How to remember anything and recall it whenever you need

How to remember anything and recall it whenever you need

The amount of information coming at us every single day is huge, 34Gb (gigabytes) huge. In this, there is over 105,000 words that come our way. For those of us with even the most specialised and narrow focus, how can we possibly remember everything that we want too? Arguably, the internet has removed the need for use of our memories like we used too. A quick Google search turns out information about any idea, person, problem, event or group that we desire. But what happens when we don’t know what question to ask? Or what question we might be asked? What about not putting a conversation on pause whilst we fact check something Google? With the abundance of free information, I believe more than ever, that we need to ability to harness what we need, when we need it. As a bonus, what about using that old school thing – our own memories to remember things?

My answer to these questions has been developing a digital note taking system. Having your own and personalised mini-library with you at all times that you have built not only helps build your own knowledge base but backs you up whenever you might need it. For me, this system relies on the note taking app Evernote primarily due to its tagging feature. Laid out, the whole system in a simple process, looks like this:

  1. Actively consuming and reviewing the information
  2. Recording what was important to memory – this is where Evernote comes in
  3. Categorising and filing the information
  4. Recalling our memories

(Sounds a bit like “learning” subject material back in school!)

Before delving into each of these parts, you might be asking, ‘why Evernote?’ First off and to remove any perception of bias, I have no affiliation, link nor form of compensation from Evernote, I am only interested in finding the tool for the job and pass on what I have learned. So, there are some key traits of Evernote that make it the only tool, that I have found, to enable this:

  • it is quick and easy to write, organise and access your notes
  • it is available on all digital devices and you have it with you at all times i.e. your phone
  • it can be used online and offline (premium) across all these devices
  • has a tagging system and unlimited (almost) tags can be created – notebooks/sections/groups do not provide the same thematic experience
  • tags can be grouped and structured as sub-tags
  • multiple tags can be added to multiple notes at once – themes, author, reference name

At the end of the day, if you find another system that works for you then go for it however I am yet to find an equivalently quick, easy and all pervasive digital platform.

  1. Actively consuming and reviewing the information

I will not harp on the importance of actively reading and engaging with the author as Farnham Street does an excellent job of this already. But what it boils down to is reading (or consuming) as if we are having a conversation with the author. That means thinking about what is being said, determining whether that fits in with our model of the world – are we in agreement, disagreement, deeply energised or astonished – and then, in the case of books, scribbling our thoughts down in the form of ‘marginalia’ when something strikes us. Very soon we have built a dialogue up with the author which we can visualise and relive again.

  1. Recording what is important to memory

The following system is a digitally adapted version of Robert Greene’s/Ryan Holiday’s note taking system. Standing on the shoulders of what these giants have already developed provides reassurance that the system works. However, much the same as Holiday’s disclosure, I will add my own: “to be clear, this is not “my” note taking system”.

“Now to be clear, this is not “my” notecard system. If anything, I use a perverted version of a system taught to me by the genius Robert Greene, when I was his research assistant.”

Ryan Holiday

The trouble with their hard-copy system was that I am often on the move, commuting and living in different locations so I could not have something which required me to lug around a massive case of index cards. Hence the move, towards a digital alternative. Whilst I agree with the idea that writing by hand is more valuable than electronically, it is not always practical.

‘Recording what is important to memory’ in this step refers to two distinct memory banks. We want the raw facts in a personalised digital repository (memory bank 1) but we also want to gain our own comprehension (memory bank 2). The latter is encouraged throughout all steps in this system. In part 1 we are creating an imprint in our memory and with each subsequent stage we are solidifying where that fits within our mental models of the world. This step though, is the real decisive factor in how deep the idea will rest within the web of our brain and as such is the real key to the entire system.

The practice of reviewing, writing out, making comment on and categorising (tagging) what we have marked as important to us is very active. This practice is what helps commit this information to our own memories. What’s more, it is always there for us to access. For example, finding the quote from Sir Isaac Newton about giants shoulders, when he wrote it, where he wrote it and how he was not actually the first person to coin the phrase:

So how do you use Evernote to make this personalised mini-library to help you remember all that you need to and is there to cover for you if you need? It is simple (it needs to be) but has some nuances in how its done. The general process is: creating a note, adding tags, closing the note and getting on with whatever is next!

a. creating a note

All my knowledge related notes are created in one big Knowledge notebook. This keeps all of them together so they are in one place, keeps the rest of my Evernote clutter-free for other note taking e.g. journaling, blog posts or ideas. The note content always includes:

