Outboard brains, or how to form habits without forming habits

May 4, 2017

One of the most useful bits of advice anyone has ever given me in my so-called-career so far was “write shit down”. What seems like obvious knowledge at the time has a nasty habit of disappearing from my brain over time, leaving me looking at something months down the line and wondering “what the hell was that all about?”

That has even more of an impact when it’s information or data that you’re going to need to pull back at some point in the future - writing performance reviews is a good example where losing bits of day-to-day knowledge makes the process more painful. Keeping an ongoing journal helps, but getting into the habit of doing that is hard.

I’ve hacked that. My process uses a daily reminder email - just a single subject line, saying “What did you do today?” I reply to this, again with an email, and it gets filed away in a folder until I need it again.

The emails are sent from Zapier - they have a really easy workflow setup which lets you set up an outbound email template with a subject and content. It also allows you to set the reply-to address - I’ve set this to my secondary personal email. The reply automatically gets sent back to myself, but instead of reappearing in my inbox, there’s a server side rule that files anything with the “what did you do today” subject into a separate folder. I’m using Fastmail, but it’s just as easy with Gmail or any other half-decent mail provider.

The arrival of the email at 6pm every weekday is enough of a reminder to prompt me to bang out a quick reply, so I don’t have the cognitive overhead of trying to remember to do it. Habit-forming, without the bother of forming a habit, you could say. And then over the course of time, the archive of what I’ve done builds up, ready for when I need that information again. It’s suprising how quickly you forget what’s happened just a few weeks past, so the reminders are useful. And a useful morale boost for those occasions when progress on something - or anything - seems hard to make.