My Handy-Dandy Notebook

I grew up being reminded of the importance of keeping and taking notes. I still remember fifth grade where our teacher reminded us daily of the importance of taking notes. Her curriculum was built around reading the book and taking notes from the lectures. At the time, it was an alien concept to me. I had a good memory (or so I thought) and it didn’t make sense to take what someone said and to write it down. And so I half heartedly did so, It really wasn’t until college (!) that I really learned the value of taking notes. It was macro-economics, and our professor was a Keynesian so there were lots of charts and graphs. I dutifully copied those charts and graphs and took notes. Since I wasn’t a Keynesian it took me a while to pass that class (2.5 tries), but when I did I received a B+ (I’m still a bit irritated I didn’t get an “A”, but as I said, I’m not a Keynesian).

What happened to you yesterday? As you read this, recall the work you did, and recall what happened. If you encountered a bug, what were the particulars of that bug? What behaviors did you see? What systems did it affect? How did it affect them? Did you solve it? What was the resolution? What was the error message you got?

If you’ve got a really good memory, you probably remember all those little details. If you’re like me, you probably don’t. Most of the details, sure, but there’s an essence that’s missing. You can’t really put your finger on it except to say there’s a piece you’re missing and you don’t know what it is.

That’s normal.

Now think back to two weeks ago, or a month ago. What happened with a bug you were working on then? How about a team meeting? How about a 1:1 you had with your manager? What was discussed? What did you agree to?

That’s probably a bit fuzzier.

We live in a world where we are bombarded with information every minute. We filter it out mentally, and remember clearest the bits that have a strong emotion tied to them. And that’s normal. Without that we would be cursed with remembering everything, and our minds know that’s probably overkill.

But, there are important pieces of information hidden in the parts we’ve forgotten. Bugs especially have a nasty habit of being very particular about how they occur and under what conditions and how they get resolved, and you never really know if you’re going to see the same bug again. They are, by definition, unpredictable.

For me, I handle this through an admittedly old-school method. I carry around a composition book — just like the ones we had in gradeschool. I use it to take notes on everything that transpires in my day: bugs I’ve found and how I fixed them, processes, designs for new features, writing ideas, turns of phrases people use repeatedly — anything that gets said where it sounds like the sender feels the information is important. I keep them, and I fill them up chronologically. So that 6 months from now I know what I did today; and I know how it went. It’s not as cool as the video logs from Star Trek, but it gets the job done. I’m able to know with confidence that I’ll be able to find something important 6 months down the road, no matter where I’m at or whether I have my laptop with me. Unlike laptops in meetings, taking notes has a certain social cachet, and no one ever implores people to take less notes.

Give it a try. Buy a composition book (it holds together well, and the pieces don’t tear out), and take notes on your day. If you’re a programmer, record the items you work on, and what you did with them that day. Record bugs you encounter and their behaviors and resolutions. Record the steps you took that didn’t work. Use it to doodle designs for things you’re working on, and use it as a record of your professional day — for tech and non-tech issues alike. After you’ve been doing it for 30 days, look back on day 1.

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