A note about notes

You Are What You Habituate

The first phrase I ever recorded was, “And don’t you forget it!” This one I can tell was inspired by a visit from my Aunt Beth. I have always admired my aunt for her audacious and wildly inappropriate sense of humor. She will often crack random bits of knowledge, passing thoughts or rhymes with the follow-up in the form of a mockingly stern “and don’t you forget it,” as if to clinch off the turd of wisdom with a salty snip.

Since early high school, I have been writing down words and phrases in the hope that they might upload to my long-term memory and infiltrate my daily vocabulary. After transcribing these phone notes to my computer, I learned that my now-several-years-old collection of words had amounted to 30 complete eight-and-a-half by 11 pages. I had been relentlessly collecting material for a dictionary void of meaning and order at the growth rate of a resistant toenail. To illustrate, here are an indelicate few:


“Look at you, you are out of control”

“I don’t want to break up a family”

“(waffles) it’s not healthy but it’s stacked so I guess you could say it’s a balanced breakfast”

But even though I can make sense of these misarranged utterances, I rarely actually employ them in the way that I had hoped to. Yet I still maintain the habit of recording them almost daily. Like rinsing your hands before and after a meal, there are some routines that persist without even realizing we’re doing them. But why? Was it something we were taught or something we once had reason for doing but now have unknowingly forgotten? In an attempt to understand the machinations of my own note-taking and how this routine/intention has developed with time, I investigated the contents of my journaling to find a correlation amid the chaos. Here are some of my discoveries:

The first pattern I was able to construct from these shopping cart list-structured notes was a series of defined chunks each corresponding to a different phase of my life. Some phases were marked by my love for a particular show or movie — first it was the British comedy “Peep Show,” then it was “That ‘70s Show,” and then I went through a period of involving myself with different cult films such as “The Room” or “Office Space.” Others were periods when I admired someone in my life, whether it be the sometimes sexual offhand advice of my Aunt Beth, the seemingly scripted wit of my friend Alex or the biting sarcasm of some of my co-workers. Unbeknownst to my admirees, I would often leave our interactions copying a few of the most memorable quotes from the conversation.

Originally this list in my notes was labeled “MOVIE IDEAS,” created with the intention that it might eventually fuel the inspiration for a script. I thought that by writing down these daily verbiages from people I knew in real life, I could write more realistic characters.

When I grew out of this habit of taking notes on the off-chance that they might someday spawn a film career, I instead started taking notes on colloquial conversations and mannerisms. After nearly falling in love with all of my housemates last summer, never having a large fraternity-like community before, I would paraphrase exact correspondences or shards of conversations I overheard. These notes were much more evolved than my early days of recording fragmented bits of conversation. At this point, I now had the foresight to assign people’s names to their quotes.

“Layla reads off a bottle of shampoo, ‘Shouldn’t use while pregnant?’ ”

Alex answers, ‘That’s how you know it’s good!’ ”

“My housemate Victor: I like dogs. I wish we could all have dogs. I wish we could be dogs.”

“Me screaming at a game of picnic bocce ball, ‘Game point is always the most interesting point!’ ”

Now whenever I pull out my phone to record a thought, I take physical notes and try to take a simultaneous mental note of why I am deciding to jot the thought down. Rather than letting phases of my life and evolutions in my daily note-taking reveal themselves to me years later, I am trying to actively observe my own habits as I pursue them in real time by regularly reflecting on them. If this switch does not bring about more control over my habits, than at least it may make me more present in my daily life. It is the little routines and bits of time that only, in the moment, seem to amount to a small fraction of the day that end up filling the bountiful 30 eight-and-a-half by 11 sheets of paper, or more.

Layla Chamberlin writes the Friday column on how routines create character and delineate personal politics.