short circuit

How Relying on Apps to Remember Things Is Making It Easier For Me to Forget Them

Outsourcing my hippocampus.

Rachel Pick

Rachel Pick

Image: Rita Hutcheson Cobbs/Flickr

As someone who works two jobs, keeping track of what's on my to-do list is crucial. And after months of looking, I've finally settled on the ideal app for organizing my life—but it may have altered my memory.

For years, I used to be the kind of person who could more or less rely on my own brain to remember things. Whether it was the result of being young or simply a personal quirk, I was able to keep to-do lists, appointment times, and deadlines in my head with surprising accuracy.

Then I quit my fulltime job and started freelancing, and keeping all those balls in the air became next to impossible. At some point in 2015, I was working three different regular gigs, volunteering at a nonprofit startup, and taking a class. Without writing things down, I risked missing due dates and forgetting to file invoices (which, as any freelancer knows, is how you get paid. You have to chase your own paychecks). Beyond that, improved time management also became a necessity.

I started out making written lists, buying myself a gorgeous desk planner as encouragement, but it just didn't cut it. I kept forgetting to take the planner with me, and when I remembered, it weighed me down. So I started looking at organizational apps.

I tried Asana first. Asana is designed more for corporate use than individuals, as it makes it easy to assign tasks to other members of your workplace team, and pass feedback back and forth. So it was a little over-complicated for my own personal use, and I moved on. Next was Any.do, which I liked well enough—it's simple and attractively designed, and syncs easily with your Google calendar. But I wasn't crazy about how all tasks had to be categorized, and it just didn't feel like I'd found The One.

The look of Asana and Any.do. Images: Rachel Pick

Then, someone's random endorsement of Google Keep on Twitter turned my head. Somehow, Keep had flown totally under my radar up to that point, which is a shame, because it was love at first sight.

I realize my opinion is subjective, and different people have different needs. But Keep is exactly the kind of personal assistant I'd been searching for—a combination notepad and vision board, capable of taking voice memos, pictures, and typed inputs and turning them into Post-It-style notes. You can view your notes bulletin-board style or as a list, and drag them up and down in order of priority. You can color-code them, as I do for my two jobs and personal tasks. You can create itemized checklists, set reminders that sync with your calendar, and send notes to Google Docs. You can add Keep to your MacBook's dashboard and it will sync with your phone (and vice versa). It does pretty much whatever I want it to do.

A portion of my Google Keep. No, "weed symposium" is not a euphemism. Image: Rachel Pick

The more I used Keep, the more it felt like a valuable extension of my brain. And the more I used Keep, the less I could rely on my brain alone.

I was headed out the door to the grocery store, with my painstakingly sorted checklist in my phone, groceries grouped by aisle. "Don't forget, we need paper towels," my boyfriend said. "Got it," I replied, making a mental note. I walked the block and a half to the store, stocked up on the forty different items I'd typed into Keep—and completely forgot the paper towels.

This was only one of a number of similar instances, where I forgot to do something basic and simple because I hadn't written it down. Paying my health insurance bill, giving the dog her medicine, returning an email to my grandmother: stuff I'd had no trouble remembering to do before. And because I felt I could trust my brain less, I used Keep with increasing frequency, which only perpetuated my dependence.

I called Michael Cole, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and teaches at Rutgers University, to ask him if there was a potential neurological basis for this shift in my capability. Cole was careful and measured in his responses, since he didn't think any studies had been conducted on precisely this connection. But he allowed that using external forms of organization could cause the brain to form new habits.

"Probably what's happening is you're basically changing your brain connectivity, such that when a new to-do item comes in, instead of firing off certain neurons and spreading the info in a way that it'll just be encoded by the hippocampus, instead you'd associate it with certain actions to write it down," Cole said. "And if you failed to do that then the info would just kind of...fade away."

"So I'm externalizing my hippocampus?" I asked. "Yeah. You have the to-do item, you store it outside in this list, and then you just need to remember to look at the list," Cole said. But the downside is that once the pattern for recall becomes "look at your list" versus "rack your brains," remembering things is more contingent on having them written down. And that's not the only drawback. "I'm speculating to some extent here, but I could imagine that having all of your to-do items dynamically available in your brain, you might be able to plan better," Cole said.

But despite the potential for error that external organization holds, the alternative is even less reliable—for me, anyway. Keep will continue to serve as my extra mental limb, even if I'm altering my normal patterns of memory. If you're looking to get more organized in the new year, it's not such a bad trade.