Saving cognitive load: Notes

In my line of work (mostly programming) it can be incredibly difficult to keep all of the details of what is going on in my brain. In fact, it is impossible.

To save cognitive load I employ a rigorous note taking strategy that frees up my working memory and allows me to focus on singular tasks. And, it also allows me to sleep. By writing down as many details as possible at key moments, where normally one may try to keep details in their brain, I can allow my brain to "forget" certain details and rely on my note taking strategy.

Longtime readers of my blog recognize this topic. I’ve written about it several times. I’ve written things like "writing is how I think" and that at the end of each day it is good to jot down what were you working on so that you can pick up where you left off in the morning a little easier.

Recently, though, after discussing my workflow with a few people I’ve realized it might be worth doing a short series of posts on my techniques for this. This post is about note taking. The next will be about where I put tasks. So, how do I do this?

My workflow is far from perfect. In fact, I tweak it constantly. And as I change, or my work changes, or as circumstances change, my workflow does as well. As do the tools. But here is how I’m handling this currently.

I use Simplenote to capture as much information at any given moment as I think I need. I use the apps on all platforms. I create templates in Simplenote for things like client phone calls, stand-up meetings, scratch notes for jotting down random "junk", and notes for keeping collections that I’d like to refer to over time (some of which are ephemeral, some of which are not).


Here is a short list of some of the notes I keep in Simplenote, "pinned" to the top, in perpetuity.

  • Scratch Pad: What I saw this week – This note is used to keep links and bits that I will use in my series of blog posts at the end of each week. Each time I publish a new post I clear this file out and begin anew.
  • Scratch Pad: Work – Random bits of information that have no category and could be deleted as quickly as they were created. Think: passwords a co-worker gives you by yelling it out, a random code snippet you’ll want to use tomorrow, a short note to remind yourself what line of code you were on when you left your desk for lunch. Junk. But junk you don’t have to remember.
  • Scratch Pad: General – Did your friend recommend a book in random conversation over coffee? Jot it down. When is Werner Herzog’s volcano documentary going to be released on Netflix? Jot it here.

These three working notes save me a truckload of working memory. Trying to remember when The Jungle Book will be on Netflix (November 30th 2016, by the way) is a ridiculous thing to leave to your jelly-like mass in your skull. Write it down.

Some of the templates I’ve created over time, which are copy/pasted into brand-new notes each time I need one, are useful to be certain I capture the right information at the right time. Here are a few of those that I have.

  • Template: Client Call – Hopping onto a call with a client? Paste this template into a new note. It ensures you capture who is on the call, what you discussed, and which tasks are assigned to which people afterwards. It is sort of like a "meeting minutes" note.
  • Template: Training Session – Do you find yourself needing to train people on something over and over? (In my world, we train our clients on how to use WordPress a lot). Why try to remember what you’re supposed to teach them? Make a template. Paste it into a new note for each client, and trim or add as necessary for that client. Probably saves me 30 minutes of thinking each time.
  • Template: Prospective hire – If you are in charge of recruiting new individuals onto your team, you will end up "interviewing" a lot of people. Even when you’re not really interviewing (like over a drink or at a conference). After your conversation, quickly jot some notes down about the person and keep it for later when you’re looking to expand your team. You can jot down things like skill set, attitude, aspirations.

My list goes on and on. But yours will be different than mine.

You simply cannot make too many notes. You can always delete them later. So jot down as much as you want. Searching allows you to find things later with ease. So don’t worry too much about classification. As I look through my list of thousands of notes I have things in there that may only prove useful once a year. But they are incredibly useful and I do not need to think about them.

You may wonder if I use a flat text file to keep my tasks straight. I do not. I use other tools for tasks and even other tools for events. We’ll get into those in the next two posts in this series.

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