You can’t keep it all in your head. No matter how hard you try, no matter how good your memory is, things slip through the cracks. Note taking isn’t just a skill to help you capture the highlights from a calculus lecture. Note taking is an essential practice to keep track of your to-dos in order to clear your mind for high level thinking.
It takes energy remembering important information. If you’ve ever been nervous about an important phone call, you know what it feels like to be constantly checking your phone to make sure you didn’t miss the time. There are dozens of little items we need to remember every day and that energy it takes to keep them in the back of our heads takes away mental resources from other tasks. It’s hard to be deep in thought and do productive work when you’re constantly preoccupied.
You need some way to get those thoughts out of your head. You have more important things to think about than the minor details.
Here are two action steps to start automating your life and clearing your mind to do high level thinking:
Forming productive routines allows you to reduce the number of decisions you need to make. We’ve all heard how Mark Zuckerburg wears the same thing every day and Barack Obama only wore two colors of suits in office. Executive level people do everything they can to reduce the number of decisions they need to make. While you might not be a CEO right now, you need to form productive habits if you ever hope to get there.
I eat oatmeal every morning. The same exact recipe. That’s one decision I don’t have to make. More generally, in the mornings I wake up, do a short physical activity (push-ups, yoga, etc..) meditate for a few minutes, make my oatmeal and get ready for the day. Those are all habits that have gradually formed my morning routine. The more habits you have, the less you have to worry about keeping information in your head. Things just happen as they should.
Find a consistent place to write to dos
People make lots of to do lists and they rarely have the desired effect. The two major problems are that people don’t revisit their lists and people don’t take action.
Here’s how I solve these two problems:
I have a note in my phone called “Shut down ritual” where I write down what I’ve accomplished each day and my to dos for tomorrow. Every morning, I drive to work knowing that I can start the day with a clear mind since my to dos await me in my note. Once I’m ready to start, I open it up and get started. Since I use the note every day, the revisiting problem is solved.
The problem of not taking action is a little trickier, but here’s what I’ve figured out: If you write something down five days in a row, you should take it off the list. If you’ve written the same to do for an entire week, yet every day you don’t work on it or make any progress, you need to change it up. Either delete it entirely because it’s a low priority, or modify the to do into a smaller, more bite sized chunk that you could tackle tomorrow.
These habits will keep your productivity machine churning while at the same time creating the mental space for you to think about the big picture.
A mind that’s worrying about a to do list is a mind that won’t be able focus fully on an important conversation. Find a place to collect to dos and let that be your north star. Feel free to wander into conversations, and brainstorms and whatever else comes up knowing that you can always return to the north star. Clear your mind and improve your output.