Why you should re-read old notes – or how to take advice from yourself

Published 2015-11-27, updated 2023-03-21

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Summary - Last week, I wrote about the challenges and pitfalls of looking for advice. This week I want to expand on that idea by exploring how you can use yourself as a source of advice. I’ve discovered that by reading over my own old notes, emails, letters and reports, I can gain valuable insight into what’s important – and what’s not.

The other day, I stumbled across some notes I’d made about a year ago. In those notes I itemized a number of issues I expected to face in 2015, and laid out what I thought would be focal points during the year.

I was surprised at how prescient those notes were: Most of what I thought was going to be significant this year really was.

This got me thinking about the value of old ideas, thoughts and brainwaves.

Last week, I wrote about advice, and how it was important to consider a number of factors before deciding to accept or reject advice.

The old ideas I came across in my notes really are, when you think of it, advice I was giving myself.

Here are three reasons those old ideas and thoughts are useful:

1. They validate (or not) your ability to see what’s ahead

By re-reading my old notes – or emails, or letters or whatever – I am actually able to evaluate my own ability to see issues and understand them. In other words, I can gauge the value of my own advice.

And that awareness, I think, is a valuable bit of insight.

(It helps, by the way, if I write my ideas in a notebook; it makes them that much easier to find and date.)

2. They help you understand what’s important

There are different ideas about planning, and how to prepare for the future.

One of the most unique approaches is put forward by a software firm that used to be called 37Signals and that is now known as Basecamp, after their most successful product.

They believe that having formal meetings and making plans to get things done is passé. The company argues that planning should be informal and organic: What’s important will bubble to the top, and what’s not important will simply fall off the radar.

Although I might not be quite as lax as that, there is something natural about this approach: Important things do tend to come back.

So when I look at old notes, if I see the same issue arising month after month, I come to understand that it’s important and has to be dealt with.

Similarly, if something that seems important one day just disappears from your mind and your notes, then it probably was not important in the first place.

3. Ideas ripen over time

There is value in being able to circle back to old ideas to see whether they still are of value.

You get a flash of insight about a problem, or an idea for a new product or service. You write it down, but quickly discount it – perhaps because something more important came up, or because you decide the time is just not right, or more likely because the idea itself is half-baked.

If you rediscover that idea months later, the context may have changed. You may have more time to take it on, or a technological breakthrough may have made it suddenly practical, or you may suddenly have a brainwave that completes the idea and takes it from half-baked to exciting.

You’ve let it percolate in the recesses of your brain – and the old note brings it back with a bang.

So save your old ideas and look over them from time to time.

They are a good source of advice and inspiration.

They tell you how well you have identified issues and trends.

They remind you of things that need your attention.

And they revive a fleeting moment of pure genius that may have, over time, matured into something useful.

Allan Wille is a Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Klipfolio. He’s also a designer, a cyclist, a father and a resolute optimist.

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