Forgetting Solutions and Needing to Endlessly Rediscover Them
June 7, 2019 9:47 AM   Subscribe

You hit some snag. You ask around, surf around, fool around, eventually figuring out the solution. Then a few months later you have the same problem, but can't remember the solution, and need to repeat the process. It's the bane of my existence. So: what are some strategies for commenting-out solutions for my future self without going full Rain Man?

If you're someone who "lives in" Evernote or some other notebooking/journaling system, it's an easy answer: add this on to your pre-existing regimen. Done!

I'd prefer to hear from people who don't otherwise journal/ they needed to develop specific procedures for this specific need.

I'm not opposed to using any certain software. I'd just like to hear from people who aren't previously set up this way.
posted by Quisp Lover to Grab Bag (33 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'll offer the first solution (it's only partial, which is why I still need help):

Bookmark (I love Pinboard) any helpful web pages and give them tags/notes you might search for in future.

Alas, I'm bad at anticipating my future searching inclinations....and the answer isn't always on a web page....and some web pages are quite long and the answer is only a tiny little nugget therein (which I can try to point to in my bookmark note, but at this point it starts to feel Rain Man....especially given that the odds are pretty low that any one snag will repeat with solution forgotten).
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:50 AM on June 7

Email it to myself with lots of relevant words so the search function will work next time. Archive the email right away.
posted by soelo at 9:59 AM on June 7 [1 favorite]

If you're someone who "lives in" Evernote or some other notebooking/journaling system, it's an easy answer: add this on to your pre-existing regimen.

I have a terribly disorganized Evernote and nothing even approaching a 'regimen,' but what I can occasionally do is open up the app, write down a few notes with a title describing whatever thing I was doing at the time, and then close the app and let my completely unfilled, untagged, unorganized notes disappear into the electronically searchable memory hole. At this point in my life, I've accepted that I'm never going to be A Highly Organized Notetaker With A System, but that I'm pretty okay at formulating search queries, so if I just dump everything into some program that I can search later, I'm generally better off than with some complex system that I don't have the focus to implement.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:02 AM on June 7 [6 favorites]

I keep a general text file where I note problems and solutions, and some separate text files for specific applications/activities where problems seem to come up a lot. Then when I have an issue to solve I do a quick search in the relevant file first to see if I've solved it already before.

I don't always remember to do it, but I've kept these files going for years and they've been pretty helpful.
posted by trig at 10:04 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I also use Gmail to do something similar to soelo. One tweak I've implemented lately is to use a reply email to add some better query terms to emails that I receive but know I probably won't be able to find later. (I have several colleagues that tend to send me very useful emails that consist of only an attachment and text like "that thing I was talking about.") I write out a one sentence reply that describes what that thing they sent me is and how it's relevant to what I'm trying to do, and then I just save the draft or send it back to only myself.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:07 AM on June 7 [5 favorites]

For physical things I summarize my current best known practice on painters' tape in permanent marker and stick it to the object somewhere.
posted by clew at 10:13 AM on June 7 [7 favorites]

trig (and others) - how do you determine the not-too-much/not-too-little (i.e. "Goldilocks") point re: choosing which solutions to document, and deciding how thoroughly to document them?

Email's no good for me. I get a lot of email, so this would be like storing individual sesame seeds in a sandbox.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:14 AM on June 7

A co-worker of mine is religious about printing out solutions and putting them in a filing folder with a written label. I think the physical act of filing it helps him remember that it's a solved problem, plus when someone comes to him with the same problem he can hand them a piece of paper and help them do it themselves.

At my last job I just kept a folder on my otherwise-clean desktop that was called "solutions" or "tips" or something.

My rule was if I had the same problem twice or if two people had the same problem, time to document.

In a document controlled environment eventually these could be written up as work instructions.
posted by muddgirl at 10:16 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]

I both email myself and add some wordy mess to OneNote in the hopes that at least one of their search systems will tweak my brain next time. However I am slowly using OneNote more and more often because when I email I email links, and those rot. With OneNote however, it will take the screen cap and index the content of that. I have almost zero organization in my OneNote - my "uncategorized" section is embarrassingly long. But the search is pretty good.
posted by cgg at 10:17 AM on June 7

Google Drive notes full of keywords. At old jobs, Word documents. It's great to share a whole folder of solutions broken into categories with coworkers.

I err on the side of over-documenting because I can never remember anything, writing it down helps me not forget it, and it might save time for others.

The major advantages over plain text are formatting links, block-quotes, and headings, which I feel like make large documents way more skimmable and readable. Also, after about twenty pages, documents can get unwieldy, so that's where I usually split the notes into sub-categories.

