Don’t Trust Your Memory

[This article is in the practical series Personal Productivity 101. “All hard work brings a profit.” Proverbs 14:23]

Some people pride themselves on the sharpness of their memories, others continually embarrass themselves by forgetting appointments, tasks, or people. Life in the modern world isn’t getting simpler. We like all the connections we can make with people, the options we have when we shop, the many ways we can now collaborate with people in our work no matter where they are in the world. But this means most people have far more things to remember.

If you’ve tried to sharpen your memory and it hasn’t worked, it may be time to stop trusting your memory. I look at it this way: I want to use my memory for things that matter, like God and people (“Remember the wonders [God] has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,” Psalm 105:5.) A healthy relationship with God requires that we have the mental flexibility and freedom to imagine, mediate, dream, and study. I’d rather manage the flood of tiny details of life and work without having to cram my memory with them.That means having a system of recording what you need to do, where you need to be, whom you need to know. Recording such things is not difficult; it just requires commitment. I made a decision many years ago that I was not going to trust my memory. I was going to say to my brain “I like what you can do. I want to fill you with great ideas and helpful information. But when it comes to remembering, I’m going to let you off the hook, brain. I’m going to write it down instead.”

You may be someone who hates making lists. I would rather not make lists. They can seem oppressive and sometimes confusing. But that happens when we’re not smart about how we make and manage lists. We put too many things in them. Or we are random about lists. Or we write them on the backs of envelopes or some other object on the fly, we lose them, or they get buried before acted on.

In a later article we’ll look at best ways to manage lists, but for now here are some commitments anyone can make that could make a huge difference:

1. New appointment? Put it on a calendar (physical or electronic).

2. New contact? A person or place you will want to access in the future? Record it in an address book or digital contacts list.

3. Critical task? Record it in a list of to-do’s (this is a system that requires some planning; more on this later)

4. Minor task? If you need to do it, write it down.

5. New username and/or password? Record it in a secure place. (How many passwords do you have to use for all the websites and vendors you use? Using the same password everywhere is a bad idea. Remembering many is impossible. One great solution is to use one of the secure solutions like SplashID. And did you know that the most common password people use on their computer is “password”? That is a very bad idea.)

The most important thing is: just do it. All the time. Right away. Without fail. You’ll need a system that works for you first, but when you get the discipline down, you’ll actually enjoy the discipline because you’ll have more confidence about getting things done. (If procrastination is your issue, that’s another matter for another time.)

One of the key benefits of not trusting your memory is that you free your mind from the burden and tension of trying to remember the flurry of things you need to deal with. This is huge. Many people don’t realize that they walk through their days with a degree of anxiety about remembering what needs to be done. Its always there in the background, and it is made worst when we do miss something and disappoint someone or waste time or money. So make a decision today–I will not trust my memory. Then you’ll be forced to set up a system for managing the many details of life, you’ll refine it over time, and you’ll be more productive.

What do you think?

16 thoughts on “Don’t Trust Your Memory”

  1. Shirley E. Johnson

    I think this is the best solution I’ve encountered and I am going to try it. I know just trying to use one little notebook instead of alot of note papers helps—–if you remember where you put the notebook. Thank you and I look forward to the next step. Shirley

  2. I use a calender on my laptop for birthdays, anniversaries, meetings and all the rest. If a project needs to be done by a certain day I can set an email reminder ahead of deadline to make sure I get things done. That way I know what to do and when.

  3. Thank you for the articles. Very interesting. I agree wholeheartedly.
    My late grandfather used to say that the shortest pencil is longer than the longest memory.
    My father (87yrs) had an exeptional memory but now says that his “forgettery” is now better than his memory.


  4. Regina Refosco from Brazil

    Eu estou plenamente de acordo com você Pr. Mel. Precisamos poupar nossas memórias para as coisas que serão determinantes não só para esta vida, mas para a eterna. Tenho várias listas e cada vez faço novas, e as uso muitíssimo.

  5. John F. Baumgartner

    …we agree…Pastor Mel….

    …when I was a newspaper carrier…starting at age (12)….on the East side of Milwaukee….with (2) routes…..actually…(3)…..routes…

    …one was a Milwaukee Sentinel…’morning’ route..early morning…before school…

    …and the other (2)…combined….were Milwaukee Journal routes….after school…

    …the Sentinel route was on a small street near Brady Street…and…

    …the (2) Journal routes…were on the far East side near Lake Drive and Belleview Place and Wahl Avenue…and Bradford Avenue….in MIlwaukee…

    …at Christmas…we even handed out “calenders” to our customers….who…in exchange…would give us an extra Holiday…”tip”….which when cashed…was about $200 extra dollars….


