This Simple Life Hack Makes Me a Better Friend

Notes on how to be a better friend. Handwritten notes about life events taped to a wall include the following: John's birthday August 21st; Maggie hears back about job interview on Wednesday; Elizabeth's sister's baby is due in June; Sarah is moving to a new house on Saturday; Chris's dog's name is Penny, favorite food is Chipotle; Gina is running the Chicago marathon.

I’m about to admit something that’s not exactly pretty. It’s not taboo…but it’s also not something people probably like to think about.

I keep files on people.

Before you run for the hills, it’s not a blackmail file. Come on. I do not have time for that kind of research.

But my People File does include specific details, calendar reminders, and the occasional email or text screenshot.

It’s safe to say, if you’re my friend, I log some brain time thinking about you, even more than when we’re standing face-to-face or you just posted a Boomerang of your puppy. 

I’d like to chalk it up to my Myers-Briggs personality type — I’m an ENFJ, so I’m “highly attuned to the emotions, needs, and motivations of others,” and I’m happiest when those around me are happy — but I would argue that a People File is a useful tool for anyone.

It all started with calendared birthday reminders. I imported all of my Facebook friends’ birthdays into my Google Calendar, which also happens to contain every other single piece of my life. (If GCal ever disappears, my face will turn into the emoji scream. But that’s an aside.)

But those birthday reminders weren’t really enough. Sure, it was nice to send congratulations for another year lived, but was that all I had to offer someone I actually called my “friend”? One line on that one day of the year that I finally saw their name flash across my screen? 

Don’t tell me you don’t hate it when someone — even if it’s just your aunt — sends a “how are things?!” along with your “happy day of birth” message. Well, it’s my birthday, so I would say things are good, but busy… 

I know that line of thinking all too well. And I never want to put those I care about in that spot. 

I wanted to find a way to convey how important the details of their lives are to me because they are important to them. 

So George, the great, analytical, everything-is-in-a-spreadsheet husband that he is, came up with the idea of keeping a People File — but he uses it for networking.

I use it for all my people.

I’m not great with auditory learning, so non-text conversations don’t generally stick with me. But if I take note of those little details — that are important enough to be brought up in conversation so they must mean something to that friend — and revisit them through spaced repetition recall, that knowledge starts to sink in a bit better.

So next time I bump into or if I know I’m going to see, let’s say, Elizabeth or whomever, I’ll revisit that catalogue of facts, and I’ll make sure to ask about her dog, Penny, and her sister’s baby due in June.

What’s great about this people filing process is that it’s not public-facing (until now…heyyy, frands 🙈), and most of those details are either (1) being shared on social media or (2) dropped in conversation and quickly forgotten.

In the age of social media, people are used to sharing personal details across the interwebs without any expectation for direct comment. 

And reversely, something I’ve found in my one-on-one friend-ly conversations (especially post-college) is that my friends, even close ones, don’t want to sound like they’re bragging.

So mid-conversation, they might quickly mention exciting upcoming events in their lives, like a vacation or hearing back from a job interview.

But once those things are past, those events are no longer front of mind and my friends seem less likely to come forward and show me all those pictures from that vacation or tell me about those long-awaited MCAT results…unless I ask.

Hence, the People File.

My friends are important enough to me that I want to text them first about those vacation photos. I want to remember and mention my coworker’s adoptiversary of his parrot, because, honestly, social standards dictate that it would be weird for him to walk up on that day and gleefully recall that detail to me.

And that sucks.

If he’s joyful about anything in his life, he should be able to share it with whomever he wants to.

And my People File (and obviously my extroverted personality) enables me to give him a platform to do that.

Most of my friends think I’m just a really good listener who remembers the details. And I would love to claim that title, but truthfully, my listening-memory skills are subpar.

But you can bet your bottom buck you won’t find me stuck face-to-face, trying to remember my grade-school friend’s fiancé’s first name. 

And that’s because I have a People File.

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