How to make sure that you don’t bog down your brain with unfinished business
As I prepare for my annual family fly-in fishing trip with my nine year old son, I am amazed at how much equipment and clothing that we cart up into the northern woods each year. Knowing what to take is essential, as I have suffered through all kinds of conditions from heavy snow to swarms of bloodthirsty black flies.
We have also been stranded for extra days as the weather prevented our pilot safe passage in his floatplane to navigate to our campsite. While balancing the art of packing our gear I also encounter the stressful event of wrapping all of my loose ends up at work prior to leaving for a holiday.
I am sure that everyone reading this can relate to the stress of preparing for both the onset and the aftermath of a holiday. But this year is different for me. The annual practice has been made much easier as I have collected a detailed list of what to take and update it each year. Thanks to David Allen I have much more structure and organization in my life now that allows me more time to get stuff done!
Let me explain, I have suffered from superman syndrome in the past and had a tendency to take on too much. “No” was not in my lexicon and as a result I often became overwhelmed with the sheer volume of actionable items on my to do list. I also quickly realized that my system of organization left me bewildered and stressed at times.
Along came David Allen’s best selling book Getting Things Done. I find many clients that I work with are highly motivated and high achievers. Many fall into the same trap I did. What I continue to observe is that without an effective system to capture and organize your to do list you end up trying to store tons of thoughts in your brain.
When your brain becomes your to do list it always becomes a scrambled mess that misses deadlines or has you procrastinating on projects. Thoughts that stay in your head are like software scripts that clutter up your computer’s RAM and hard-drive. When too many are running they bog down your computer’s speed and often lead to the proverbial freeze up. The other downside is that when you fill up your head with disorganized tasks you don’t have any room for creative ideas.
So how do we create an effect system for defragging our brain?
First, we need to effectively capture things that are bouncing around up there. Start making lists and write down your thoughts or tasks that come across your consciousness. Simply writing things down clears your head allowing you to feel better and clearer. This practice is called “distributing cognition” by psychologists. I have had many clients do this when they feel stressed and immediately they feel more calm and clarity about their situation regardless of the source of their angst.
Second, you need to determine whether the thought or item that has crossed your desk is actionable. In other words, clarify whether the item is important enough for you to follow up on. If it is not then trash it or file it for future reference. If it is actionable then determine what the next immediate action step is that will move you closer to completing the task. This step can make a huge difference in your life if you implement this rather than leaving an item on a list.
If an action can complete a task or “to do” in under 2 minutes do it now. Otherwise, determine when you can do it and write it down in your calendar or in an appropriate list. You will be amazed by simply finishing the tasks that require 2 minutes or less immediately, how much room you create in your life for other important items. Of course, don’t forget to delegate any item you can.
Third, put action reminders on the right lists. For example, create lists for the appropriate categories—calls to make, projects to do, emails to send, etc. When you define tasks/projects based on their action required you can organize things into patterns that will help you efficiently complete the tasks.
The Fourth step is essential. Review your lists in a systematic way to ensure that you prepare yourself for the essential tasks that you have identified as actionable that week. By reviewing your lists frequently you will trust in the choices you have made about what to do next. This allows you to free up valuable brainpower for more creative thought, higher output, and more energy at the end of the day.
The key is to create a system that is reliable so that you can regularly empty your brain of thoughts and trust that you will complete them when schedule them. You will know this is working when you appropriately book time to complete tasks and your system reminds you to complete them in the time/space allotted.
This system allows me to truly unplug in the hours outside of my office as I do not have to try and remember tasks that I have due. The ultimate benefit is that I am more truly present with my family.
I regularly review my lists on Sunday and prepare my week allowing me more focused time to do high value activities. I have experienced immediate results in my clients level of balance and clarity when they implement this system. In fact, they often text me right away and report how much difference it makes for them.
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