  • a page reference – when grabbing notes from kindle, the kindle export includes these timestamps by default – very handy)
  • enough information for me to grasp the context or interpret it – many times I have been caught out by not knowing or seeing the importance of a quote or idea because I omitted the previous sentence/s
  • my comments or ‘take-on’ what has been said – I typically don’t include quote marks in notes except where I need to emphasise to my future self that this is in fact a quote! I will instead distinguish where I have made comment using ‘//’ to denote that this is not a quote.
  • Include other relevant information where needed such as diagrams, audio or video which helps tell the story

The Titles of notes are a one sentence summary of the note. They are important for you to gain comprehension of what is in the note – lazily copying and pasting a note or a title will not help memory banks 1 or 2, you are better off not creating the note at all. The other importance of the title is to attract your attention later when you have not context for what is included but you are looking for something relevant or thematic. The more specific you are here, the more you will thank yourself later.

b. adding tags

Including numerous tags furthers your comprehension of the note and increases familiarity with your own library. It is the same being able to walk into a library, straight to all the books on Australian animals and knowing which book types will explain both habitat and eating habits. Compare this to having to pace up and down all the aisles flicking through every book you find on Animals and seeing whether they cover your requirements. You become the librarian of your own mini-library – although sometimes asking or strolling (searching generally) is unavoidable.

c. getting on with whatever is next

When you are having a note input session, you are easily able to set up the desktop client to make note creation default with specific tags. See below example where creating a new note for creating my summaries on Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.

Alternatively, if you are in the go, and pass by a great quote by Lao Tzu (has happened) that you want to add, simply go into the app and create a note. As long as you have your default notebook set to your Knowledge notebook it will save there. Then either quickly add relevant tags or if you’re in a hurry don’t add any and do a batch update for all notes ‘without any tags’ when you have your next summary session.

    “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders” – Lao Tzu

  1. Categorising and filing the information

This is where the real leverage of Evernote comes in – the thematic and fully customisable nature of tags. Tags are what underpin the entire filing system in this process. You will have noticed from the images above that there are some specific conventions which I use. Either take mine or find something that works for you, there are endless possibilities. 

a. types of tags

Different types of tags are important to distinguish one context from another, handling duplicate names and for speed of note tagging. I have the following tag types:

  • general themes – these are the bulk of my tags, this is for any topic area or keyword that strikes you or that you believe is related to a note
  • specific themes – when you wish to deeply investigate a particular topic, very applicable for writing a book, in-depth blog post or interview. Creating a separate notebook for specific research topics means you will have to create duplicate notes – not fun then or later on.
  • author/creator name – who or what was the source of the information – who is it credited too.
  • source – where did the information come from
  • structure – used for structuring tags – merely a null placeholder to enable tag group names

b. naming conventions. 

These are important to distinguish the different types of tags. This prevents you from accidentally including incorrect or tags with the same name but different purpose for example, the book named Range and the general topic of range are differentiated by #Range and range respectively. 

I use the following naming conventions:

*specific theme tag e.g. a book on trees and a section on tree health ‘*Tree1-health’
@source – represents the author/creators name e.g. the person @EdCatmull
#author/creator – represents the title of the source e.g. the book ‘#CreativityInc’
used for structuring tags. This is to allow ‘part c tag structure’ to occur. 

Most importantly, for general themes, there are no prefix’s to the tag name. All these naming conventions seek to make the general themes (most used) distinguishable from the others. 

c. tag structure

Tags can be grouped into other parent tags (simple drag and drop on desktop). This makes a cleaner and more manageable layout for all your tags. This step is not necessary given the naming conventions and only gives extra grunt to the desktop experience. However, it will make browsing and cleansing your tags simpler. Cleansing tags is an important and occasional process of removing redundant and consolidating duplicate tags.

d. searching and locating

Locating your past notes is simple on desktop or mobile. Depending on what you are looking for a combination of tag filtering and search will get you to where you want to go

The ‘card view’ is an excellent way to get a more tactile experience of the information you have available within a particular search or topic. If I want to understand what resonates with me across all the books by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that I have read, then I filter for the relevant tags and switch to card view. This will lay everything out in front of me like I am scanning across some “note cards” on a desk.

When searching for a specific item or quote from somewhere but can’t remember much about it, take advantage of the search functionality as well:

This should be enough detail for you to duplicate what I do (I think you’ll love it) or forge your own digital note library.

I am not here to convince you that a digital solution is for everyone but for those that it works for, it is certainly possible and very practical. You can have it with you anywhere, has all the knowledge of interest to you contained and does not require you to carry anything around with you. It is continually evolving and improving as the database of knowledge becomes larger and you discover more about the world. It is like having your own mini-library with you at all times. 

As always, feel free to ask any questions about the post. Also let me know how you go about remembering information you consume.


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