Have you ever heard a quote or proverb that you seem to connect with immediately and deeply? Well, a few weeks ago I was interviewed on Jane Zhang’s podcast, Inside Out, and from her, I learned a Chinese proverb that I just can’t shake.

The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.

It feels so relevant to the work I do helping people to do more and stress less. In fact, the very first blog post I wrote was titled, “Remember is a 4 Letter Word.” That’s how strongly I feel about the power of not relying on memory.

Now, maybe this cuts deep because I have a terrible memory. But even people with great memories can be failed by them. There’s simply too much to keep in your head, or it comes back to you at the wrong time and now you’re scrambling. Even those of us with the strongest memories have had the experience of starting to cook dinner, only to realize we forgot to pick up a key ingredient at the grocery store.

One of the chief complaints of many of my clients is that they want the never-ending mental to-do list to go away, to stop tormenting them. They understand, at a core level, that when the nagging mental checklist is gone, and you stop relying on memory to keep track of everything you have to do, you are much better able to focus in the moment. You can be truly present.

How many times have you had a great thought in the shower, or while driving, and couldn’t remember it by the time you got out, or got to your destination? (Yet couldn’t focus on much else as you strain to keep your grip on the thought.)

Often, when I work with clients, getting into the habit of writing down tasks, details and notes feels hard at first. It’s daunting. You might feel like you are so busy that you don’t have time to write things down, to document.

But I’m going to argue that you don’t have time not to.

As humans, we fall prey to the phenomenon of “temporal discounting”, where we value something TODAY more than we value something in the future. It’s hard for us to delay gratification and to prioritize our future selves. But it’s important to remember that your future self is you.

So, let’s take a look at what we’re giving up when we choose not to write something down in the moment:

  • You could spend 5 minutes writing down your action items from the meeting you just got out of, or you could waste countless cycles in your brain where those tasks pop in at inopportune moments. And then one slips through the cracks anyway.
  • When your kid interrupts you in the middle writing that big report, you could spend 10 seconds jotting down where you are, or spend 10 minutes when you return to the project, trying to remember where you left off and likely getting sucked into email instead, since where you left off wasn’t clear.
  • You could spend 30 seconds documenting what you’ve just completed, who you’ve just left a message for or emailed, what your last move was, or spend 15 minutes next week searching through email to find the info when someone ask you for an update..

What feels hard in the short term becomes a virtuous cycle. You’ve written it down, you know where to look and now you’ve given your future self a gift of more time (and the surety that the data will be there). When you see how much time writing things down saves you, you start to get hooked.

You might be thinking, “Sure, I should write stuff down, but isn’t it a little rude to pause and make others wait while I write something down?”

Let me ask you this: When you’re at a restaurant, and the waiter doesn’t write down your order, what are you thinking? Are you 100% confident the’y’ll get your order right? Or are you slightly doubtful?

Now, when a waiter writes down your order, do you think them any less capable? No! I bet you appreciate that they are taking a moment to ensure that your order is correct. You’re not worried your plate will arrive 10 seconds later than if the order hadn’t been written; you’re happy that on the plate will be what you ordered.

So, if you’re feeling a little anxious about taking time in the moment to write things down, instead of relying on memory, I want you to remember 2 things:

  1. Taking the time now to write something down saves you time, in spades, in the future.
  2. No one will think less of you; in fact, they will appreciate your diligence.

Still feels hard? You can try experimenting with the phrases below:

  • At a meeting:
    • “Could we try spending the last 5 minutes of this meeting documenting our action items and notes? I bet we could all use that time since we’re in so many back to backs.”
  • During meetings/conversations:
    • “Would you mind holding on for just a moment, I want to make sure I get this down?” or,
    • “Hang on just a sec; I’m making a note.”
  • When interrupted:
    • “I’ll be with you in just a moment; I just need to take a note of what I was doing so I can come back to it easily.”
  • To yourself, when you have a thought:
    • “I can take 10 seconds to write this down now, lose the idea, or keep thinking about it on repeat. What is the best use of my time?”

And finally, it’s not enough just to write it down. That’s how we end up with multiple lists and post-its galore, which can be just as overwhelming as keeping it all in your head. Capturing is the first step to building a single trusted system.

(And if you want an easy way to capture, even for situations like showering or driving, consider using a task app. TickTick, and others, allow you to enable voice entry as well voice entry via integrations for Siri, Amazon Alexa of Google Home.)


  • Alexis Haselberger

    Time Management and Productivity Coach

    Alexis Haselberger Coaching and Consulting, Inc

    Alexis Haselberger is a time management and productivity coach who helps people do more and stress less through coaching, workshops and online courses.  Her pragmatic, irreverent, approach helps people easily integrate realistic strategies into their lives so that they can do more of what they want and less of what they don't.  Alexis has taught thousands of individuals to take control of their time and her clients include Google, Lyft, Workday, Capital One, Upwork and more.