A Free Chapter from the First Time Remodeler's Handbook

I have recently published my first book which is available on Amazon here. Below is a snippet from my book:

Chapter 7: Offloading Your Memory


Many times throughout this book we have discussed note taking, research, and other forms of information that you will want to retain. An individual can only retain a certain amount of information before some is necessarily lost. Some people have an incredible ability to retain lots of information for a long time, but their is always a limit. This is compounded by the fact that this remodeling project is not your primary endeavor in life. Family, jobs and hobbies can all consume your mental capacity. Usually the things that your are most excited about and interested in will naturally take up most of your memory. Due to this we need to learn to catalog information in such a way as to make it accessible later, when we need it. An organized note taking system is a start, but it can be much more than that. In fact, the process one uses to record and organize information can, in a way, artificially expand their mental capacity. This will be key in learning everything that will be required to complete your project and not losing information as you go. We will start with abstract strategies and techniques, and then delve into the specific tools best suited for doing this.

First, you will need a hierarchy of information. Some things that you will learn will apply to the project as a whole, and this may be viewed as the top level of the hierarchy. Under this you will have broad categories that split up the project. Try to stay vague at this point. Below is an examples of how you could categorize the project:

1.  Contracting
2.  Tools
3.  Materials
4.  Enjoyment
5.  Plan

Anything and everything you write, learn, find or in any way may need later should be recorded into the most appropriate category. “Enjoyment” might sound like an odd category, but this is where the start of day and end of day journaling would be placed. The “Plan” category would contain the weekly work periods that you have setup to work on the project, and may contain subcategories for each task. The “Tools” category would be the source of truth for everything you know or have learned about the tools required. For example, what size and shapes are available for notched trowels? Which store has the cheapest price? You could also record links to YouTube videos explaining how to use the tool and write out your own description as to how they should be used. Similarly for materials you could record how much will be needed based on some unit of measure such as square footage. Often materials will have PDF’s distributed by the manufacturer that contain the specific information that you may need later. The most important information about that material should be organized in an easily accessible way, with longer documentation being available as well. If one sentence of a 30 page pdf is critical for your project, put that information in a separate document for ease of access.

The key in this process is to split up the categories into subcategories whenever possible, and to not duplicate any information. Don’t copy information about thinset into both the materials category and the plan category. Instead, refer to the material information from the specific task that uses that material. This way if any information about that material is updated, that same information doesn’t become outdated in other locations.

Each category should have sub categories that are relevant to it. The tools category could be split into the type of tools, the plan category could have sub categories for each task, and so forth. As you do your initial project planning, and then the task research for each task, record all the information you find in this hierarchical way. Don’t rely on your memory for anything, record everything. Any task specific blunders or mistakes that you run into, or anything learned from the “Planning your failures” section should also be recorded here so that you can avoid them next time without having to remember the mistake.

We will need some way to actually record all of this information. I highly recommend against manually writing these things down because of the benefits that software can provide. I recommend Google Drive for maintaining all of your project information. This is free and likely to be supported for a long time. It allows you to create folders for categorizing your research and information. Documents can be added to and moved between these folders as needed. You can copy over links to videos and websites that may go into further detail. PDFs, images and other file types can be uploaded as well. Your entire account can be searched if you have trouble remembering where you placed certain pieces of information. The other benefit is that Google Drive is cloud hosted and available as a website for mobile and desktop, and has native apps on both mobile and desktop for offline use. This allows you to access and record information wherever you are.

As you update information you may find that you took incorrect notes on how to do certain things, or the specifics of certain tools and materials. I recommend not deleting this information but rather striking it out with a comment explaining why it is wrong and how you mistakenly recorded the information. Easy access to seeing that history can quickly help your future self recall and understand the path that lead to your current understanding.

If you are constantly referring to certain information such as the steps for mixing thinset, for example, make sure to put that information at the top of your documents or have an extra document for the most often needed information, and copy into other documents information that should be kept but is not needed often. These other documents may be viewed as an archive of information, whereas the primary documents contain the information that you know you will need in order to complete the task.

