While I mostly take work-related notes by hand on paper these days1, I still have a workflow for entering notes via either my phone or my laptop. I still use this workflow from semi-regularly—I save stuff on the go when I don’t have my notebook handy and I keep a running weekly work journal to collect job-related thoughts during the day.
As a result, I have a somewhat extensive collection of text-file notes going back quite a few years. I spent some time this past week going through The Archive on my laptop and deleting a bunch of these old notes.
Nearly everything I deleted were entries from a previous job. I haven’t been there since mid-2020 and not only are none of those notes relevant anymore, it is hard to imagine how I would ever need to go back to reference any of them. So why keep them?
Beyond that, I found that I actively did not want to have those notes anymore. The job itself was good; all the people I worked with were nice and it was generally a good environment. The company was fairly small—about 120 people at its largest—and its business was offering study-abroad programs and other “intentional travel” sort of stuff. So that was all fine, but whenever I was looking back through my notes and got to the meeting notes and weekly work journal entries from those days, the first thing I ran across were notes from a long-running series of increasingly terrible meetings about a death-march Salesforce implementation2.
And if being brought back to that scene had not been enough to get me down, the next thing I saw were all the meetings from late February of 2020, marathon sessions in which we were trying to figure out how to get hundreds of students home from the north of Italy as COVID was starting to break out there. At the time, few people here in the States was really taking any of it seriously (except maybe in Seattle). It was a surreal and jarring experience going in to work every day and dealing with this rapidly escalating and potentially existential crisis. “This might be a big deal,” I kept telling people outside of work, and got mostly blank stares in response.
A few weeks later, everything here was shutting down. Three months later, the company was down to just fifteen of us. A month or two after that, they went into life-support mode and let everyone but the owners and a few others go, and I found myself in the market for a new job.
So, revisiting those notes… not great. It felt pretty good to just delete all of it.
This process has gotten me to thinking about whether it really makes sense to build these journaling and note-taking practices that hinge on keeping everything. I’ve never been a burn-the-old-journals sort and I don’t intend to become one. Still, I’m glad to have those notes gone and I think there might be some merit to a regular, deliberate, and thoughtful purge of old notes.
For a few weeks following the first anniversary of the start of the pandemic, I went back each day and read that day’s entry from the previous year. While I found the experience to be rather harrowing, it was also a good way of reminding myself just how crazy and unnerving those first few weeks were. I do not want to read any of those journal entries again anytime soon, but I can imagine going back to them some years from now and finding value in those pages. The big difference (for me, anyway), is that those journals are all handwritten. They are sitting on a shelf in my closet; they are there if I want to go back and read any of the entries, but it takes a deliberate effort on my part to do so. None of it is ever going to randomly pop up while I am searching for the name of the that neighbor who used to live down the street or that recipe I used for pie crusts three Thanksgivings ago.
My digital notes, on the other hand, feel like a bit of a minefield. I don’t do any personal note-taking or journaling in a digital format (unless you count this sort of stuff for my various blogs), so at least nothing particularly emotionally charged is sitting there waiting to blow up on me when I’m just trying to remember who said they would schedule the next meeting about PIPL compliance or whatever.
Still, old work stuff is almost never a topic I want or need to revisit, so why do I want to keep those notes around?
I find that I remember stuff better this way. On the rare occasions I have to look something up, it’s easy enough to just go back and flip through pages. ↩︎
I don’t wish that on anyone, and I have a lot of thoughts regarding Salesforce. Don’t go down that road if you can avoid it. ↩︎