Updated on 10.12.09

The Forgetful Mind

Trent Hamm

I’ve written many, many times about how relevatory keeping a “thought notebook” in my pocket has been for me. Whenever I have a stray thought that might be useful at all to remember later, I jot it down in the notebook and then review it later, usually a couple of reviews a day.

Figuring this out has truly been world-changing to me. It’s helped me to retain good ideas, remember to do certain things, and record data that I’ll need later on (like addresses and phone numbers and such).

One of the big reasons this has been such a step forward for me is that, by default, I have a forgetful mind in terms of short-term things that I need to do. I’m great at remembering long-term things, like the date in 1989 when I had my appendix removed, but short-term things slip my mind all the time if I’m not careful.

Most of the time, such slippage is no big deal, but when it comes to things like remembering to, say, pay the electric bill, it can be a big deal. I have been late on bills before simply because I forgot to pay them – not because I didn’t want to pay them or couldn’t afford to pay them. The same phenomenon holds true for other personal finance tasks, like remembering to rebalance an account or to check on my children’s 529.

Luckily, such incidences are becoming much less frequent as I figure out more and more techniques to keep me from forgetting such things.

Automatic transfers and bill payments have perhaps been the most useful tool for me in this regard. Every payment I have that has a static payment amount – meaning it’s the same every single month – is automated. I also have a number of automatic transfers into multiple savings accounts that are geared for specific goals.

An “inbox” is always in place on my desk. Whenever a new bill or other item to deal with comes in, I put it in that inbox and it stays there until it’s dealt with. I just go through the items in it two or three times a week and deal with what I find there.

A daily “to-do” list posted in several places reminds me of the things I need to do every day – in other words, defining my normal daily routine. I even include such mundane things as my hygiene routine on this list, but it also includes things like daily work tasks. I also have an instance of “check your idea notebook” and other such things on it.

Google Calendar helps me keep my schedule straight. I have monthly reminders of several different bills and other personal finance tasks on there. These calendar entries automatically send me reminder emails as the day gets closer. Beyond that, I also have every birthday and other event that I can possibly need to remember on it – and these also send reminders to me.

A strong mail-handling routine also helps things from falling through the cracks. All mail is collected in a central place in our home (the entryway table) and is processed in a batch once or twice a week, with all junk mail getting tossed and all bills going in my personal inbox. Doing a batch processing of the mail and having a prescribed way to handle all of the pieces keeps individual pieces from falling through the cracks.

The end result of all of this is that I rarely forget important little things. I don’t rely on my brain to keep all of this stuff straight – instead, there’s a “net” of safeguards and systems that help me to not lose anything through the cracks.

Isn’t it all kind of redundant? Yes, in several places in the system, I’ll see multiple reminders of the same thing. It can be kind of annoying to see mentions of my parents’ anniversary in three different areas.

However, such redundancy pretty much ensures that something important won’t slip by unhandled. I’d rather have three notices of my parents’ anniversary and remember it than just one notice and forget it.

If you have as strong a tendency towards short-term forgetfulness as I can have at times, it’s really useful to get a system in place that’s redundant and really easy to maintain. This system works well for me.

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  1. KC says:

    I don’t forget things (course I’m probably jinxing myself right now). But I don’t. For one thing my life is pretty organized and I don’t have kids. But routine is what I use in order to not forget things. I get on a routine whether its balancing my checkbook, paying bills, shopping, whatever. But if routine is something hard for you to get into carrying a notebook is a fantastic idea. It may not only help you remember things, but you can jot down ideas and other things that might lead your life in a new direction. You may have just convinced me that I should carry a notebook, too.

  2. K says:

    I have found that my memory has gotten significantly worse in direct proportion to the number of children I have (3). My phone has become a lifesaver device for me in terms of organizing all those random thoughts that flit through my mind, mostly because it is always there – in my pocket, on my desk. If I’m driving and something occurs to me, I can leave myself a voice memo about it and transcribe it when I get home. Evernote has been extremely helpful in that regard.

