Write It All Down

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

–David Allen

Today I’m going to talk about something simple that can greatly impact your work and life: writing things down. It might sound lame, but hear me out. This isn’t merely about forgetting things (although, yes, writing things down will help fix the problem of your working memory as well). This is about starting to turn off your life’s autopilot.

Have you ever gotten home after shopping, only to realize you forgot to purchase something? Have you ever seen the non-zero badge count on your e-mail, social media, or text messages and felt the urge to check it immediately? Have you ever realized that a deadline had snuck up on you too quickly, putting you in a panic for the rest of the day?

Forgetting to purchase something is a failure of our working memory; remembering the unfinished task later could be the result of the Zeigarnik effect. The temptation to check our e-mail, social media, or text messages immediately could be a result of our automatic system kicking in (the instant gratification of seeing who liked our most recent post; the relief of anxiety to ensure none of those messages are urgent and important), or decision fatigue resulting in the decision to interrupt what we’re currently working on in order to check our apps. The unexpectedly near deadline could have pushed us into the automatic system as a result of moving towards the defend axis, since we feel threatened by the realization of the upcoming demand; it may also result in decision fatigue as we try to juggle the hundreds of decisions of what to do now that we’ve been made aware.

(If any of my references above (ie. working memory, Zeigarnik effect, automatic system, decision fatigue, defend axis) confused you, be sure to visit my post from last week about the unconscious.)

Fortunately, there is an easy way to help to start to take back control. You guessed it: writing things down. Writing things down, perhaps most obviously, prevents our working memory from forgetting things. We’re impacted less by the Zeigarnik effect since we have record of our incomplete tasks. We can prevent decision fatigue by deferring decisions; we just need to write down what needs to get done, and we can decide what to do about it later when we’re ready. We can stay towards the discover axis (instead of the defend axis) knowing that, having written it down, it’s on our radar and isn’t a threat. These things combined can help us stay in the deliberate system, since there’s less emotional triggers activating our automatic system. There are immense benefits to writing things down, relieving our mind from being pulled in too many unwanted directions.

It may sound too easy. But try it. Take a few minutes and write down everything you want to do today, this week, this year. What you want to buy. What you want to try. Who you want to see. Where you want to go. Write it all down. It might be overwhelming at first to see the immensity of what you want to accomplish, but this is only the first step. And often the mere act of getting it all out of your head is a great relief in itself.

Just a few quick tips now.

The fewer places things are written down, the better. That is, avoiding write some things on a piece of paper, other things in your phone’s notes app, other things in your journal, etc. Having multiple locations can cause anxiety as we try to remember if we actually remembered to write something down, or what more important things are on the lists we don’t currently have access to. So whenever it’s possible, we should try to have one list, one inbox, where we can collect all of our thoughts.

This one thing can take a variety of forms. Some people prefer writing things down on paper, or in a notebook. I personally use Omnifocus; I’ve been using it for many years now, and it’s great, although it’s only available for Apple products. For people who want other options, I’ve heard of many great apps out there. Some of those include Remember the Milk, Todo, Todoist, Trello, and Wunderlist.

And one more thing. I have this bad habit of reading e-mails and then leaving them in my inbox, read or unread. But this means every time I return to my inbox and see those e-mails, I’m reminded about replies I need to send, things I still need to do, or decisions I need to make. So there is a cool idea called the OHIO Principle, which stands for Only Handle It Once. The idea is that anytime we open an e-mail, a text message, etc., we need to decide whether to act immediately (this is typically recommended if said action will take less than 2 minutes) or to defer the action. If we defer the action, it’s important to write down the action and the e-mail it refers to (this is easier done with apps which allow us to attach e-mails to the entries themselves), and then to archive/move that e-mail out of the inbox so it’s no longer a recurring trigger.

Writing things down is just the first step. Anyone can do it immediately and reap some of the benefits of helping your conscious take back some control from your unconscious. With regards to the overall productivity system I use, I’ll talk about the next steps in subsequent blog posts.

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