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Clean Up Your Mind!

April 30, 2010

Unless you regularly make an effort to capture everything nagging away at you in your head and get it out, your mind is cluttered with myriad things that need doing – regardless of whether you’re consciously thinking about them.

That perpetual nagging robs you of your productivity, saps your strength, wastes your energy, and dramatically increases the amount of effort it takes to stay focused on tasks.  It’s caused by all of the “stuff” that hasn’t been properly organized as introduced in last week’s post.  This week, I’ll focus on getting the “stuff” into a manageable system in more detail.  I’m introducing this step before it appears in “Getting Things Done” because I have found that most people are made less productive when the things in their heads keep nagging them while they try to process all of the physical items on their desk and in their physical inbox(es).

Get “stuff” out of your mind and into a manageable system…it doesn’t matter what the system is.  If it’s in your head, then it’s distracting you from working on what you need to be working on at that time.

If you’re using paper, get a box big enough to hold a couple hundred note cards neatly.  If you’re using a word processor, memorize the keyboard shortcut for save now.  Get in the habit of hitting it no less frequently than every three minutes, unless your word processor is already set to autosave that frequently (most aren’t).

Start with last week’s sheet of paper/note cards/electronic file, and review it.  For this part of the process, don’t begin performing actions on your list yet. Reviewing last week’s work will help shift your mind into thinking about all of the undone, nagging items in your conscious and subconscious.  You’ll miss some, but they’ll come later.  There’s a great list in “Getting Things Done” on pages 114 – 117.  David Allen calls it an “incompletion triggers list.”   Try to devote thirty minutes to an hour to this, and then stop unless you’re writing furiously.  If you start wracking your brain for items to identify, you’ve reached a point where it’s worth taking a break and focusing on something else.  The following list includes major items from GTD and some of my own that I’ve found useful over time:

  • Incomplete projects
  • Projects that need starting
  • Commitments made to others (boss, partners, coworkers, staff, external contacts)
  • Send or respond to:  phone calls, voicemail, email, faxes, and letters/memos
  • Reviews, assessments, appraisals, evaluations
  • Articles, advertising, brochures, etc.
  • Decisions or actions that need to be communicated to others
  • “Read Now” items
  • Formal planning (measures, goals, objectives, targets)
  • Organizational planning
  • Administrative requirements (policy drafts/revisions, personnel actions, mandatory training, management controls/audits)
  • Professional development (courses, seminars, conferences, degrees)
  • “Waiting for” items (responses to correspondence, decisions/completed efforts/status reports from items delegated upward, laterally, or to direct reports, or responses to information requests)

Again, regardless of the physical system you use (paper notes or an electronic calendar and task list, or both), get each item of “stuff” out of your head and written down so your mind stops pestering you about the fact that it isn’t done.  Because your mind will most definitely pester you about undone things, or things not properly documented elsewhere.  Once you establish a system that you can rely on to remind you when you need to be reminded, even if it’s the result of daily serial processing through the paper notes for the time being, then your mind will begin to stop interrupting your productivity with reminders about things you can’t do anything about at that moment.

Stream-of-consciousness writing can be very productive if you allow yourself to move into “flow” and avoid resisting the stream.  Write down what comes to you, don’t prioritize it, and don’t make value judgements about its usefulness or importance.  Write it down and keep going.  The benefit of note cards over a single list is each one is dedicated to the item on it, enabling it to be filed in the appropriate place and moved around as necessary such as between your “Next Actions” folder and “Waiting For” when you’ve completed a step and handed it off to someone else.  The benefit of an integrated list, especially an electronic one, is you can copy/cut and paste the text of the item into whichever place it needs to go:  email subject, task name, or calendar entry without having to retype it.  If you’re already using a system with some degree of success, then I recommend continuing to use it with some increased discipline as discussed above and in the coming weeks.  If you have a system that isn’t working, there’s little harm in trying the alternative and the change itself could easily make the process more inviting.

NEXT FRIDAY:  The Door Can’t Always Be Open

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