    There are two things that I haven’t got a routine for handling yet, and I appreciate this post for making me think about “what I forget”. The first is some sort of tracking system for which of my children have been sick, when. This may sound silly to those of you without kids, but when you have a cold/ear infection/strep throat go through your family repeatedly over a winter, and all of the pharmacy trips and antibiotics start to blur together, it becomes increasingly important to know who had it, who didn’t, and whether there’s some sort of pattern emerging.

    The second is seasonal house maintenance. I’m also of the “happy kids, dirty house” mindset, but there are some tasks that always seem to be getting done a month later than they ought, to our detriment (she says, knowing that later this week she’s going to be pulling the raft out of very cold MN lake water). I need to get ticklers about this kind of thing into my planner on an annual basis.

    Thanks again!

  3. Kris says:

    I also am pretty good at having a ‘system’. I’m lucky that it’s been innate for me, part of my personality. My husband, on the other hand, tries to implement other people’s systems and has not been too successful. I guess we’re lucky we compliment each other that way.
    I used to carry a notebook, but got out of the routine. I think you’ve convinced me that I should get back in the habit.

  4. Amy says:

    That word ‘incidences’ riles me. I think you mean ‘incidents,’ or perhaps even ‘instances.’ :)

    I have a great memory, but I do keep to do lists of general stuff that should be done in the next couple of months. That helps me batch errands instead of wasting gas and time as soon as I think of something that needs to be done somewhere in town. Reducing the noise in the system is probably most important for me, though; I get off all junk mail lists and then I don’t even have to sort through it, which is a win for my time and the environment.

  5. I need to set up a more formal to keep my stuff under control. It’ll help cut the tendency to cover every flat surface within arm’s length of my desk with my to-do items.

    I get distracted easily. If I go to do something, and someone talks to me, I forget what I’m headed to do completely sometimes. I use a Daily ToDo List on a Dry Erase board (paper gets lost too easy), I also have a Control Journal based on the FlyLady system ( http://flylady.net/pages/cjmain.asp ) which I write down my daily routines so I can mark them off as I do them.

    If I get lost I just go back and check my lists so I can go do the next thing. It saves a lot of time that I used to spend thinking “What was I supposed to be doing?”.

    I agree that having something written in 2, 3, or sometimes 4, places can be annoying at times, but if we don’t forget the important things it’s worth it!

  6. Kate says:

    I never (EVER) thought I would say this, but having a Blackberry has made a huge difference to my quality of life in this regard. Best money I think I have ever spent (and no, I am certainly not being paid by Blackberry).

    Everything goes into it. It has a calendar function, a reminder function, a “password box”, access to my email, etc. I tried the inbox on my desk idea that Trent mentions, but too often found that the piece of paper wasn’t where I needed it to be- at the office when I’m at home and vice versa. This way, it’s whereever my cell phone is.

    It’s also taken a huge load of worry off of me when I travel. I don’t need to remember passwords, online check-in codes, phone numbers, etc. because they can be easily accessed in my phone. I can concentrate on the really big stuff like getting out the door in time!

  7. Bavaria says:

    The large calendar on my desk keeps the whole family organized. Everyone writes down events, due dates on school papers, etc…all in one place. Check it in the morning of each day and know exactly what’s happening. It’s a load off my mind to know the info is all there-I don’t have to use brain power to keep something from being forgotten. I also keep a tiny notebook for jotting down things when I am out of the house. When I get home it is transferred to the calendar or if it’s an idea, into one of several files for the various topics.

  8. Marianne says:

    Bill payment automation also works great for bills that *aren’t* the same every month. I have all of my bills automated (except property tax and my income tax payment, if I owe) and my credit card payments automated to pay the balance each month, so the whole system functions perfectly even if I’m out of town for a few weeks. I get notifications ahead of time on all the amounts so I’m never surprised by the amount of a bill.

  9. kristine says:

    Do privacy issues concern you with google calendar? I worry about having birth dates, personal events and vacation dates online anywhere.

    The book is a great idea.

  10. leslie says:

    I no longer do automatic-payments because I didn’t like not know exactly how much I’m sending where. Maybe that is my own disorganization coming through. But I feel that I can stay better on top of my finances if I manually pay everything!

