Our brains are capable of amazing things. They’re responsible for every single advance in human civilization, and after thousands of years of evolution our brains have grown in size and complexity. We know more now than we ever have before. But, without fine tuning our thought process and how we actually act on our thoughts our brains end up being piles of mush that just spew ideas back and forth creating stress and anxiety in our lives.
Researchers say that everyday about 50,000 thoughts go through our heads. This can be anything from thinking “damn that girl/guy is sexy” to “I need to buy a garbage bag full of lemons this week.” 50,000 thoughts that range anywhere from the trivial to the oh-shit-total-life-crisis and most of these thoughts that could be actionable end up wasting brain energy.
I used to think that I was operating at maximum efficiency as an intelligent human being. I wrote down stuff occasionally that I wanted to complete, and I was actually completing most of the things that I had written down. Occasionally things would slip through the cracks because some of the line items became obsolete, some of them were too big and got deferred, among other reasons. Writing down goals is a great way to start, but it’s only the first step toward clearing your mind and absolving it of stressors.
Have you ever had a thought that occurred more than once concerning something that you had to accomplish? Maybe your thought was something like this: “I really need to send a card to my uncle Norbert”. You didn’t act on it, because you knew that you didn’t have to immediately. But then that thought rolled into your subconscious mind again. What you don’t realize is that this thought is actually causing you stress, and that’s why your brain regurgitated it. Your brain has been silently stressing itself out over your lack of action.
So, potentially you have 50,000 thoughts that need some form of exodus from your brain so your subconscious will stop harping over the petty — and the huge — stuff that’s on your mind. Fortunately for us there is a better way to live, although few people figure it out — mainly because they think they’re already operating at maximum efficiency.
You’ve heard of Zeroing your email inbox, right? The following approach is a way to Zero your brain — and it’s super easy to put into action.
1. Get it all out.
The first thing you need to do to clear your mind, and begin tackling problems logically, is to write out every single thought you have that needs to be acted on. Seriously, it doesn’t matter how trivial it is, because these thoughts need somewhere to go. We don’t want our brains to think that we aren’t in control.
Writing down EVERYTHING gives us a little bit more control, because we’ll start to realize that we have a lot more that we want to accomplish than we think we do. The more we get out, the more other thoughts will have room to surface. This is great, but it’s just the beginning.
Don’t write down aimless thoughts. You can’t act on something like “ooooh that car is a shiny blue”. But if you thought “I should paint my car a shiny blue” then you need to write that crap down!
2. Organize and categorize.
Every time a new thought is added to your list you need to create two labels for them. One is urgency — how soon does this need to be completed? And priority — should I complete this task first or another one? At first you’ll be labeling everything like crazy. After a few days using this system you’ll only have to determine the urgency/priority of new thoughts, because we’ve already taken care of everything else.
3. Add your organized thoughts to a calendar.
Here’s where things start to get cool.
After we’ve assigned our urgency, we’ll know roughly when our task should be completed. Now we can assign a date to the task and add it to our calendar. This lets us focus on the tasks with a closer deadline now, and defer ALL other projects until later. Our minds will start to relax at this point, because we’re telling our brains that the stuff it wants to get done WILL get done on our terms.
Our subconscious mind should start to shut off and open up, because it likes to not have to think about the same stuff over and over again.
4. Don’t let yourself think repetitively.
Your thoughts have been written down, assigned a priority/urgency level and have been added to your trusty calendar. Now, it’s time to see if things are working efficiently in your brain. Having everything out of your system should free your mind to think more creatively. Stress levels will be lower, because you know that you have everything under control.
A repetitive thought is a way for your brain to tell you that it needs something done. If you’re having repetitive thoughts that have already made it to your calendar, maybe you should reclassify its urgency. Your subconscious is pretty powerful, and if it’s making suggestions, it’s probably right.
5. Assign first/next actions.
This is the part of goal or list making that people don’t usually take into account. Sometimes tasks are vague, and just thinking about them stresses the shit out of us. This is because we haven’t defined our path to completion for the task. Every task can be completed if we break them into tiny chunks. If you think to yourself that you want to build a house, you can imagine yourself banging in the last nail and standing back thinking about what a good job you did. Thinking about how to start the project may be a little bit harder.
Say that our goal was to build a house and we labeled it with a high priority. You want to start building your house next week. How the hell do you make that leap if you haven’t completed one step of the process yet? Easy. You’d figure out what the first thing you need to do is. That’s what goes on your calendar. It may be “talk with an employee at Home Depot”, “watch some house building videos online” or “read the local laws to determine what permits are needed”.
The first action should be added to every item on your calendar (unless the tasks are single steps, of course). Once you’ve completed the first action, you’ll go through a similar thought process to determine what the next action should be to complete your task. Add the next action to your calendar.
Repeat this process constantly and don’t stop when you think you have it under control. This process will become second-nature and should be maintained for the foreseeable future to reduce risk of unnecessary stress.
6. The “five minutes or less” rule.
How often have you thought that you should do a task that would only take you about 5 minutes to complete, but instead you put it off until later? Things like doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, making the bed, or folding laundry often end up being put off which means two things: you’re robbing your future self of time, and you’re adding stress to your brain whether you think you are or not.
Every time you have a thought (and right before you write it down) you need to think “Could I complete this task in less than five minutes?” AND “Do I have five minutes to spare right now?”. If the answer is YES to both of these questions, then guess what. You’re going to be completing the task immediately. Then, you don’t have to worry about the dishes, or the bed, or the mail or whatever.
7. Drop it like it’s hot.
You know yourself better than anyone else, so you should understand whether your goals will come to fruition or not. Don’t lie to yourself, because it only hurts you (and adds more stress to your life).
Drop any tasks that you don’t think you stand a chance of completing. It’s nice to think that you’re a superstar and you can do anything you put your mind to, but WILL YOU? That’s the real question. If you won’t, then toss that task in the shredder.
When I started keeping track of everything in my life I started using Evernote. It’s a free online service that offers a companion desktop application as well as mobile apps, and it’s main goal is to help you organize your life. Since you’ll typically always have a computer in front of you or a cell phone in your pocket, what better way to keep your thoughts in order than a program that was designed to keep your thoughts in order?! Evernote is free if you’re uploading 60MB of data or less each month.
Google also has their own version of Evernote, that I’ve actually migrated to. It’s called Google Keep, and I think it’s fantastic. It’s completely free. It syncs across your Google devices automatically. And it has a beautiful color-coordination system which is useful for setting priorities on your goals. I highly recommend this for anyone looking for a good productivity enhancement tool.
If you want to read more about this topic and how you can apply it to a more business-oriented setting, then you can check out Best Selling author David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity from either Amazon or your local library. He goes into heavy detail about how to prioritize work-related tasks, through most of the steps listed above, and the use of filing cabinets, inboxes, etc. He’s a super smart dude and it’s a nice quick read.