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Last Updated on December 14, 2017

Would You Like To Maximise Your Brain? Try Emptying It First

Would You Like To Maximise Your Brain? Try Emptying It First

Keeping track of everything that you ought to remember and everything that you need to do can be overwhelming. Does it ever seem like your mind is completely overloaded? There’s always something that needs your attention.

Keeping all those tidbits of information in your head is mind-boggling, and it keeps you from being able to relax. Externalising your tasks by writing them down is a simple way to free up your metal space and get organised.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, a “brain dump” is the perfect way to reduce stress, focus, and get motivated.

There’s nothing wrong with externalising

Some people deny the value of externalising or feel that it’s a sign of weakness. They may feel that a need to write things down means that you don’t have a good memory or the mental capacity to keep up. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

We come by this aversion to writing things down honestly. Socrates felt that writing destroyed our memory and weakened our minds. He even argued that it was “inhuman” to write things down.

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Sometimes pulling out the pen and notepad seems like a step we could skip. For example, you could go to the supermarket without making a grocery list, or pack your suitcase without a packing list. Just because you could, doesn’t mean you should.

Without a list, you’ll end up going over-budget at the grocery store, or you’ll forget to buy something. Without making a packing list, the likelihood that you forget an essential item like your phone charger or travel adapter increases dramatically.

    Your brain isn’t meant to juggle so many things at once

    Our brains are powerful, but research shows that we don’t multi-task very well.[1] When you multi-task, your brain splits your attention. You may think that you are doing two tasks at once effectively, but your mind is just flipping back and forth between them.

    You can only hang on to a few ideas at a time, and you can only truly focus on one task. Your brain also doesn’t prioritize very well. Your emails, your to-do list, that thing you have to remember, an item you’re waiting on, and the task you’re trying to complete are all competing for your attention.

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      Our brains are made to solve problems and make connections. They aren’t so great at holding onto tidbits of information that we could easily externalize.

      Here are ways that you can (and should) externalise

      1. Make a to-do list. When you write down what you need to do, the thought of those tasks won’t clog your short-term memory.
      2. Use a calendar. Adding your appointments and meetings to your calendar keeps you from having to worry about them. Those items come into your mental space only when you need to focus on them, which keeps you from worrying about whether you’re forgetting something all the time.
      3. Make shopping lists. There’s nothing more frustrating than coming home from the store only to realise that you’ve forgotten what you went there for in the first place. A shopping list will save you time, and it will help you stick to a budget.

      Imagine what you could do with more mental bandwidth

      Freeing up mental space occupied by trivial items gives your brain the chance to do what it’s built for: coming up with new ideas and making connections.

      Your mind has such an incredible capacity for innovation, but it’s the wrong place to store everything you need to get done. It’s not made to house your to-do lists and appointment calendar. The more you can get rid of these things that are taking up your mental space, the more clearly you’ll think.

      In the late 1920s, the Zeigarnik Effect was discovered. This psychological concept explains that our brains hold on to incomplete or interrupted tasks more readily than they hold onto completed ones.[2] The things you haven’t finished take up more bandwidth than things you’ve already done.

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      Put theory into practice

      When I emptied my mind of all the things weighing on it, I realised how the Zeigarnik Effect influenced my life. After I cleared my mind by externalising everything that I could, I had so much more mental clarity, and I was more relaxed than I had been for a long time.

      I also learned that it’s important to capture tasks as they come up in order to maintain clarity. Getting unresolved commitments out of my head and onto task lists was great, but new things were constantly coming up. I had develop a system to keep those low-return tasks from taking over.

      Find a system for externalising that works for you

      Some of the most productive people I know rely on good old-fashioned pen and paper to keep their commitments in order. This is a great system, but it’s not the only way to approach externalisation.

      I’ve settled into a system that integrates seamlessly with my life. You have to find something that seems completely natural to you. It should make it easy for you to see, manage, and prioritise everything that needs your attention. Choosing the right system makes things come together almost effortlessly.

      The ‘Waiting For’ list is a powerful tool to add to your productivity arsenal.[3] It adds a new dimension to your to-do list. Instead of just tracking what you need to complete, you also note things that you are waiting on to complete those tasks.

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      For example, imagine you’re planning an event, but you need a formal request document signed by a superior to order supplies. Your ‘Waiting For’ list would include something like “Receive signed formal request from the boss.”

