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

Store Reference Material Directly

Whenever you find information you want to store, cut and paste it, or type it into a note. If you use SimpleNote and want to turn a web page into markdown, you can use the amazing site Heck Yes, Markdown. You can quickly create a bookmark that, when you select it, turns whatever web page you're viewing into a Markdown equivalent. You can then cut and paste that markdown into a normal text note.

When creating a note, consider how you'll retrieve it.

Not only can you save web pages this way, but of course, you can save any notes. Like birthday gift lists for your favorite relatives and friends. When you're at the mall and little Blake goes wild over a chiffon tutu and a fire truck, you just pop those into your note titled "Birthday List Blake." When birthday time rolls around, a quick search for Birthday Blake brings the list right up, and pretty soon, Blake is pirouetting through the neighborhood dressed as a ballet-dancing fire-fighter. (Should this become a permanent career choice, however, I recommend taffeta in place of chiffon. It's much less flammable.)

Insert Keywords for Retrieval

When you create a note, give some thought as to all the ways you might retrieve it. You can create conventions where you use similar titles for similar notes. In my system, birthday list notes are always titled BIRTHDAY LIST and the person's name. Lists of keyboard shortcuts for my favorite software are called REFERENCE and then the name of the program. Game hints are called HINTS and the name of the game, and so on.

You can also include a list of keywords inside a note that name all the ways you might possibly want to retrieve a note. A note that contains instructions for sequencing your DNA to create a race of super beings might include a keywords list: dna, sequencing, genetics, super beings, eugenics, and master race. Then when it's time to begin your dastardly plans, a simple search for "super beings" will pull the note right up.

Store Citations by Reference

If you want to store long articles, research papers, or files that aren't text, don't store them directly. Instead, treat your notes like a library card catalog. When you read that wonderful article about dominance hierarchies in kangaroo culture and their expression through nose-rubbing, save the document in a file on your hard drive called "Reference Folder." Then create a note titled "Traditional greetings in kangaroo culture." In the body of the note, just type "See reference document" and give the name of the document. Remember to include a list of keywords like kangaroo, greetings, anthropology, culture, pouch, and nose rubbing, so the note will show up if you search for any of those terms. When you retrieve the note, you know right where to go on your hard drive to find the file.

Transcribe Book Notes into Your System

When you read a book and take extensive note on it as part of your learning process (you do take hand-written notes as you read, to increase retention, right?), transcribe your written notes into a text note titled BOOK NOTES and the name of the book, for future reference. Not only will this give you an extra chance to review the material, but you'll be able to find it quickly when you need it in the future.

Sometimes we just know we'll want to get back to information that comes into our lives. Type that information into notes in a tool that does a quick full-text search on all your notes. Include keywords based on how you think you'll retrieve the note. For documents that can't be pasted directly into a note, keep a special reference file on your hard drive and create a note that reminds you where in your reference folder to find the information.

I'm Stever Robbins. I run webinars and other programs to help people be Extraordinarily Productive, and build extraordinary careers. If you want announcement of upcoming webinars, visit SteverRobbins.com/subscribe

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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.