Keeping track of everything that you ought to remember and everything that you need to do can be overwhelming. Does it ever seem like your mind is completely overloaded? There’s always something that needs your attention.
Keeping all those tidbits of information in your head is mind-boggling, and it keeps you from being able to relax. Externalising your tasks by writing them down is a simple way to free up your metal space and get organised.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, a “brain dump” is the perfect way to reduce stress, focus, and get motivated.
There’s nothing wrong with externalising
Some people deny the value of externalising or feel that it’s a sign of weakness. They may feel that a need to write things down means that you don’t have a good memory or the mental capacity to keep up. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
We come by this aversion to writing things down honestly. Socrates felt that writing destroyed our memory and weakened our minds. He even argued that it was “inhuman” to write things down.
Sometimes pulling out the pen and notepad seems like a step we could skip. For example, you could go to the supermarket without making a grocery list, or pack your suitcase without a packing list. Just because you could, doesn’t mean you should.
Without a list, you’ll end up going over-budget at the grocery store, or you’ll forget to buy something. Without making a packing list, the likelihood that you forget an essential item like your phone charger or travel adapter increases dramatically.
Your brain isn’t meant to juggle so many things at once
Our brains are powerful, but research shows that we don’t multi-task very well.1 When you multi-task, your brain splits your attention. You may think that you are doing two tasks at once effectively, but your mind is just flipping back and forth between them.
You can only hang on to a few ideas at a time, and you can only truly focus on one task. Your brain also doesn’t prioritize very well. Your emails, your to-do list, that thing you have to remember, an item you’re waiting on, and the task you’re trying to complete are all competing for your attention.
Our brains are made to solve problems and make connections. They aren’t so great at holding onto tidbits of information that we could easily externalize.
Here are ways that you can (and should) externalise
- Make a to-do list.When you write down what you need to do, the thought of those tasks won’t clog your short-term memory.
- Use a calendar. Adding your appointments and meetings to your calendar keeps you from having to worry about them. Those items come into your mental space only when you need to focus on them, which keeps you from worrying about whether you’re forgetting something all the time.
- Make shopping lists. There’s nothing more frustrating than coming home from the store only to realise that you’ve forgotten what you went there for in the first place. A shopping list will save you time, and it will help you stick to a budget.
Imagine what you could do with more mental bandwidth
Freeing up mental space occupied by trivial items gives your brain the chance to do what it’s built for: coming up with new ideas and making connections.
Your mind has such an incredible capacity for innovation, but it’s the wrong place to store everything you need to get done. It’s not made to house your to-do lists and appointment calendar. The more you can get rid of these things that are taking up your mental space, the more clearly you’ll think.
In the late 1920s, the Zeigarnik Effect was discovered. This psychological concept explains that our brains hold on to incomplete or interrupted tasks more readily than they hold onto completed ones.2 The things you haven’t finished take up more bandwidth than things you’ve already done.
Put theory into practice
When I emptied my mind of all the things weighing on it, I realised how the Zeigarnik Effect influenced my life. After I cleared my mind by externalising everything that I could, I had so much more mental clarity, and I was more relaxed than I had been for a long time.
I also learned that it’s important to capture tasks as they come up in order to maintain clarity. Getting unresolved commitments out of my head and onto task lists was great, but new things were constantly coming up. I had develop a system to keep those low-return tasks from taking over.
Find a system for externalising that works for you
Some of the most productive people I know rely on good old-fashioned pen and paper to keep their commitments in order. This is a great system, but it’s not the only way to approach externalisation.
I’ve settled into a system that integrates seamlessly with my life. You have to find something that seems completely natural to you. It should make it easy for you to see, manage, and prioritise everything that needs your attention. Choosing the right system makes things come together almost effortlessly.
The ‘Waiting For’ list is a powerful tool to add to your productivity arsenal.3 It adds a new dimension to your to-do list. Instead of just tracking what you need to complete, you also note things that you are waiting on to complete those tasks.
For example, imagine you’re planning an event, but you need a formal request document signed by a superior to order supplies. Your ‘Waiting For’ list would include something like “Receive signed formal request from the boss.”
Having such a list can help you understand what parts of your projects are within your control and what needs the input of others. Tracking this can let you know whom to follow up with if you don’t have everything you need.
This system is simple to integrate. Of course, you can write your list by hand, but you can also develop a system for handling emails. After you send emails that need responses, drag those messages into a ‘Waiting For’ folder. You’ll be able to see what you need to be tracking, and it will help you catch important messages that might end up in your spam folder.
Free your mind
There’s nothing noble about trying to make your brain do things that it doesn’t do very well. Develop a system to externalise what you need to do. You’ll feel less stressed, and you’ll be so much more effective when you’re free to focus.