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Get It Out of Your Head!
By David Allen
You shouldn't have a thought more than once, unless you simply like having that thought. Otherwise it takes up psychic RAM space and creates unnecessary pressure and stress. My best advice is to write down your thoughts and ideas. All of them! Little, big, personal, professional, urgent, not urgent, hare-brained–everything! Here's why.
Your mind is for having ideas, and it does this really well. It also reviews and analyzes collective data. But in terms of storing and organizing this data, it fails miserably. This is because your head has limited space. It is not designed to hang on to things or give reminders. In addition, you tend to remember things based upon how recently they happened or how much emotion is attached to them–neither one of which is a very strategic way to get reminders. Your mind can only accumulate up to about ten discrete items before it loses perspective on all of them.
Another problem is that things stored in your head, especially those regarding commitments, operate without any sense of past or future – it's all now. This means that as soon as you tell yourself to do something ("call Fred," "prune the backyard tree," "rewrite the proposal," etc.) there's a part of you that thinks you should be doing it all, all the time. So, as soon as you file two things in your mind, you create instant stress and failure because a part of you is trying to get them both done right now, which is impossible. That's why people often find it hard to focus and are so easily distracted.
The more sophisticated your life becomes, the more frequently you will have ideas that can't be implemented where you have them. You'll be buying bread in the store, thinking of something to talk to one of your clients about. And you'll be talking to a client and remember that you need bread. So, if you want the bread idea to happen where the bread is, and you want the agenda with your client to be in front of you when you are with the client, you must capture each thought the very moment you have it.
How can you accomplish this? Keep notepads, pens, and in-baskets in appropriate places around your personal life and your work, and use them to collect whatever you're thinking about that might be useful beyond that moment.
If I'm anywhere for longer than ten minutes, and there's a flat surface, I always have a legal pad and a pen out and ready. Who knows when the external (or internal) phone will ring? My wife and I keep junior-sized pads at every phone so we can write single notes on single sheets for each other's in-baskets. I also carry a small pad and pen with my wallet. I have an in-basket at my desk, an in-basket in my bedroom/closet area (for holding scraps of papers until I can go to the office), and a portable in-basket in my briefcase in the form of a red plastic folder.
Capturing all of the things we have on our mind in some externally reviewable form is absolutely critical for clarity of focus and peace of mind. There is more to mastering your workflow, to be sure, because even though thoughts have been written down, sooner or later they must be properly processed for a desired result. But collecting everything that has your attention is the first component of stress-free productivity. This will ensure that all agreements with ourselves and others have been corralled for safe keeping and not lost to the quagmire of post-it piles in our minds.
David Allen is a nationally renowned expert on the subject of personal productivity and the best-selling author of Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity. As the founder of the David Allen Company, Allen and his colleagues coach, train, and consult for some of the nation's largest corporations, as well as government and educational institutions. Based in Ojai, California, his company provides seminars, one-on-one coaching, and the latest products and information available to enhance productivity. Learn more about David Allen and the many valuable services his company has to offer at www.davidco.com.
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