any software for this).

    Hope this helps.

  8. I’ve always considered myself to have a very bad *social* memory. Casual conversations just do not stick, they get filed in a very deep dark place.

    I’ve always chalked it up to a) Not being very socially inclined b) having to keep track of so many things for work, literally holding huge amounts of information *at the ready*

    I’m sure age doesn’t help though. I’ve actually found the iPod Touch to be really helpful, I use it far more than any previous attempt at a PDA. It’s a little weird to whip it out at a party to write down a book someone just mentioned, but it’s a necessity at this point.

  9. There’s a chance someone reading this is running Windows. So I just have to say that OneNote is pretty frickin amazing for taking notes, tagging notes, searching notes, drawing meeting notes, etc. And for organizing–it’s just superb. It also has an awesome audio/video capture feature where it ties your notes to what was said at that moment…and you can click on it to hear what was said then.

    You don’t need a Tablet PC to use OneNote, but if you have a Tablet then it’s doubly fun.

    It also integrates with Outlook tasks and appointments.

    Okay, that’s all for my Windows note-taking advice. Back to the regularly scheduled Mac programming.

  10. I recommend a moleskine, It’s great on batteries and can be read anywhere.

    I’ve actually found that just writing down my notes is enough to remember them. If I just listen they’re gone from my mind, but jotting them down is enough for them to stick, even if I don’t go back to the book to chek em out.

  11. What I’ve done recently is to actually just use TextMate using the Textile editing mode to take my on-site client notes. Then when I’m back on the internet, it’s dead easy to drop them into a Backpack, Baseamp or Writeboard text entry field to have nicely formatted notes.

    And the actual Textile markup language is so ingrained in my brain from using those tools to often, I find that it’s a really natural way to take notes in the first place, not just in the communication of them to others.

  12. I long ago accepted the fact that I have an atrocious memory and took to the habit of keeping a work journal. That took getting used to because I had a little trouble figuring out what was worth recording and not. It turned out that for me, there is no item too small. Sad but true. The journal became especially helpful when I had to deal with coworkers/supervisors who were even more forgetful than me. I can’t tell you how often I would sit in meetings, the rest of the team waiting, while I thumbed through my notes to see what had been said and what action items were to be taken.

    I remember a meeting where there was confusion about a meeting date and time. “I don’t have it in my notebook,” I said. To which a team member replied, “Well that settles it. If it’s not in Patricia’s notebook, it never happened.” I’m amused to say that was said without a bit of sarcasm.

  13. Khoi, charming rationalisation for a MacBook Air purchase. 🙂

    Forget it. Analog rocks. Nothing beats a Moleskine and a good pen as a take-it-everywhere work diary. I call mine my little black brain, and couldn’t work without it. I truly believe that the physicality of paper and pen, and the act of writing and scribbling, juices up the brain in a way that no software, no matter how good it is, can. And I don’t care how light and thin a MacBook Air is, it won’t fit in your jacket pocket.

    The second step (if necessary) is to review my scribbles after a meeting and transfer todos, notes, etc. to the appropriate programs. For me that means basically todos in Things and most other things get sent to someone in an Email.

  14. I’ve been carrying around a Field Notes notebook ( in my back pocket and it’s made a huge difference in keeping track of all the little things I need to remember.

    I prefer it to my Moleskine for day-to-day note taking since it’s slim and flexible. I used to always slip the Moleskin in my bag instead of my pocket and then not have it with me when I needed it. Field Notes all the way.

  15. It’s too bad you can’t just write like you would on a notepad in all caps on your iPhone and then import it to your computer and use handwriting software that would recognize the characters (hence the reason for all caps, easier probably to decipher).

    – MM

  16. Backpack with packrat as a MAC desktop app.

    I don┤t have a good memory especially for all the boring stuff I have to deal with too, so I use a paper journal for the quick notes.

    Beside of that, all of my team members (including mayself) have to write meeting minutes, which are added to the project wiki. This has proven to be quite effective.

  17. I am looking into Asus eee currently and I think it’ll be a good fit for your needs. It’s ultra portable (a little bigger than the large moleskine notebook) and it has all you need to use Google Notebook with its Firefox extension ( seriously this app is awesome).
    Only downside is it’s not a Mac 🙂

  18. And what the heck, to run the software, let’s just say I need a MacBook Air to carry around with me to do this, too.

    Sounds like you faked dementia and wrote a whole post just to justify yourself your next purchase.


  19. I’m with anyone else recommending Yojimbo. I’m using it more and more lately and love it. I also just came across a little app called Notae that looks like it’s more specifically geared toward note taking, although Yojimbo has this and more.

  20. Another vote for

    I don’t use it as a PIM (Personal Information Manager), just as a Diary for all my daily life. It’s calander, tags, categories, ability to recorde voice or video entries and great integration with the OS X are what makes it work so well.

    That and the fact that is Free.

    Free as in Free! You can’t argue with that price…

  21. I have been trying out the latest Evernote beta, they have a thick client, web version, and a mobile web version (with an iPhone specific version coming soon). I love the way I can take and get access to all my notes from anywhere. It also does OCR of any image you add to it which works really well–even for handwriting. If you want to try it out, send me an email and I’ll send you one of my beta invites.

  22. I was thinking just the same thing as Brain. I also recommend you check out Evernote. Think there is still a link up on

    I know for a fact Tim had 1,000 invites to the Beta. Hopes this fits the bill.

  23. I use a $0.50 Mead spiral and whatever pen is handy to write down every action item, I then use a stamp to mark off the ones I have done. Cheap and easy.

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