    I swear by Remember The Milk (rememberthemilk.com) as my reminder system. I just entered new tasks like “Pay Car Loan – $220 on the 12th of every month”. Then I have RTM integrated into gmail so I can conveniently see what bills I have to pay in the coming week. This works flawlessly for me.

    For ideas and such, I either take a picture on my iphone or use the Notes feature. Or if I am at work, I will send myself an email.

  11. Jim says:

    Google Sync will match your Google Calendar and Windows Mobile smartphone. It has saved my hide on numerous occasions. I used to have the two calendars, but there would be a wide disconnect between them and I never remembered where I recorded events. Now, I can enter them on either my phone or through the website and they sync quite quickly. I’m at my computer at work, but my phone is with my all night. It has been a huge relief.

  12. Have you read “Getting things done” by David Allen? He has an interesting approach to keeping track of tasks and organizing how to do them. One of the more intriguing ideas he has is *not* to use a daily to-do list, arguing that it is perhaps a bit too constricting. Instead, he advocates that one just keep track of *all* of the projects that one would like to do along with the next physical action that it requires. Then one can just read though the list and complete these actions in the order that seems most important.

    I realize this is not quite what you are talking about, but it seemed close and I know you like to read…

  13. Ivan says:

    I too am pretty good about remembering things…no kids yet makes it easier for sure….but for ALL bills my system is simple. I always have a surplus in the checking account (if it gets too big I transfer to ING or our Roth IRA)I get emailed notification for EVERY bill and when I see a notification I pay it immediately…that very second…no waiting. Now, one must just be able to keep a “small” surplus always in the account. Also, I don’t like the auto draft..or bill pay for anything.My situation may not work for everyone I realize.

  14. Andy says:

    Trent, did you mean “revelatory” at the beginning of this post? Or maybe you meant something different than I think you did. Love the site, btw.

  15. I’ve automated all recurring bills, and pay the rest immediately as they come in. I pay everything online, so it only takes me about 30 seconds to take care of a bill.

    My method of remembering other tasks is very low-tech: little yellow sticky notes. They’re a good incentive to get things done, since I hate seeing them build up on my desk!

  16. Alan says:

    Great post. Nowadays, we seem to have so many important things in mind that we tend to forget those little things/apps that are free on the net and available for us to use.

  17. Bart says:

    +1 for Getting Things Done! No secular book has had a bigger impact on my life, or even come close.

  18. Trent, a handy notebook is a lifesaver!

    And yes, redundancy is the insurance policy against overlooking something important.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  19. Rachel says:

    I am forgetting more and more lately, even though I have less I have to do. I guess I just have more on my mind. twice lately I have forgotten to dry my son’s karate uniform and he was late for class. Not a big thing I know, but relevant to my life. I jot notes everywhere, but I do try to keep it confined to a 5 subject notebook. Section one is for grocery store sales, refunds, etc.. Section 2 is my prayer and Bible study section. Section 3 lists the refunds i have sent for. Section 4 is anything I find on-line that I want to remember, recipes, money saving tips. Section 5 is for the titles of books I want to read. If my library doesn’t have them, I do an inter-library loan, and the find it for me. Obviously, some sections are more full than others. but this works for me. Maybe it runs in the genes, my 24 yr old daughter keeps a notebook too.

  20. GLB says:

    I want to thank you for suggesting Google calendars, it has been one of our first steps to getting a handle on our money.

  21. Brian says:

    Google Calendar now has a To Do List feature. This is a nice place to have my to do list because I can access it from any computer with Internet access.

    More here: http://googlesystem.blogspot.com/2007/04/todo-list-for-google-calendar.html

  22. Elijah says:

    I tried keeping an idea notebook recently and found I had so many thoughts to write down and was so scared of forgetting one that it actually made me more anxious to use the idea notebook to record my thoughts, plus then I dreaded the process of reviewing my notes.

    Was that the case for you when you first started using the notebook?

  23. Ann says:

    I’d be interested in hearing more about your mail handling routine. Ours is a disaster, meaning it doesn’t exist. :-)

  24. Daniel says:

    A thought notebook pretty much changed my life too. It gave me a way to capture thoughts buzzing around my head, and it pretty quickly contained hundreds of writing ideas–for blog posts for my frugal food blog, for my writing blog, and for zillions of other creative projects I’m considering.

