One of the basic principles behind David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity cult book is that you should mostly use your brain for what it’s good for: thinking, analyzing, and creating. You can free up the mental energy to do these kinds of high-priority and high-reward activities if you stop using your brain as an information storage and retrieval system, things that it generally is less skilled at. Now, obviously, we all have certain kinds of information well stored and easily retrievable in our brains, and you could train your brain to perform all sorts of memorization feats. But unless that in and of itself is your goal, it’s generally more efficient to store some pieces of information outside your head.
Grocery lists are a familiar example. Most of us could easily keep track of 2-5 items that we had to pick up at the store. But increase that number to more than 7 and the average person’s memory starts to become less reliable. Yes, you can train your mind to associate the items with particular images or locations in the store, and if you worked with a list of 10 items long enough before walking into the store, you’d probably be able to recall them. But say you’re cooking on Tuesday and use up the last bit of cinnamon. Your shopping day isn’t until Saturday. What are the chances you’ll remember on Saturday to pick up some more? So you start a list and add to it throughout the week, so that by Saturday you’ve collected reminders of several items you need to purchase. Doing this saves your brain from constantly reminding you “you need to get cinnamon,” and saves you from the energy of trying to keep this reminder fresh enough in your mind to be useful on shopping day.
Much of the GTD methodology is about making sure you collect all the various pieces of information (whether inputs (notes, emails, other content), actions, or deadlines) in your life, and then store reminders about them in some kind of system that will enable you to act upon them when needed. So, for example, the time of your next committee meeting should be entered into your calendar, so you don’t have to keep thinking to yourself “remember there’s a meeting next Wednesday.”
Many of the pieces of information in our lives that trigger actions are external, even tangible: bills to be paid, emails to be answered, papers to grade. But in addition to physically collecting all of these items, Allen recommends what he calls a “mind-sweep”: sit down with a pen and some paper and start writing down all the things that occur to you that you should or want to do. Don’t worry about entering them into your task list or calendar yet; you just want to collect them, as rapidly as possible.
This is a tremendously powerful exercise, whether or not you follow GTD methodology. For myself, I find it more generative to do this longhand, rather than on the computer, but do whatever feels right for you. Especially when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, there’s a good chance that some of your intended actions aren’t yet recorded anywhere. That means that your brain keeps turning them over and spitting them back up as reminders, usually at inopportune moments. Try setting a timer for 5 minutes, and just jot down whatever comes up. Afterwards, you can take another 10 minutes to sort the items on your list and record them in the right places. Sweeping out your mind of all this detritus (“return recalled library book,” “fix the dripping faucet,” “look up budget numbers for Tuesday’s meeting”) and putting it into a system that will remind you of it at the appropriate time and place lets you focus your time and energy on creative thinking, instead of just trying to keep track of so many things.
Love/hate GTD? questions? ideas? let us know in the comments!
(cc licensed image by flickr user kaiton)