You’re standing in the shower with shampoo in your hair when you remember to call your sister Caitlin about organizing the anniversary brunch for your parents. Why now? Why can’t you think about calling Caitlin when you’re near a phone? By the time you towel off and get dressed, six other things have tumbled into your mind, erasing thoughts of Caitlin for the rest of the morning.
Later, at the office, a colleague of yours pokes his head around your open door. “What’s the latest on the Callahan project?” he asks. “I’m heading upstairs now, and I know Jim will be asking me about it.”
A small shock wave rushes through your body. You meant to speak with the Callahan people the day before, but you never got around to it. “Give me a second!” you plead as you reach for the phone. “Maybe I can reach them right now!”
Later that afternoon, you pull out of the grocery store and merge into the crush of six p.m. traffic. Your kids and the babysitter are waiting for you at home. Suddenly you remember that you forgot to buy milk—and with you running late and the traffic lights against you, there’s no way you can turn around to buy it now. Why did your brain not remind you needed milk when you were in the dairy section picking up those containers of yogurt?
In all three cases, the explanation is the same: Your brain is a terrible to-do list.
Scientific findings explain a practical reality about brain functioning: The less you try to hold in your mind at once, the better. Memory starts to degrade whenever you try to hold a group of ideas in mind. Believe it or not, the optimal number of different ideas to hold in mind at one time is no more than three or four—not the seven, ten, or twenty many of us struggle to retain at once.
The implications for busy humans in the twenty-first century are obvious and enormous. Once you consider all the various projects you may be working on at the office—and the separate small but important tasks associated with each project—as well as the urgent or not-so-urgent connections you need to make with an array of colleagues, employees, managers, clients, suppliers, and other personal stakeholders; and then add to the mix all the things you need to remember from outside the workplace (family obligations, social dates, personal financial chores, housekeeping duties, vacation planning) and the many things you’d simply like to remember to get to because they will enrich your life (that article a friend recommended, that TV show you’ve been looking forward to, the gallery exhibit you’ve heard is amazing) . . . add all this together, and it’s more than obvious why relying on natural brain functioning is never going to work. We all have to-do lists that overwhelm our brain’s memory function. Three or four different ideas? Try three or four hundred!
So what can you do? How can you leverage your brain’s natural functioning to improve your productivity and move beyond busy? The solution starts with rebuilding your to-do list.
Build A Master TASK List
Now, I can only imagine what you might be thinking – “I already have a to-do list.” (Almost everyone does.) “Why do I need to rebuild it? That is extra work, and I am looking to streamline my work and work more simply—not add to my workload!”
If that’s your reaction, I get it. But the fact is that your to-do list may be holding you back rather than helping you achieve what you want to. Ask yourself:
- Is your to-do list standing up to the rigors of your current workday?
- Does your to-do list accurately and completely reflect all of your commitments, tasks, and projects?
- Does it enable you to efficiently use all of the minutes in your day to complete work?
- Can you glance at your list between meetings and actually find, select, and complete a task using the few minutes that happen to be available?
If the answer to any of these questions is No, it’s probably time to rebuild your to-do list. The inadequacy of the tools you’ve been using to organize your life and maintain your focus on key goals has been holding you back.
The goal is two-fold: to stop using your brain to retain and remind yourself of information, and to create a tool that enables you to quickly review what needs to be done and then complete the work.
It is time to build a Master T.A.S.K. list.
Let’s recreate your current to-do list using the following four steps: Think, Ask, Sort, and Keep.
We’ll start with step one -Think.
Remember the scenario I sketched at the start of this post? I described a typical day in which a host of to-dos kept popping up in your brain, usually at the most inopportune times. If that scenario seemed familiar, you need to clear the psychic decks and eliminate popcorn brain once and for all. Remember, your brain is an abysmal to-do list. Do not ask it do something it does not do well. When you do, you are fighting against nature—and nature always wins. The goal is to use your brain to think about things, not of things (to paraphrase author David Allen).
To start rebuilding your to-do list, you have to employ a two-part process.
Part one is the general brain dump. Think about everything you need to do, personal and professional. Imagine turning your brain upside down and emptying out its contents onto paper, a whiteboard, or into the computer program of your choice. The tool does not matter. I have had clients fill multiple legal pads or small notebooks, build extensive Excel spreadsheets, or go through so many post-it notes that 3M company stock probably rose by a point or two. Choose the tool that works best for you. The goal is to get all the to-dos and ideas out of your head and into the physical world.
Do not worry about the order of the items on your brain dump. There doesn’t have to be any logic to the sequence of items on your list—and if you’re like most people, there won’t be. Personal, professional, social, civic, short-term, and long-term items will all be jumbled together, just as they pop out of your brain. That’s perfectly normal.
To help you get clear, listed below is a brain-dump trigger list that will help you think about everything that may be lurking in the corners of your brain.
Brain-Dump Trigger List
Projects – started, but not complete
Projects that need to be started
Commitments/promises to others, including:
- Other professional contacts/associates
- Community organizations
- Significant other
Communications to make or receive from others
Writing to be finished and submitted, including:
Meetings to be set and/or requested
Errands to run
- Necessary purchases
Items to read and/or review
- Instant messages
- Social media
Open items or items you are waiting for from others:
- Delegated items
- Requests for information
- Tasks and/or projects to be completed
Upcoming personal events, including:
- Special occasions
- Civic events
- Social events:
Completing this brain dump will probably take you anywhere from 15 minutes to two or more hours, depending on how much popcorn you have been storing in your head. Try to make this exercise fun or at least pleasurable: drink your favorite beverage, turn on your preferred music, use your favorite pen, light a scented candle – you know what works for you.
A word of caution: During the brain-dump process, you might end up riding an emotional roller coaster. A wild array of feelings may race through your mind, from “Oh my gosh! I am completely overwhelmed! I have 300+ things on my list! I will never get this done! Why am I even considering doing this? How did I let this happen!” to “Wow, I feel good! It’s like someone has released the pressure cooker inside my brain. Oh, I feel so much lighter! I feel free!”
Do not let the emotional gyrations you may experience bother you. Ride the roller coaster! I promise the crazy mood swings will stop. Stay focused on the end goal – working simply, efficiently, and effectively. It is almost impossible to prioritize, plan, and efficiently execute when your to-dos are trapped inside your head. Get them out into the physical world—and free your brain to do the productive work it does best.