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Thomas De Moor for X-Team

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The Importance of Memory

I am a child of the GTD movement. The methodology David Allen laid out in his book Getting Things Done is the foundation of how I stay productive. The moment a task pops into my head, I offload it from my memory into my GTD-inspired system built with Todoist and Roam Research.

Over time, I started doing the same with knowledge as I do with tasks. I would capture information I found interesting, process it, and store it in such a way I could easily find it again. I still do this today, because I believe it's much better than reading or watching something without taking notes.

The Importance of Memory
Taking notes on a 2003 interview with David Foster Wallace

But there's a big problem with doing things this way. It further undervalues memory. We already live in a world where it feels ridiculous to memorize something when you can search for it on the Internet and have the answer within seconds.

  • Why remember the capital of a country?
  • Why remember someone's birthday?
  • Why remember a poem?

To a degree, this makes sense. Knowing the capitals of all countries isn't particularly useful information unless you're an avid quizzer (and even then). But it's not because some information isn't worth remembering that nothing is. A productivity framework like the one I set up makes it incredibly easy to get by quite well without ever remembering anything. But is getting by really what we're striving for here?

We cannot underestimate the benefits of memory. For one, mastery requires memory. We understand this intuitively. Imagine you had to look up every HTML tag and CSS selector when building a website. It would take forever. When you memorize the tags and selectors, you not only build your websites faster, but you can build more complex websites too.

In addition, how do you know something exists when you cannot remember it? You can visualize large numbers in JavaScript with an underscore (e.g. const n1 = 1_000_000), but would you ever search for a more visually appealing way to display numbers in JavaScript? Probably not. If you don't memorize it, you'll never use it.

We live in a world where memory is undervalued because of how readily accessible information seems. But if you want to be a true master at what you do, you need to memorize things. Read and take notes. Then review those notes. Then use the knowledge from those notes. Only then are you on the path to mastery.

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