How a Short-Term Memory Folder Can Help Your Workflow

Don't clutter your inbox just to jog your memory. Follow Get-It-Done Guy's system to keep track of your to-do list, without overloading your life.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #346

Listener Daniel Hannum has a complicated life. He writes:

"I want to scan my inbox, make to-do's, and then delete or archive my email. But there is follow up needed. If I add the to-do to investigate a zombie issue [always a good idea, Daniel], when I'm done, I need to remember to send my findings to the Oreo Ice Cream Cake procurement department. I leave the original email in my inbox to reply to later. I'm afraid if I just have the to-do, I'll do it, and then lose the thread of who I'm supposed to follow up with."

Daniel, you've come to the right place. Some people live a "one to-do life." Each of their to-do's has no further implications.

"Buy snacks." Once that's off the task list, there's no follow-up, no engagement, no life. Those poor souls are powerless; their relevance is low, and their Cheetos consumption is very high indeed.

You, I, and the Get-It-Done Guy listeners aren't like that. We live sophisticated, multi-step lives. We require follow-up. We have tasks like "Create freeze ray." Once that's done, we must use our freeze ray to impress our love interest, reshape the world political order into anarchy (that we run), and defeat Captain Hammer. And as rich as our lives are, keeping track of those complicated workflows is a job unto itself.;

In an ideal world, we would have minions (not be minions). Our minions would take care of our follow-up actions. We check off a to-do item and they remind us of what's next. Sadly, most of us can't afford minions. So we have to make do for ourselves.

Organize Information for Easy Retrieval

Where to send your findings is just one kind of information you need to attach to your task. You might also want to attach relevant documents to a task.

In the episode on labeling file folders (episode 3, only 343 episodes ago), we filed things according to retrieval.

If you're creating a freeze ray out of Wonderflonium, you want all relevant information available at your fingertips whenever you're dealing with the issue: next steps, notes about Wonderflonium acquisition, and CIA documents that you "liberated" while doing research. You might even want that original email, if it has important Wonderflonium purity requirements, or PDF freeze ray blueprints you'll need during procurement.

Use Notes Fields

When all you have is an email you want to attach, cut and paste the email into the notes field of the task or calendar appointment. Then when you check off a task or attend a meeting, the notes field will have the reference information you need. The original email can go into your archive or trash.

This takes care of simple text, but not attachments. Many calendar programs allow attachments for calendar items, but task lists often don't. If you have an iDevice, you're in luck. The iPhone/iPad app Everythink lets you connect all these items together so you have everything when and where you need it. But if you need to connect everything on your desktop computer, you need another way.

Create a "Now" File

Your brain has short-term memory for dealing with information about what you're currently working on. Create a computer short-term memory system, as well.

Create a folder called "Now." When an email kicks off an issue that needs follow-up information or reference material, create a subfolder with today's date, a description of the issue, and a brief tag. For example, "2015-01-25 Freeze Ray Construction FR1." Toss everything about the issue into that folder: documents, shortcuts to web sites, and so on. You can drop documents right into that folder, or create shortcuts to the documents if the originals live elsewhere and shouldn't be moved.

For related hardcopy documents, create a paper file also named "Now — 2015-01-25 Freeze Ray Construction FR1" as described in my episode on synchronizing your online and offline files. Also create an identically named folder in your email filing system and move the related emails there.

Cross-Reference Everything

When scheduling a related calendar item or to-do item, put the related tag in the notes field. Write "see file FR1" or "see file 2015-01-25 Freeze Ray." You know the folders will always be somewhere in your Now folder.

Use your folder tag to add cross-references everywhere you refer to this initiative. I'll even be sneaky and when emailing, I'll add the tag below my signature as a reminder of where the relevant files are. That way, no matter where the conversation goes, it's super-easy to find the related documents.

When it's time to check off your to-do item, just follow the tag to your Now folder, where you can see where you need to forward the results of your work.

Prune Your "Now" Folder

Since your Now folder names start with the date, you can sort them to see oldest first or newest first. I talk about this in my episode on file naming conventions. Every so often, browse through your Now folder and find subfolders that are no longer relevant. Move the contents to relevant archive locations, and then toss the subfolder. Voila, you had everything needed, when you needed it, without it cluttering your inbox.

Modern computers just aren't there, yet. Even though we can store everything, our ability to get back the information we need, when we need it isn't so great. By creating a centralized Now location for everything relevant to a given email, or a given issue that you're currently dealing with, you can create a short-term memory system.

Using well-named folders with a unique tag, you can file your incoming emails and just add the tag to related calendar and to-do items. When it's time for a meeting, or when you check off a to-do item, the tag sends you right to your short-term memory files to find what you need to nail the next steps. 

I'm Stever Robbins. I help high achievers accelerate or change careers. If you want to know more, visit SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.