Be careful as to how many categories (represented by the folders in Google Drive) you create at a single level. If you have ten top level categories, or subcategories for a specific category, consider trying to find some conceptual way to organize some of them. For example if under materials you have “tile”, “thinset”, “backerboard”, “drywall”, “spackling”. You could split the first three into their own “tiling materials” category and the last two into a “drywall materials” category. This will prevent a single category from growing so large that the information inside can’t be easily accessed, because there is simply too much to read through.

Take pictures and notes while at the store or in the middle of working on a particular task in the project and put this information at the top level in order to stay focused on what your doing. Then at a later time organize this information in the place best suited for it so that you can find it later. Keep in mind that having to remember to look for information, or having to remember where information was stored, can sometimes be just as error prone as trying to remember it yourself. Put a process in place so you always bump into the information that you need, as opposed to having to recall what is needed on the spot. An easy example of this is to have one task specific document that you review before starting work on any given task. This document should contain links to all the information necessary, but should not contain too much of that information itself. For example, this overview document could link to your notes on how to mix thinset because in the moment you know whether or not you will need to review those steps. On the other hand the overview document itself would have a quick note on the mistakes you made last time. In this latter case a simple link to a “mistakes” document is not good enough as you may not remember that you had made a mistake, and you may think that you don’t need to review that document. If however you put a note about that mistake in the overview document itself, and you always review that document before starting that task, then you will never forget to avoid that mistake. In fact you will never even be required to remember that mistake, because your process (reviewing the document each time before starting the task) and your information that you have kept (the document itself), do the remembering for you. My point here is key, both process and data are required to offload the need to remember everything yourself. It’s not enough to just record the information, you must set up a process so that your future self get’s the information he needs, when he needs it.

Part of the time you spend on you project should be “grooming” this hierarchy of information so that you grow your knowledge base and the important information is always quickly accessible. Recording information in such a way that you miss the important stuff and forget to look in the right place for that information is no better than attempting to remember it all yourself. The way this information is organized and maintained is critical.

My basic approach for documenting information is to combine spreadsheets with documents. In Google Drive these are called by those names, other names for similar things are “excel” and “word doc”. I’ll focus on the functionality provided by Google Drive but the principles remain the same.

In a given folder that I want to organize I will have a spreadsheet for each subfolder beneath it. The spreadsheet and the sub folder will each have the same name. The spreadsheet will contain a row for every document in the corresponding folder. In each row I will put “tabulated” data. Tabulated data is simply any information that requires less than a sentence to convey. For example numbers, costs, hours of operation, true and false values, phone numbers, names, and website URLs are all examples of tabulated data. In addition this information should be something that is relevant to each document in the corresponding subfolder. To be specific I will give a recent example of when I needed a plumber.

The first thing I did was I created a “plumbing” folder in Google Drive with a spreadsheet called “plumbers”. I then searched reviews online and found the four highest rated plumbers in my area and collected information into the spreadsheet with each row representing one of the plumbers. The columns contained the information for each plumber such as the name, phone number, hours of operation by day, address, and pricing. In addition I had columns for whether or not the plumbing service is insured, licensed and if it is franchised. In these columns I would put either “yes” or “no”. In this way I can gather a lot of information about these plumbers from a glance. I then created a document for each plumber in a folder called “plumbers” (this folder is inside of the “plumbing” folder). In each of these documents I provided a link back to the plumbers spreadsheet, and in each row of the spreadsheet I put in a link back to the document for that plumber. In this way important information is easily accessible, detailed history (in the document) is also available, and the two parts of information are linked.

In each document for the given plumber I contained a history of my interaction with them. If I called I would note down two or three sentences about the interaction, positive or negative. I would take down more detailed notes about pricing if it had more complexities. If I scheduled an appointment I would note down when and what the appointment was for. Finally, if I chose them to do the plumbing work I would write down a paragraph or two about how pleased (or not) I was with their services.

I went one step further with this and did the same spreadsheet + folder with documents combination for the plumbing services that I have had done. Recording information like the date, the problem that needed fixed, and what contractor performed the fix. In this way I can look at a history of the plumbing that has been done and get to any information that I need. Finally, if I myself do any plumbing related work I take notes in a separate folder where each document represents a topic, and the content in the document is anything I learned on that topic. For example, the reasons not to use flexible piping beneath a sink, the steps involved in replacing a drain, the sizing differences between kitchen piping and bathroom piping. Any information I gather from speaking with contractors I also record.

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