      Having such a list can help you understand what parts of your projects are within your control and what needs the input of others. Tracking this can let you know whom to follow up with if you don’t have everything you need.

      This system is simple to integrate. Of course, you can write your list by hand, but you can also develop a system for handling emails. After you send emails that need responses, drag those messages into a ‘Waiting For’ folder. You’ll be able to see what you need to be tracking, and it will help you catch important messages that might end up in your spam folder.

      Free your mind

      There’s nothing noble about trying to make your brain do things that it doesn’t do very well. Develop a system to externalise what you need to do. You’ll feel less stressed, and you’ll be so much more effective when you’re free to focus.

      Reference

      More by this author

      Leon Ho

      Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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      Last Updated on July 19, 2018

      What Is Procrastination (And the Complete Guide to Stop Procrastinating)

      What Is Procrastination (And the Complete Guide to Stop Procrastinating)

      If you have so many things to do that you often find yourself struggling to finish projects and tasks and move on to other stuff, you’re certainly not alone. Studies show that over 20 percent of the adult population put off or avoid doing certain tasks by allowing themselves to be overtaken by distractions.[1]

      What about the rest of the population? What do they do to prevent procrastination?

      In this article, I am going to explain to you why procrastination is so difficult to beat and how you can stop procrastinating once and for all by following a step-by-step guide. But first, you need to understand how procrastination happens.

      What is procrastination

      Piers Steel, the author of the book The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, defines procrastination in this way:[2]

      “Procrastination is to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.”

      In other words, procrastination is doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones. The end result is that important tasks are put off to a later time.

      This comic is one of the typical examples of procrastination:

        Why stopping procrastination is difficult

        Human beings have limited self-control. Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist from Florida State University, has been studying self-control and he has found that just like any muscles, human’s self-control is a limited resource that can quickly become exhausted.[3] When self-control is close to being depleted, human tend to choose what’s more pleasurable– the immediate procrastinated tasks instead of the actual works.

        At its core, procrastination is an avoidance strategy. Procrastinators choose to do something else instead of doing what they need to do because it’s much easier to choose pleasure over pain.

        In short, procrastination is so difficult to beat because it is a battle against human’s natural enemy, a human weakness that is in-born.

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        A step-by-step guide to stop procrastinating

        Despite the fact that it’s human nature to seek for immediate rewards and procrastinate, here I have a step-by-step guide for you to follow so as to stop procrastinating.

        1. Identify your triggers: the 5 types of procrastinator

        Identifying the type of procrastination you personally experience is an essential step for you to fix the problem at its root.

        Take a look at this flowchart here to find out what type of procrastinator you are:

          Which type of procrastinator are you? Let’s take a look at the triggers for your procrastination type:

          Perfectionist

          Being perfect is the pleasure perfectionists want. But often this leads to them being too scared to show any imperfections. Because of this, they frequently fail to complete things, as they’re forever seeking the perfect timing or approach. Tasks end up never being completed, because in the eyes of the perfectionist, things are never perfect enough.

          Instead of finishing something, perfectionists get caught up in a never-ending cycle of additions, edits, and deletions.

          Ostrich

          An ostrich prefers to stay in the dreaming stage. That way, they don’t have to work for real, or deal with any negativity or stress.

          Dreaming gives this type of people a false sense of achievement, as in their minds, they envision big, ambitious plans. Unfortunately for them, these plans will most likely stay as dreams, and they’ll never accomplish anything truly worthwhile.

          Self-saboteur

          A self-saboteur has bought into the line that ‘by doing nothing, bad things won’t happen.’

          In reality, self-saboteurs have developed a fear of making mistakes or doing anything wrong. Their way to avoid these mishaps, is to do nothing at all. In the end, they may make few mistakes – but they also see few accomplishments.

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          Daredevil

          Daredevils are those who believe that deadlines can push them to do better. Instead of having a schedule to complete their work – they prefer to enjoy time doing their own thing before the deadline comes around.

          It’s most likely an unconscious thing, but daredevils evidently believe that starting early will sacrifice their time for pleasure. This is reinforced in their minds and feelings, by the many times they manage to get away with burning the midnight oil. Often they sacrifice the quality of their work because of rushing it.

          Chicken

          Chickens lack the ability to prioritize their work. They do what they feel like they should do, rather than thinking through what they really need to do.

