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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 September 17, 2018

      How to Stop Multitasking and Become Way More Productive

      How to Stop Multitasking and Become Way More Productive

      Today we are expected to work in highly disruptive environments. We sit down at our desks, turn on our computer and immediately we are hit with hundreds of emails all vying for our attention.

      Our phones are beeping and pinging with new alerts to messages, likes and comments and our colleagues are complaining about the latest company initiative is designed to get us to do more work and spend less time at home.

      All these distractions result in us multitasking where our attention is switching between one crisis and the next.

      Multitasking is a problem. But how to stop multitasking?

      How bad really is multitasking?

      It dilutes your focus and attention so even the easiest of tasks become much harder and take longer to complete.

      Studies have shown that while you think you are multitasking, you are in fact task switching, which means your attention is switching between two or more pieces of work and that depletes the energy resources you have to do your work.

      This is why, even though you may have done little to no physical activity, you arrive home at the end of the day feeling exhausted and not in the mood to do anything.

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      We know it is not a good way to get quality work done, but the demands for out attention persist and rather than reduce, are likely to increase as the years go by.

      So what to do about it?

      Ways to stop multitasking and increase productivity

      Now, forget about how to multitask!

      Here are a few strategies on how to stop multitasking so you can get better quality and more work done in the time you have each working day:

      1. Get enough rest

      When you are tired, your brain has less strength to resist even the tiniest attention seeker. This is why when you find your mind wandering, it is a sign your brain is tired and time to take a break.

      This does not just mean taking breaks throughout the day, it also means making sure you get enough sleep every day.

      When you are well rested and take short regular breaks throughout the day your brain is fully refuelled and ready to focus in on the work that is important.

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      2. Plan your day

      When you don’t have a plan for the day, the day will create a plan for you. When you allow outside influences to take control of your day, it is very hard not to be dragged off in all directions.

      When you have a plan for the day, when you arrive at work your brain knows exactly what it is you want to accomplish and will subconsciously have prepared itself for a sustained period of focused work.

      Your resistance to distractions and other work will be high and you will focus much better on the work that needs doing.

      3. Remove everything from your desk and screen except for the work you are doing

      I learned this one a long time ago. In my previous work, I worked in a law office and I had case files to deal with. If I had more than one case file on my desk at any one time, I would find my eyes wandering over the other case files on my desk when I had something difficult to do.

      I was looking for something easier. This meant often I was working on three or four cases at one time and that always led to mistakes and slower completion.

      Now when I am working on something, I am in full-screen mode where all I can see is the work I am working on right now.

      4. When at your desk, do work

      We are creatures of habit. If we do our online shopping and news reading at our desks as well as our work, we will always have the temptation to be doing stuff that we should not be doing at that moment.

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      Do your online shopping from another place—your home or from your phone when you are having a break—and only do your work when at your desk. This conditions your brain to focus in on your work and not other distractions.

      5. Learn to say no

      Whenever you hear the phrase “learn to say no,” it does not mean going about being rude to everyone. What it does mean is delay saying yes.

      Most problems occur when we say “yes” immediately. We then have to spend an inordinate amount of energy thinking of ways to get ourselves out of the commitment we made.

      By saying “let me think about it” or “can I let you know later” gives you time to evaluate the offer and allows you to get back to what you were doing quicker.

      6. Turn off notifications on your computer

      For most of us, we still use computers to do our work. When you have email alert pop-ups and other notifications turned on, they will distract you no matter how strong you feel.

      Turn them off and schedule email reviewing for times between doing your focused work. Doing this will give you a lot of time back because you will be able to remain focused on the work in front of you.

      7. Find a quiet place to do your most important work

      Most workplaces have meeting rooms that are vacant. If you do have important work to get done, ask if you can use one of those rooms and do your work there.

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      You can close the door, put on your headphones and just focus on what is important. This is a great way to remove all the other, non-important, tasks demanding your attention and just focus on one piece of work.

      The bottom line

      Focusing on one piece of work at a time can be hard but the benefits to the amount of work you get done are worth it. You will make fewer mistakes, you will get more done and will feel a lot less tired at the end of the day.

      Make a list of the four or five things you want to get done the next day before you finish your work for the day and when you start the day, begin at the top of the list with the first item.

      Don’t start anything else until you have finished the first one and then move on to the second one. This one trick will help you to become way more productive.

      Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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