Saturday, August 2, 2008

External Memory

Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber's The Art of Time (New York: Addison Wesley, 1991) is in my view one of the best books on so-called "time management." It is better than the run of the mill simply because it is more thoughtful than most. [1] One thing I like, for instance, is that it is not just about "productivity" or "management." Life should not be run like a business.

He relates on pp. 113f. that he has "inherited three things from [his] father: a pair of gold cuff links, a love of dogs, and a habit of writing on small memo pads. I know that these little rectangles of white paper are much more precious than banknotes and I owe a large part of my effectiveness to them." He makes
for each passing idea, a memo; for each thing to do, a memo. And only one item per memo, which is thrown away when the idea has served its purpose or the thing has been done. What makes this system terrific is that one can put a pad in every room of one's home (and in one's pocket) and one can easily project each memo into the future. So there is no excuse for not immediately writing down what crosses your mind and, even if it concerns something six weeks away, for not remembering it when the day comes.

He also tells us that he has "a standard-size folder with thirty-two compartments (one for every day, plus one for what goes beyond the month)." He calls this his "cardboard Memory."

Long before David Allen and GTD, he found that this cardboard memory relieved his own memory "of all these details and frees it up for what is important, creative, or fun."

His use of rectangular memo pages reminds me of the method Richard Rhodes describes in his How To Write (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.: 1995):
We keep jars of pencils and three-by-five index cards in card holders everywhere in our house. Ideas come to you day and night when you're writing: a convenient stash of cards and pencils ... makes it easy to write them down. The cards are small and sturdy enough to slip into a shirt pocket or to organize on a desktop without blowing away. I have ten years of notes on three-by-fives toward a work of fiction I've been planning. It's a diligent mole; it seems to tunnel along tirelessly below consciousness, popping up at odd hours with treasures in its claws. For the first few years I simply threw the cards into a file. Then I happened to pull them out and read them. Worried that fire ... might destroy them, I spent the next day typing them into a computer file. Now I add them to that file within a day or so of writing them but keep the originals as well in a separate place" (32).[2]
This is pretty much the method I follow. I keep mechanical pencils and 3X5 cards in strategic places in our house. I also always carry a short pencil and note-paper, and everything gets eventually transferred into the computer (if not every day, then at least once a week).[3]



1. Those who find this book interesting, might also like Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber, The Return of Courage. New York: Addison Wesley, 1987 and L. Rust Hills, How To Do Things Right. The Relations of a Fussy Man. Boston: David Godine Publishers, 1993.
2. This, in turn, sounds very similar to Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor, 1995): "I have index cards and pens all over the house - by the bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, by the phones, and I have them in the glove compartment of my car. I carry one with me in my back pocket when I take my dog for a walk. In fact, I carry it folded lengthwise, if you need to know, so that, God forbid, I won't look bulky. You may want to consider doing the same. I don't even know you, but I bet you have enough on your mind without having to worry about whether or not you look bulky. So whenever I am leaving the house without my purse - in which there are actual notepads, let along index cards - I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it. Sometimes, if I overhear or think of an exact line of dialogue or a transition, I write it down verbatim. I stick the card back in my pocket. I might be walking along the salt marsh, or out at Phoenix Lake, or in the express line at Safeway, and suddenly I hear something wonderful that makes me want to smile or snap my fingers--as if it has just come back to me--and I take out my index card and scribble it down."
3. I do prefer to take notes on my Alphasmart Neo or Dana, but this is not always convenient

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