How to Create a Personal Reference System

We have access to more information than ever before. But if you store it using the right tools, you'll find you can recall important information on demand.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #381

It's the information age! That means we have more information than ever before, plus we have terabyte disk drives, which means we can keep more information than ever before. But keeping it isn't enough. We have to get it back when we need it.

Listener Debra writes in:

How do I archive information so I can remember it even exists? I often save data files that might be helpful, articles that are examples of a specific concept, or email that I archive to use later. But then, it's out of my mind when I actually need it. I don't want to troll those folder files or tags in the hope that there 'might' be something helpful. Help! What do I do?

Debra, the short answer is that you move to the Australian Outback, and spend the rest of your life living blissfully with nature, after being adopted by a mob of kangaroos and raised as one of their own. Voila! No longer will you need to worry about files, terabyte disk drives, or retrieving information. Your only problem—solved easily with a quick field trip back to civilization—will be the occasional case of the fleas.

File by Retrieval

By its very nature, random information is hard to remember. If it were neatly ordered, we wouldn't call it "random." Where else do we have a large collection of random information, with no real order to it? That would be the Internet! And fortunately, we can use the same solution the Internet uses to find stuff: search.

Use a Freeform Text Search Tool

Start by putting all your reference data into a freeform text tool that lets you search all your notes quickly for any text. If you have a smartphone or iPad, choose a tool that makes it easy to access your notes on all your devices. If you use a Mac, as of the latest OS X update, Apple Notes fits the bill quite nicely. It also lets you create notes with pictures and formatted text.

If you use both Mac and Windows, check out SimpleNote. SimpleNote provides a web interface, a great desktop app, and apps for various smartphones. It's text-only, though it does keep historical version of your notes if you edit them, and it provides support for markdown formatting.

I tend to avoid tools that are overly complicated like Evernote. You might want to keep the kind of reference material you're talking about for years or decades. The simpler your tool, the more likely it will stay usable over the years.


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.