how to zero your mind like you would zero your email inbox.

Zero your cerebral inbox.

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.

Handy resources.

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.

  19 comments for “Zero your cerebral inbox.

  1. April 24, 2014 at 12:10 am

    Ah, yes. This would be nice. Shangri la in fact. But I work better under stress. It gets my adrenalin flowing and I become more productive! I agree that prioritizing is the key, I don’t understand the one about not thinking repetitively. You only do that when you aren’t busy. My biggest problem is underestimating the time it takes to accomplish things, so I would recommend adding “Be realistic” about your time. I will work on your other suggestions too. Thank you!
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    • Johnny Moneyseed
      April 24, 2014 at 6:50 pm

      Oh there’s nothing inherently wrong with stress, but there are good types and bad types of stress. Getting the crap out and organized allows you to focus on the good stress. It allows your mind to think about the task as hand rather than dividing your attention 100 ways.

    • May 10, 2014 at 8:52 am

      I’m also very bad at estimating time to complete tasks! But a big part of that is I get distracted by other tasks, so this method of writing everything down and prioritising should help a lot with that (I already do this at work but not with outside of work tasks so much… not sure why I haven’t bridged that logical gap yet… oh well)

      I’m already using Evernote for various things and keeping half-assed to do lists, so I think I will start to use it even more now. It’s really great!

      Don’t suppose there is any chance of seeing an example list of yours, how you organised it and so on, JM? I think that would be very useful.

  2. April 24, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Awesome tips here, JM. I often find my head filled to overflowing with my to-do list, but as soon as I either write it down, or get it done now rather than later, I feel SO much better. It enables me to be more creative too, and think bigger picture, b/c my mind isn’t filled up with menial stuff like having to go to the store to get milk. :-)

  3. April 24, 2014 at 8:59 am

    This post hit me at the right time. My life is a little insane right now and I definitely need to clean out my inbox, and organize my mental files.

    Thaks for the reminder.

  4. Andrew
    April 24, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Hey, long time reader and first time commentator here. This was a great article and I am going to put this to practice right away. One of the things I struggle with day to day is the stress of keeping everything I need to do organized and the constant fear of “am i forgetting something”.

    • Johnny Moneyseed
      April 24, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      Andrew — Thanks for commenting. Sounds like you would benefit from writing everything down. If you’re worried about physically forgetting stuff, leave it by the front door or under your keys, making it virtually impossible to leave behind. If it’s logical stuff, make sure it’s written out and check off the tasks you’ve completed. This will help to eliminate that left behind feeling.

      • Kelsey
        April 28, 2014 at 10:30 am

        I have found that for physically forgetting things, it really helps to put those things where they need to be immediately. For example, if I need to return a book to the library, just leaving it by my keys probably won’t work, I need to put it in my car as soon as I think of it. If it’s silverware for my lunch the next day, I put it in my lunchbag that night or else who knows what I’ll be eating with at lunch!

  5. April 24, 2014 at 9:34 am

    This is great! Nice to see you on Lifehacker again. :)

  6. April 24, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    Great post. I have so much going on in my mind at any given moment that it actually makes me physically exhausted. There’s a lot I want to do and/or know I should do, but I get overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. I can also be very scatterbrained. These tips sound like they would really help.

  7. Ben
    April 24, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    Excellent article that sheds a lot of light on the need to get it out of our heads. For those interested these guys came up with this cool system that combines GTD and Evernote i’ve been using it for a while now and love it. Also its free so can’t beat that!

    • Johnny Moneyseed
      April 24, 2014 at 6:54 pm

      Ben — Nice, I’ll have to check that out.

  8. Helen
    April 25, 2014 at 5:05 am

    Keeping everything in your head doesn’t just add to stress – it also makes you less creative and productive.

    The brain can only handle so many thoughts at a time. If you’re thinking about too many things at once (even subconsciously), you go into cognitive overload. Your ability to think, to be creative and to problem solve drops.

    By freeing your head of extraneous thoughts, you can focus on the current task at hand while knowing that you haven’t “forgotten” about the other things that need doing later.

  9. April 25, 2014 at 10:21 am

    I love the 5 minute rule. I used it all time. I meant to write this comments 5 mins ago but I put away my laundry first.

  10. Michael
    April 26, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    This was a great read with ideas that I can use right away. The 5 minute rule is pure gold. It’s a constant struggle for me to keep all those thoughts out of my head and somewhere concrete, but I keep working on it. What’s worse in my situation is that I constantly second-guess my choice of tools for GTD. I end up starting with one, trying something else, going back, then trying another. I end up with notes and ideas scattered all over the place which just stresses me out more. Now that’s a challenge.

    Enjoyed the tips though. Definitely plan to put them to use in some way starting now.

  11. April 28, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    I loved reading GTD and I’ve even implemented some of the techniques discussed in the book. However, I haven’t implemented the system 100%. Eventually I’d like to block out a few days and sort through my entire life, but before that, the few tactics I have implemented are still very helpful to me. Great post!

  12. May 1, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    How come I can do this at work, but nowhere else?!

    This is how we make things happen at work, PM 101, but when I get home, it all goes out the window. I need to do this for my home and my blog. Might actually accomplish a few more things that way.

  13. Living Cheap In London
    May 12, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    I was lucky enough to get to an actual Dave Allen presentation with my work about 10 years back. Life changing. Keeping organised and ‘on track’ is obviously not everyone’s idea of how to stay relaxed, but for me it changed how I felt about all of my life: not just the work component which of course was the focus of interest for my employer sending me to the seminar.

    I’m sure getting more organised and just getting things done has paid back major dividends in my FI/downshift journey.

    • Johnny Moneyseed
      May 13, 2014 at 5:49 pm

      I’d love to see him talk. He’s pretty inspiring, I just wish the book was more focused on personal life than the workplace.

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