Increase your brain power and succeed at work

By David Allen

Your brain is a thinking tool, not a storage device

brain file cabinetIn this day and age, to be successful in your work is to be a good organizer. Especially among knowledge workers, whose everyday reality involves juggling dozens of tasks and projects at once.

Almost every minute we’re bombarded by new tasks and to-dos. A typical morning at work might look like this: you’re in the middle of writing a document when an email comes in telling you to update your antivirus software. Just as you’re about to do this, your aunt Sheila calls to say you should RSVP to her wedding, and, as you hang up, your boss marches in demanding you start working on a new document.

In order to keep all the complex information of our lives in check, many of us end up treating our brains like an all-in-one filing cabinet, calendar and to-do list. We misuse our brains by packing them with all different kinds of information as though they were portable data storage devices. When’s aunt Sheila’s wedding again? And where were you in that document before you got interrupted?

By stuffing our heads with information about unfinished assignments, appointments and other miscellaneous obligations, we’re squandering our brains’ capacity to think. And this eventually leads to our inability to concentrate fully on our actual work.

Why?

Because, whether we want them to or not, our brains are forever trying to work out our unsolved problems and reminding us about them at the most inopportune moments ­– even if we’d rather deal with them later.

In order to work as efficiently as possible, we have to keep our minds from dwelling on anything unrelated to the task we’re performing at any given moment.

In short, if you want to work efficiently, you should take it one step at a time: use 100 percent of your mind’s capacity to focus on the task at hand. Focus on the work document first, then on aunt Sheila’s wedding gift, or the other way around, but not on both at once.

If you want to think clearly, you need a trusted ‘collection bucket’ outside your mind

In an ideal world, you’d always be able to focus entirely on whatever you were doing at any given moment, whether you’re writing an email, talking to a colleague or mowing the lawn. You’d always be fully present and focused on just that one thing.

In reality, however, our brains have an irritating way of never quite letting us forget what else we still need to take care of. We all have nagging thoughts like “Remember to buy toilet paper on the way home” and “Pay this month’s electricity bill” even when we’re not in a position to do anything about them.

To make matters more complicated, we’re constantly bombarded with new information that also takes up space in our brains: “Oh, an ad for eco-friendly toilet paper; gotta remember that brand!”

In order to avoid this, you should always use a collection bucket, i.e., a place outside your mind where you can deposit any piece of information or idea that’s bound to distract you. With a receptacle like this, you’ll know exactly where you can find the information later on when you have time to deal with it.

This means if you’re writing a work email when you remember you should pay the electricity bill, you can just jot the task down on a piece of paper and keep focusing on your work. Or if someone brings in an invoice, you can plop it in a physical inbox. This way those tasks will have been duly noted, but they won’t distract you in the moment.

Your collection bucket can take on various forms: notebooks, lists on your computer or even physical boxes where you can put objects and papers. You can also use a combination of these tools, as long as this doesn’t muddle things up more. In other words: keep it simple.

The key here is to have your collection bucket(s) close by so it’s easy to call up the information they contain.

Take out the trash – empty your external collection weekly

Having reliable external collection buckets frees up your mind so you can concentrate fully on your actual work. This system allows the mind to rest assured that it won’t lose or misplace any important information.

However, the system only serves its purpose when you make sure to process and clean out the contents of your collection buckets on a regular basis.

If your collection buckets aren’t up to date, they’re no longer reliable, and your brain will begin to distrust them. Once that happens, your subconscious mind will start being distracted by unsolved problems and unfinished tasks again: “Are you totally sure you shouldn’t pay that invoice now so you don’t forget?”

To prevent your brain from losing faith in your collection buckets, you should make a habit of completely emptying all of them once a week.

This doesn’t mean you have to cross everything off your list right then and there; all you have to do is look closely at what needs to be done and put things in order. Here are some guidelines to abide by:

  • If, upon review, the item is unimportant, take it off the list immediately (or, if it’s a physical reminder you intended to follow up, throw it away).
  • If you can take care of it very quickly (e.g., in two minutes or less), do it immediately.
  • If it’s important information, file it away in the correct place.
  • If it’s an appointment, project or concrete task, transfer it to the appropriate list (see next blinks for details).

Going through this procedure regularly (ideally once a week) is the only way to guarantee reliable, stress-free productivity.

When emptying your collection buckets put your stuff away in the right places

External collection buckets are ideal for collecting all the “stuff” you don’t want in your head.

If you put all the things that catch your attention and distract you into one reliable collection bucket outside your mind, you know they’re in a safe place so you can come back to them later. That way, as you’re amassing stuff, you don’t have to classify and store it in a particular category at the time.

It’s only when you empty your external collection buckets each week that you have to make decisions: What kind of stuff do I have? What should I do with it?

Most to-do lists tend not to work because they become a hodgepodge of tasks, thoughts and information. In theory, we should take pains to include only concrete, practicable tasks on these lists, but in reality we write down projects, appointments, tasks and bits of information without distinguishing between them – which makes it too easy to lose track of the individual actionable tasks.

When you organize the items in your collection bucket, you should do the following:

  • As discussed before: remove anything unimportant, take care of small tasks immediately and put appointments or deadlines into your calendar.
  • If it’s a complex activity (i.e., if it requires more than one concrete task), turn it into a project with a clear goal.
  • All other tasks should end up on a “Next Actions” list.

But before we go into more detail about a “Next Actions” list, let’s take a quick detour to see what your “Projects” list should look like.

Instead of keeping a daily to-do list try a calendar and ‘Next Actions’ list

Daily to-do lists are inefficient not only because of their often imprecise nature but also because they provide a warped view of time. They delude you into believing that you could actually know in advance what you’re capable of completing in a given day. Hence, they lead to unrealistic planning, frustration and time wasted working on something that was doomed to fail before you started.

A far more effective method is to work with a calendar and one or multiple “Next Actions” lists. The calendar serves only one purpose: to keep appointments. You should treat it as a holy territory that provides a fixed structure for planning the rest of your activities. Anything bound to a certain day or hour – like a meeting or a doctor’s appointment – should be on it.

All other tasks or concrete actions should be put onto your “Next Actions” list. This list lets you decide quickly what task is the most urgent whenever you have time to take care of something.

Regardless of where you are, you should always have your “Next Actions” list on your person. This will give you the flexibility to choose which task it makes the most sense to tackle next.

When it’s time to choose, you should always listen to your gut. If you’ve planned and pre-selected your tasks well, you shouldn’t have too much trouble deciding which one it makes the most sense to perform. Imagine you’re at the airport and your flight is delayed for an hour. In this situation, ask yourself,

  • Which task can I accomplish in my current situation?
  • Which task can I finish in the time available?
  • Which task do I have enough energy for at the moment?
  • Which has the highest priority?

Depending on the number of tasks you have on the list, sometimes it makes sense to have multiple “Next Actions” lists and distinguish them according to the context (e.g., “on the phone” or “on the computer”). If you sort out your tasks by place, you’ll know what you can do when at your desk, at a meeting or while waiting at the airport.

david allenAbout the author:

David Allen is an American writer, businessman and consultant. His coaching company trains executives in the Getting Things Done method and distributes productivity software. He has written many books and articles on self-management and productivity.

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