Get Things Done by Decluttering Your Mind
A year ago, Kristen was known among her coworkers as the “information wizard”. An incredibly smart woman, she could remember an unbelievable number of data points and observations, and integrate them all into a clear strategy. Kristen had always been able to keep track of everything – until one day she couldn’t.
Suddenly the job is bigger, the decisions are far-reaching, and the issues more complicated. And Kristin, who had never developed the discipline to keep a list or use an external information system, is lost at sea. She now spends her days losing focus – and information! – and her nights ruminating on the next day’s agenda, worried she might have forgotten something.
Are you like Kristin?
In the previous installments of this series, we have started optimizing your calendar and freeing up your time for the things that actually matter to you (New to this blog? Start from the beginning here). But what about your brain?
Losing Information, Losing Focus
Here’s something one of my podcast guests, productivity expert David Allen, said on my show that stuck with me: “Most people are using their head as their office, and your head is a crappy office”. He’s absolutely right. Your brain is very good at remembering stories, though not always accurately, and at creating new narratives. It isn’t good at keeping track of lists. Plus, you need all your working memory to think through the complex challenges you are trying to address – why waste any of its precious capacity on data points?
You might have freed up an hour of time for an important task in your schedule, but can you actually use that space in your calendar productively if you don’t have space in your head? When we think about the 43 other actions we might have to take in the future, we lose the ability to focus on the one thing we are doing at that specific moment. Thus, with a cluttered mind, we can never reach a flow state, where joy and productivity skyrocket.
Creating an External Hard Drive
The secret to reducing stress, becoming more productive, enjoying your work and freeing up your working memory seems obvious: You need to get as much information as possible stored outside of your head, so your brain is free to think effectively about the task at hand.
How? This is what I discussed on Out of The Comfort Zone with David Allen. In this article, I will give you my take on his research and show you some easily implementable actions you can take to start maximizing productivity and focus by externalizing information and organizing your mind.
The Bucket List
Cognitive research has found that the number of items we can comfortably store in our head while maintaining optimal clarity about each of them and their relationships to each other is severely limited – to about 3 to 5 information “chunks” retained at a time. But when you outsource crucial bits of that information by taking notes, that number goes up exponentially. It honestly is that simple. So, take some form of note-taking device with you wherever you go – next to your keys and your phone. Whether that is a pen and paper, the notes section on your phone, a sophisticated app or a voice recorder doesn’t matter, as long as you can use it and access your existing notes easily.
David Allen calls this first step of note-taking the “bucket” – it’s your initial collection of ideas, stray thoughts and pieces of information with just enough context in the note so you can remember what the thought was about.
Being diligent and disciplined with this first step will already cause great improvements in your mental load and stress levels. Sometimes just knowing you have stored a piece of information can give you peace of mind. But if you really want to make the most of that information, you need to start organizing your bucket.
Turning Stressors into Actions
Most people’s bucket lists consist of rudimentary single-word reminders like “birthday”, “basketball” or “PowerPoint”.
While these snippets may help you keep track of your active projects, they don’t relieve you of much of the brainwork. When is the birthday and what still needs to be done? Who’s going to buy the present, are you making a cake? When are you picking up your daughter from basketball practice? When is the PowerPoint due and what still needs to be done? With lists like these, your mind still has to keep track of most of the details, you’re easily stressed out, and you lose time looking for information and figuring out where you left off.
Thus the next step is converting the notes you have written on the go to an organized, specific set of actions. David Allen recommends the following process:
- Clarification. For each item in your bucket, walk through all the tasks needed to complete the task. Write everything that needs to be done to check off that item on the list. Making a thorough list is what reduces mental load and stress because your brain no longer has to keep ruminating on any of these details.
For example, the note “Write Report” becomes a long list of action items such as confirming timelines with my manager, deciding what template to use, collecting data, running an analysis, coordinating with another team for input, drafting a presentation, writing a conclusion and proofing the document.
- Organization. Separate the items that take two minutes or less onto their own system – such as confirming a timeline. These are the short tasks you can take care of when you have five minutes between meetings or are waiting for someone to arrive.
For everything else, ask yourself: Who can do which of these? For example, you may be the only one who can write the conclusion for a report to your boss, but someone else can collect and analyze the data. Delegate these actions immediately (and read the last installment of this series on delegating here).
Taking Action. Now organize your own remaining tasks in terms of priorities and timelines. For example, your top priority may be coordinating with that other team because only you can do that and the value-add is high.
- Keeping Track. Scott Solomon adds a clever twist to this process (listen to his episode here). He uses his email folders to keep track of what he has to do and what he has asked someone else to do. Then when he needs to follow-up, he has the full email trail in an easily accessible location. He simply forwards the whole thing and asks for an update. Everyone, including Scott, has all the context needed without having to waste time searching for it.
- Reflection and Decision. Organizing all your thoughts takes discipline and a bit of time, but the work pays off. Because now you can look at all your potential actions and make a strategic decision on what to do next. You have a list of priorities and know exactly what to do for each one. And here’s the best part: You also know when you’re NOT in the position to do something. That means you don’t have to worry about having errands to run while you are not currently out for errands. Close that lid in your brain! You have all that information ready when you leave the house, so why ruminate on it now while you are sitting down for dinner?
The main goal of this strategy is not necessarily to get more work done. Yes, when you organize your mental clutter and externalize it, you will see an increase in productivity and a heightened ability to focus. And yes, you will save time on non-important and non-urgent matters, because you don’t have to look for information, and you are more strategic about the things on your to-do list. But what really makes mental organization so life-changing is the fact that it can decrease your stress levels and allow you engage with your life, be more committed to what you are doing at the moment, and get worries off your mind without immediately having to address them. So, if you really want to take control of your time, take control of your mind first.