For physical item locations, I use solid washi tape, as it's way easier to read black or dark marker on pastel backgrounds than on blue painter's tape.
posted by bagel at 10:24 AM on June 7

You can get white painters' tape! Might not be cheaper than washi tape now, though.
posted by clew at 10:25 AM on June 7

We can report back in a decade about how well each of them stuck when wanted or came off when they weren't.
posted by clew at 10:26 AM on June 7

Funny that you say that about email; I'd just tag all the emails with "Rainman" and a topic keyword(s) in the subject line and it should be pretty easy to find again, if you're sending yourself of order one per week. More than that (after initial setup phase) indicates you're probably over-documenting.
posted by aimedwander at 10:33 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]

Might not be cheaper than washi tape now, though

Is there something happening right now with washi tape? Why was I not told?
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:35 AM on June 7

how do you determine the not-too-much/not-too-little (i.e. "Goldilocks") point re: choosing which solutions to document, and deciding how thoroughly to document them?

I don't usually worry about writing too much, since usually I'm just searching through the file for keywords rather than reading from beginning to end so it doesn't really matter how long the file is. But often I find I write in list or outline form so it comes out fairly terse. I try to get down the information that seems most relevant to future me - it might be the things that surprised me, or something that didn't work because X and therefore future me should do Y, or where to find the relevant documentation. Sometimes it's just a line or two, sometimes I'll give more detail. Sometimes I'll copy/paste from someone else's useful instructions or documentation and to hell with the 10 paragraphs that adds.

Occasionally it'll happen that I'll look for a solution and find it's missing some important information (or things have changed and the old solution doesn't work), which sucks but (a) it's better than nothing, and (b) I just add the missing information for next time. So if there's an issue I keep running into that I didn't document, that's a problem that solves itself.
posted by trig at 10:52 AM on June 7

I like Bear- I could never get into more complicated note-taking programs. I have a note about work things that I have to remember that I think is similar to what you're talking about. It's just a simple text file, but it works perfectly.
posted by pinochiette at 10:52 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]

(By the way, if for portability reasons you do want to do this using email then one way is to keep a titled unsent draft that you add things to over time. That way you don't have emails piling up and, assuming your email service/apps sync drafts, you should have access to it anywhere.)
posted by trig at 11:03 AM on June 7

If it takes me more than a couple of minutes / attempts to find a solution, or if I find myself needing it juuust frequently enough that I remember some of the solution, or of the process to find the solution, I write down just enough on a Post-It note (with the date) to remind me. I tack each of the Post-Its up on my cubicle wall.

Every month, I look at all my Post-It notes and sort them into three categories:
  1. "I'll never need this again." I put them in a drawer. If I ever do need it again, it goes back in the pile with a note to move it to Category 2 the next time I sort them. Every year or so, I go through the drawer and throw out anything that's more than a year old.
  2. "I might need this again." I write it down (or tape the Post-It) in my Lessons Learned notebook. Every time I need to look at it again, I add a tick mark. After four tick marks -- that is, five total times that I've needed that process but haven't yet learned it, because I keep looking it up -- I move it to Category 3.
  3. "I have looked at this Post-It multiple times." I take the time to learn that thing, and I probably should add it to my Bookmarks.

posted by Etrigan at 11:10 AM on June 7 [8 favorites]

Writing things on paper seems to help aid memory. Keep a folder or notebook, label it User's Manual for Work, another one can be User's Manual for Life, etc. each solution gets written up on a sheet of paper and filed. Use a good title. I did this for a while, then realized many of the solutions were not that great and searching worked just fine for newer, better solutions. And I bookmark tons of stuff and back up my bookmarks.
posted by theora55 at 11:21 AM on June 7

Seconding Pinboard for keeping track of things found online - I also use its "Note" feature for things that I need to remember that are related to the tags I'm using for sites in there.

I also routinely use Google Calendar's alerts to send messages to myself in the future, some quite detailed (e.g. related to gardening - "don't plant X here or at this time", for example).

Heavy consumer of Post-Its as a substitute for short term memory.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:26 AM on June 7 [1 favorite]

I use my documents folder on my computer. In this, I keep pdfs of manuals I've had to find online. I also keep text files with basic info that future me will find helpful. I keep a timeline.doc where I make basic notes about my life so I can remember what year I planted my apple tree or when my mom last came to visit from across the country.

If I spent more than 10 minutes figuring something out, it's worth taking a few minutes to document what I learned. These could all be in one file, or each in its own file - do what works for you.
posted by hydra77 at 11:30 AM on June 7

This is what SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) are for. I have Word documents where I write out, step by step, processes I do infrequently enough to remember every time without refreshing my memory. I also use previous solutions/email responses to see how I dealt with the problem before.
posted by elsmith at 11:49 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]

Is there something happening right now with washi tape? Why was I not told?

I bet there are people decorating amazing homegrown manuals for whom washi tape is vital to usability. But all I meant was that washi is far more available than when I heard of it, while white painters' tape is more expensive than blue or beige.
posted by clew at 12:47 PM on June 7

I use Google Keep like... a lot. I typically document the exact steps I needed to fix the thing, and then include either a link to the post that helped me or the actual text that helped me. I have come back to notes and said "These steps make no sense!" and then done them anyway and had them work. So that's something.