          Prioritizing tasks is a step that takes extra time, so chicken will feel it’s not worth it. Because of this, they usually end up doing a lot of effortless tasks that don’t contribute much to a project. They’re incessantly busy on low-impact tasks, but seem oblivious to urgent, high-impact tasks.

          2. Face your triggers and get rid of them

          Whether it’s fear of failure, overwhelming feelings, avoidance or convincing yourself you’re just too busy to get something done, you can improve your ability to be productive by eliminating your procrastination triggers.

          For Perfectionists, re-clarify your goals.

          Much of the time procrastination tendencies form simply because we’ve outgrown our goals. We’re ever-changing and so are our wants in life. Try looking over your goals and ask yourself if they’re still what you want.

          Take time out to regroup and ask yourself what you really want to achieve:

          • What steps do you need to take?
          • Is what you’re currently doing reflecting what you want?
          • What do you need to change?

          Write things down, scribble them out and rewrite.

          For Ostriches, do the difficult tasks first.

          Even if you feel you’re not a morning person, the beginning of the day is when your brain is most productive. Use this window of time to get the more difficult stuff done.

          If you leave your difficult tasks to later, you’re much more likely to put it off because you’re tired and lack motivation.

          Finishing lots of simple tasks at the beginning of the day such as reading all the new emails only gives you a false sense of being productive.

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          For Self-saboteurs, write out a to-do (and a not–to-do) list each day.

          Writing things down is powerful and psychologically increases your need to get things done.

          Each day, make a habit of creating a list of the tasks you know you’ll try and avoid. By doing this, it brings these ‘difficult’ tasks to your mind’s attention instead of keeping them locked away somewhere in your avoidance mode.

          Remember, think how satisfying and productive it feels to cross of a completed task.

          For Daredevils, create a timeline with deadlines.

          It’s common to have a deadline for a goal which seems like a good idea. But this is basically an open invitation for procrastination.

          If it’s a self-created deadline with no pressure, we tend to justify pushing it back each time it comes into sight and feel we haven’t yet done ‘enough’ to get there.

          Create a bigger timeline then within that, establish deadlines along the way. The beauty of this comes when each deadline completion is dependent on the next. It keeps you on track and keeps you accountable for being in alignment with the overall timeline.

          For Chickens, break tasks into bite-sized pieces.

          A lot of the time procrastination comes from overwhelming thoughts.

          If something feels too big to tackle and we don’t know where to start, it feels like a struggle. This is also true if our goal is too vague and lacking direction.

          Break down larger tasks into smaller ones and turn them into daily or weekly goals. Smaller steps may seem like the slower approach to achieving a goal, but it often leads you much more quickly to where you want to be due to the powerful momentum you get going.

          3. Take planned breaks

          The human brain isn’t designed to work continuously on the same task and this could be a reason for procrastination.

          Make sure you take regular, structured breaks away from your task so that you can come back refreshed and ready to be more productive.

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          A break as short as 5 minutes is enough to keep your mind sharp and wards off fatigue. I recommend you to use the Pomodoro Time Tracker. It is a great tool to help you take breaks at set intervals. Simply start the 25-minute timer, and follow the prompts.

            4.  Reward yourself

            It’s important to acknowledge and reward yourself for achieving even the small tasks. It creates a sense of motivation and releases those feel-good, productive emotions that spur you on to achieve even more.

            Make your reward proportional to the task you completed so getting a bite-sized task done gets you a cup of your favourite coffee or snack. Then plan a weekend away or fun activity for the bigger stuff.

            Personally I try to make staying focus more fun by using the app Forest. It turns productivity into a game. In the game, you can plant a virtual tree at the beginning of your work time. If you maintain focus for the duration of the timer, you’ll grow a tree to add to your forest. It’s rewarding when you can eventually grow a forest.

              5. Keep track of your time in a smart way

              If you want to prevent the bad habit of procrastination from coming back, keep track of the time you spend every day.

              By having a clear idea of where you spend your time, you can always review your productivity and know which areas to improve.

              It’s not easy to keep track of every minute you spend throughout the day so I recommend you to use the app Rescue Time.

              It gets you a categorized breakdown of how you spend your time and helps you to find out how much time you’re really on-task. You can even label activities as productive and non-productive so as to block your biggest distractions.

                Make procrastination under your control

                Procrastination exists for many reasons and only you know for yourself what these triggers are.

                Understanding what procrastination really is and the source of your avoidance tendencies is important in moving them out of the way and help you start the productivity momentum.

                Reference

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