    …this experience taught me…early on….that “rich” people…did not seem to worry….too much…about money…or other things….

    ….”rich”…people…did not really…”Race”…around in their cars….”doing” things… many other people did……

    …and those same… “rich”… people whom I met…were really…truly…patient…and gracious people…..

    …this length of “route”…was my “occupation” every day…and every week-end……for years…..and years…

    …so after a while of this experience….with “rich” people…starting (50)+ years ago…

    …I decide to “make-believe”…I was …also…”rich”…and that I would and ‘could’… “do” life the same way as the “rich” people….in the same “easy-looking”…style….and relax…

    …it has not always been EZ to make-believe that I am rich…but….it is fun…to make believe…and to make that “style”…a goal to strive toward….

    …Peace be with you….and a gentle…southern breeze…

    …This is an Afternoon Prayer…Amen

  6. Well written, Mel. I love making a list… it truly helps me organize my day and manage my time better. It is very distressing when I know there is something I’m forgetting.

  7. Thanks for the re-enforcement. We cram too many un-important things into our brain. Google calendar is free. Will even send you an e-mail to remind you. I got tired of resetting passwords so now I write them down. Thanks. Focus on the important things.

  8. Another great place to keep a notepad or electronic device is by your bedside. I constantly go to bed and all the sudden two or three things pop into my head that I forgot to do that day. If you don’t have paper you don’t feel like getting back up so you lay there and stress about possibly forgetting it and in the end eventually end up getting up and writing it down. After I write it down I can relax and fall asleep right away or if you are going to pray it unclutters your mind so you can concentrate.

  9. This is so relevant in today’s fast-paced, technically driven world! I know that I can find myself obsessing and getting anxious over all the many commitments and “to-do” things in my life, to the point where I neglect taking time to simply reflect on the beauty all around me, and my God who provides all good things. I have also been growing to understand the importance of actually memorizing scripture – when I have experienced difficulties, it is those vereses I have memorized which give me the power to focus on the Lord, and know what HE wants for me, at that exact moment. So Mel, your suggestion to free up my mind for things worthy of remembering really hits home. Who knows, maybe I’ll actually find more brain power to memorize some more verses!

  10. The best one, Mel, is JUST DO IT. Often I think, I don’t have the time right now when a new task appears. The temptation is do it later when I’ll have more time. It is surprising how doing it now does result in not only getting the task done, but enough time to do so results. Then satisfaction and peace follows.

    Thanks for your suggestions. I’ve tried several, and they do work.

    We love your ministry, especially here in North Carolina.

  11. You are right, Bob. “Just do it” is the key. Glad to hear we’re being helpful in North Carolina. Stay well.

  12. Really appreciated John Baumgartner’s perspective, as well as your current vital theme (this could have nany subsequent blogs/postings). One impt. tip-off these days as a now 2+ year F/T pastor (after 3+ P/T while returning to seminary and 30+ in lay ministry) is when people say to me, “I didn’t want to bother you with ________ Rev. Cumby … you’re so busy all the time and have so much too do. If that is the impression I am conveying (while it may be true) I am not employing technology properly as you suggest, but I am allowing the “TO DO’s” to drive me, rather than being “present” with people in the moment and as needed!

    This is what John was getting at about certain of his customers who were well off .. it was NOT because they were RICH, but more likely, because they had a proper grasp of the relative impt. of things and “TO DO”‘s of their lives (Matt. 6:33), compared to the eternal value of love relationships with family, friends and acquaintances — and “BEING” what people need us to be!

    BTW, this fresh because my Thanksgiving message was titled “SIMPLY THANKFUL” focused on Christian discipline of Simplicity using Matt 6:25-34 as the central text!

    Pastor David
    Bridgetown Baptist Church

  13. Thank you for your suggestions on using our memory to the full potential. I personally do not use a electronic device to record appointments, rather I use a note pad from Office Max to write everything I need to do or remember down.

    I am 51 years old and without my note pad, I would be in bad shape. I think that stress has a lot to do with memory problems. Check out under managing stress or dealing with depression because those two things make memory even more of a challange. Mel, keep up the good work in the articles and books you write!

    Bill Greguska

  14. Mel, this is such good advice! I tell my kids that it’s not that my memory is poor, it’s just that there’s an increasng amount of memory to be dealt with as we get older! I’m a true list lover, and have found it so helpful to free that already crowded area of my head for other things. I also worry less, because I write down even little things like sending a thank you note, so I don’t commit social blunders. I like your comment on filling your head with things that matter, like God and people. I try to write a long letter at least once a week to someone I care about (it’s so rare to get these now and I love receiving them!). Maybe I should write one to God each week too, to thank him for the week and review it…..

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