19 September 2020

A few months ago, during a particularly boring lunch break at work, I was looking around the bookshelves in the break room and stumbled across the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. (I had never heard of it, but I now realise its considered quite the classic on personal organisation.) It caught my attention because I had recently been thinking about ways of managing the many different threads, projects, and parts of life that we all want/need to pay attention to.

Anyway, I read it with interest, and I want to share the most memorable lesson I learned: the benefits of habitually writing things down.

Applied to productivity, Allen introduces a simple theoretical concept of memory. In your life, there are undoubtedly some unresolved things that you would like to take action on. We’re all familiar with the thought “ahh, yeah, I need to do that at some point…” The idea is that, since your brain knows you need to do something, it tries to keep that thought present for you. All well and good; but consider that there might be tens or even hundreds of these “open loops” in your life at any moment. The end result, Allen claims, is that you’re prone to forget things, you lose clarity of what you’re working on, and you can become stressed when you periodically remember all these things you need to do.

The solution is to completely off-load the tracking of these open loops from your brain to something else. That something is, basically, a to-do list. (There is a lot more to it in GTD, as Allen describes his personal organisation system, which I recommend exploring in more detail.)

Your organisation system can take one of many forms; it can be on paper in a notebook, it can be a set of post-its or cards, or it can be digital, in an app, etc. The important thing is that you have a system which is both

  1. available; you need to be able to quickly refer to it, and add things soon after the thought occurs to you; and
  2. pleasant; it must not feel cumbersome or unenjoyable to use; it should be easy for you to trust it as an aid for your brain.

A to-do list or organisation system is something many of us have tried to create in the past, myself included. But this motivation for them, as a tool for offloading work from your brain, really gave me a different perspective on how such systems are supposed to be used. It’s not enough to half-ass such a list. If you don’t find something pleasant enough, your brain won’t trust the system enough to allow itself to relax and forget all your open loops, even if they are written down. And if it’s not available, then you won’t develop the habit of off-loading the open loops and they’ll stick around in your brain. You need to really believe in it!

These ideas really stuck with me, and I can say that the full GTD system has really helped me keep track of my life in a more relaxed and mindful way. I also found that the theory of offloading from the brain could be applied to some other things. I started using a password manager–not for generating passwords, as I like to use memorable ones–but just so I felt like I could forget them. That feeling of knowing you can forget something, but still recall it later from something written-down, alleviates a weight from your subconscious which is hard to describe.

Additionally, I started keeping notes of all sorts of things I wouldn’t have previously, such as developing ideas in projects, references of important info/advice, films I have been recommended, even websites that I am signed up to. Basically: I minimise how much I trust my brain to retain information!

Overall, I feel like I learned a really neat life hack (if you can call it that), and would encourage you to read about GTD in more detail and try these ideas yourself!

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