    Now, whenever I sit down to write, I always have a lot of possible ideas to choose from.

    Casual Kitchen

  25. sewingirl says:

    I read somewhere that the average person can only remember 9 important things at any one time. So, when I forget something, I always say that must have been number 10, you got bumped! I am however a serious, big time list maker. I don’t remember anything without my lists. I did have a list of my lists at one time, sort of an index. I was working 4 jobs, and my brain was fried from lack of sleep, if it didn’t get written down, it didn’t happen.

  26. Allison says:

    The Google calendar has been on my radar for a while, but I too am concerned about all those birthdays and vacation times up online. How private is private? Trent, have you been concerned about this? Someone else asked, and I’m asking too, although as soon as I submit this comment I’ll go search your archives for Google calendar…

    Thanks for a GREAT site. My husband and I will be celebrating heartily on Oct 23rd. Making the final payment on 18 credit cards and $22K worth of bad decisions. Thanks for all your ideas that made that happen for us. Woo hoo!

  27. Pam says:

    I have been a Thought and To Do notebook writing fan for many years now. With a stressful job which includes a multitude of diverse responsibilities (this means a lot of very unrelated thoughts pass through my mind in a given day), I have found that writing everything down is the only way to go. I do the same for home, although that generally looks more like a Master To Do list than a Thought list. Yes, I keep To Do lists for work also. I’ve tried combining them, but found that it is less efficient and way too lengthy (overwhelming). I combine items from both lists onto a Daily To Do List, but not the Master ones. I loved David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach, but Mark Foster’s Do It Tomorrow is my all-time favorite, so far. Thanks so much to Trent for bringing that book to my attention. I had to wait 6 months for my library to get it after your book review, but it was worth the wait.

  28. Kyrsten says:

    I think the key is to always have a place to write down your thoughts when and where they most often occur — whether in the car, in the shower (this one could be tricky) or in bed. For me, I usually think of things I need to do while in bed — either after I just laid down or if I wake up in the middle of the night. So I finally invented a product to help me remember those thoughts…at least at night. And it really works for me because I always have everything I need to write down a note while in bed — a light, a notepad and a pen. Of course, keeping these items on your bed stand also works. The trick is to never miss an opportunity to remember something simply because you forgot to keep a notepad and pen close by.

    Kyrsten Braun

  29. beth says:

    I have always had an awful time remembering the little things, even back to childhood. (I still remember a particular chastising I got in 4th grade after forgetting lunch money for a field trip, again.) As a result, I have become forcibly organized as an adult, and I swear by my Outlook calendar and cell phone (it was a stand-alone PDA for a while). I have to have all of my, the husband’s, and the kids’ personal appointments and relevant due dates plugged in or I’ll never remember them. I just transitioned to an iPhone and, while it’s snazzy, I’m still getting my bearings on my calendars and reminders. But ultimately, what I’ve learned is that I can’t keep myself sufficiently organized, but I can configure the tools to yell at me to stay that way.

    And, oh yeah, I need to pay the water and gas bills tonight before I forget again… *sigh*

  30. Georgia says:

    I organize by paying all bills automatically online except for my cc bills. I do not automate any bills with a balance I do not know each month. Last year I went on the level pay for my utilities & it has worked out great.

    On my cc’s, I just wait until the account’s statement is ready, balance it, and then set up the automatic payment for 3-4 days from the due date. It has worked well to date.

    I will have to try the notebook deal, if I can find a way to keep it on me at all times. I try, whenever possible, to not carry my purse unless absolutely necessary. I bought one of those seen on TV metal clips. It holds my cash, one cc, and my driver’s license. It’s small & narrown & takes up almost no space. Goes in my pocket. That way I can go and do without carrying a heavy purse. Maybe I can start carrying a small sheet of paper in the clip and transcribe it when I get home. Oops – might not work. You would also need a pen to write. Wow – decisions, decisions, decisions. I thought retirement was supposed to be carefree.

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