I also have a thumb drive on my keyring. Every time I solve something for the first time I save the install / patch / registry edit / script I used into a folder named after the issue. Between my keyring full of random patches, and my keep full of helpful notes, I can usually put the pieces together and solve problems.

The third part is just /remembering to look/. I cannot tell you how many times I have solved a problem, and then when I go to put the thing I downloaded on my thumb drive... there's already a folder with that file in it there. This tends to be an issue for smallish issues, things that take less than an hour to understand and resolve, but it still happens more than I want it to.
posted by Zudz at 1:26 PM on June 7

Answers above look great, I'll just very briefly describe my approach:
  • Pinboard for obscure answers I may need again
  • Pocket for big ideas I may need again (vacation, car buying advice, etc.)
  • Google doc for notes I took like "Windows 10 Annoyances", "Assorted Linux Knowledge" (as others have said, in small font I put keywords to insure each answer will be easily found)
  • Photos of packaging from (e.g.) household repair products, saved into a Google drive folder called Product_Info_Notes

posted by forthright at 5:40 PM on June 7

forthright, I'm less interested in software specifically and more workflow generally. If you have time/interest, I'd like to hear more detail.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:12 PM on June 7

TBH, I just (re)google it. I used to try documenting, but (at least for me) I wasn’t doing anything unique enough that others hadn’t already done and I didn't seem to gain much by searching my loosely organized notes vs the internet.
posted by forforf at 4:43 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]

I do most things in a terminal on UNIX-ish computers. When I finally get the massive command right and it does the thing I want... I just append it to a file called '0liners' usually preceded by a '# comment' line. I have dozens of these files scattered around and every once in a while I gather them up and edit/sort them.

For bigger projects when I've been banging around for a while until it works I dump my shell history into a 'notes' file and edit it to remove all the wrong things (and sometimes turn it into a full blown script).

If there are any relevant browser tabs I add the URL and cut/paste the relevant sections as well.

Most of the cool bits of 0liners and notes get migrated into files under ~/Notes where I use 'ack' (or any recursive text search tool) to just guess and find things.

In the long run, if I think I remember doing something that took some effort, it's likely somewhere in ~Notes.

I think I picked this up from old-school 80x24 text terminal pre-web type computer folk. You kept a 'Crap & Crud' notebook of important things in a 3-ring binder for when things went all sideways. Otherwise you toss them into text files in a directory and use a 'grep' to find them. You can do 'ls *something*' to see if there's an obvious filename that has what you want, or just grep to find files containing that command or phrase.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:00 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]

> Email's no good for me. I get a lot of email, so this would be like storing individual sesame seeds in a sandbox.



gmail is searchable

My experience has been like some others above - mostly I just re- search. It’s faster. Also the internet is almost always more useful in the future than it is now, and I’ve cursed myself for forgetting this when I discover something useful that could have saved me grief if I hadn’t thought “I looked that up x years ago and got nuthin, so...”.

Also I end up re-searching anyway because in order to look somewhere for prior documentation, I need to remember that I have priorly documented it, which I don’t until I clean out a drawer or organise my computer files or leave my job, etc.

For stuff I need to noodle through or absolutely must retain, everything now goes in gmail - either in drafts or (when I want to be able to have hard date stamps or the reply function or access attachments without fuss because sometimes attachments and drafts don’t play well together for me) actually sent to myself.

I’m also heavily dependent on screenshotting and photographing things (so much faster than text documentation in many cases), and that just stays filed by date in whatever photos app it got dumped into. I’m a stratigraphic filer so this works for me, and it’s fairly easy to pick out what I’m looking for when scrolling through quickly. Plus I can tag it if I need to. I can also attach anything super crucial to an email with a keyword in the body if required. As a bonus, I’m reminded of the existence of such photos as I scroll through looking for other stuff from time to time.

Occasionally I’ll document stuff on paper. I have a composition notebook/planner for work and one for home, and that’s by date (other than some dedicated front and back pages for specific stuff), so that’s another easily searchable thing.
posted by you must supply a verb at 7:37 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]

For larger, generalizable problems, you can write your solution up for a bulletin board/newsletter/wiki/stackoverflow, forget doing so, and find your own writeup when googling the next time.

It's more fun than finding your own never-answered question about a never-fixed problem.
posted by clew at 9:30 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]

you can write your solution up for a bulletin board/newsletter/wiki/stackoverflow, forget doing so, and find your own writeup when googling the next time.

LOL. More than once!
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:42 PM on June 8

For non-professional stuff, I have a family wiki. It's just the free wiki github provides for each repo.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 10:46 PM on June 8

I have a single google document called "Notes from things I hesitated throwing away" and basically just make short notes to myself in it, kind of grouped by topic, so I can just throw away that paper or delete that email or whatnot.
posted by urbanlenny at 2:02 PM on June 10

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