Stephen Covey would be proud

When my job took on an incredibly fast pace a few years back, requiring me to multi-task and maintain expertise in several different fields at once, I discovered that my brain had limits as to what it could keep in its short-term and long-term memory.  Unfortunately it always happened in one particular area of my job, which I then referred to as “the black hole.”  I was very upfront about this occurring and told people to remind me often if I forget to do something for them or make a mistake on a schedule, for instance.  As it is also part of my job to educate people about how to multitask, manage time, not procrastinate, and generally be organized personally, I found this to be a huge failure on my part and used every bit of advice I had to combat it.

I tried everything from electronic sticky notes, to white boards, to actual sticky notes, most to no avail.  There just wasn’t enough space for everything I wanted to do or think of.  Eventually I came up with a tactic that I call “Notes to a Future Self,” wherein I create documents and folders before I actually need them and leave my thoughts in them, for my future self to find once they are needed.

This technique is probably not very new or even original.  But usually I don’t remember ever having done them in the first place; it’s like having a fairy godmother make your work magically appear for you – and make your life that much easier – except the fairy godmother is you.

There is no time like the present that has made the Notes to Future Self philosophy more invaluable than now.  Apparently women today are afflicted with “pregnancy brain,” wherein your cognitive function declines for reasons still unknown.  Some studies have said that the pregnant woman’s brain actually shrinks right before birth, presumably because that little parasite fetus has been sucking the nutrition from your body for months.  I thought I might be immune except for the day I left for work and about 5 miles away realized I hadn’t grabbed my lunchbox (all important snacks for the hungry mom-to-be), turned around, raced all the way back to my house, only to get in the kitchen to find an empty fridge.  I had already put the lunch in my car.  Duh!  That day I resolved to buy a little notebook suitable for purse-carrying and have become ever more obnoxious about writing details and to-do lists down.  (Each page is its own category, of course).

The “notes to future self” development was kind of an anticipation of this event.  I would often get struck with, “Hey wouldn’t it be great if we did this instead of this next time?” but the timing would be off, and if I didn’t do anything about it I’d forget I even had that great idea.  So now, when it comes time to do a project – the same kind I do every year – I open up the folder that I created long ago that says “Sept 2012” and whamo!  My genius ideas are already listed there.  Oh and look, I already started the schedule!  So much less work that I have to do!  Thanks, Past Self!

You don’t need to be pregnant to appreciate the Notes to Future Self method.  You just need to be committed to being conscientious about organization and to writing things down.  This has taken me years of practice, and every year it gets a little better – even if I forget just how good I’ve made it for myself.  J

Here are my tips for getting starting with the Notes to Future Self system:

  • Create consistent, clear, and reliable filing systems.  Whether that means organizing information by year, by month, by project, by room in the house – whatever makes sense to you to find information quickly.  This can work with electronic documents or with paper documents, whichever you work with.  For my job, I have electronic folders for each major responsibility, including separate folders for my department general information (like meetings), budgets, timesheets, even committees.  Within each I have folders by year as well as other folders that belong to the category.
  • As soon as you think of an idea, write it down and immediately file it where your future self will find it – even if that means creating folders that you don’t need right now.
  • Allow yourself to be amazed every time you discover your notes from a past self.  Thank your past self and celebrate your new-found treasure!
  • Pay it forward and pass it along to someone else who may be lost in the black hole.