The little black book

I long ago came to the conclusion that my mind should never be trusted to hold on to anything important. You can choose whichever metaphor you like best: my mind is a sieve, a vortex, a black hole, the place where things that ought to be remembered go to die.

I don’t know when it was that I lost my short-term memory, but it was probably sometime in college. I know that was when I began writing absolutely everything down—in my calendar, in my phone, on to-do lists, on a whiteboard in my room. I fell in love with Post-It notes and no doubt contributed to the death of several substantial forests in the process.

And then, when all of this was still not enough, I got the little black book.

I really thought it would solve all of my problems, and the key was that I would always have it with me and within reach. Even when I couldn’t always access my phone, even when my computer was back at home, I could grab the little black book and jot down (or look up) whatever I needed to remember and know. It was going to be the panacea for my daily mental lapses—the pan below the sieve.

It all went well for a while. For several weeks, I was very conscientious about writing down every little thing that I thought I might need to remember; an actual sample entry from one day a few years ago goes like this:

CS audition 6:10 on Thurs. • Korean appt. • Call Boston Phoenix • Look into visa stipulations • Executive committee agenda • Site coordinator e-mail follow-ups to list • Mailbox • Rutter Requiem—listen to tenor line? • Shaving cream • Research aide position • Mac adapter • Read Todorov?

The funny thing is that, looking back now, I can actually recall what a number of these things meant at the time. When I wrote them down, though, I was pretty sure that this was the only way I could possibly hope to remember them. Looking over this series as a whole just goes to show what a scattered and multispherical life I had (and still have)… which may be the reason I have such trouble remembering things in the first place!

In any case, the little black book only worked for a short time before a serious problem developed: after I wrote something down inside, I would forget to look at it.

You can imagine how this might turn out to be somewhat counterproductive: as soon as I wrote something down in the book, I felt that I no longer had any need to remember it, so I promptly allowed myself to forget it. I felt that it was safe to dismiss because it was written down so carefully in the book I always carried with me.

But then, I would fail to check the book to see if there was anything I needed to remember. In fact, I would do the complete opposite of the process that was supposed to be helpful for me. I would ask myself whether it felt like there was anything I needed to remember, and when the answer was no (because I had effectively erased my memory by writing everything down), I wouldn’t feel the need to check in the book.

Writing this out, it sounds crazy, but I’m hoping it makes sense. For me, the crucial component was not the actual information I needed to remember, but the niggling feeling that I was forgetting something. When I didn’t write things down, I risked forgetting them, but if I wrote them down, I found that I couldn’t even remember that I needed to remember. It was a vicious cycle, and I soon saw that my new technique wasn’t making me any better off.

And so, for the most part, I gave up on the little black book.

Oh, I still pull it out from time to time when I wish to jot down something I’d like to revisit later (perhaps a thought I’ve had, or a musing for my writing). But in terms of relying upon it for memory, I decided to trust my mind after all. It may not work perfectly, but at least I’m allowing it the chance to work.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had an experience like this, in which a path taken to solve some problem only ended up complicating the problem, or in which a particular strategy intended to achieve some desired result actually ended up accomplishing the exact opposite. In my own case, what I learned from the experience is that it’s almost always alright to admit that something didn’t work—to go back to the drawing board, to try something new. I’m the first to recognize the fact that there might be more pride in stubbornly clinging to something we’ve decided is right for us, even when all indications are to the contrary.

But there can be an incredible amount of freedom in letting go.


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