One of the most effective ways to clear your mind is to get everything bouncing around in your head (things you’re waiting on, things you have to do, things you have to clean up) out of your head, and into some sort of system.
This chapter contains a few of my favorite methods for clearing my mind of things I have to do or think about. If you like this little taste, I highly recommend you read my interview with David Allen if you haven’t already!
Clear to Neutral
When you walk into the kitchen and see 50 dishes in the sink, you’re a lot less likely to cook. The same holds true when you come back to your computer and there are a ton of windows open, when you wake up and there are things to get ready before you head out for a run, or when you have to clear a pile of stuff off your desk before you start working.
Enter the idea of “clearing to neutral”. Clearing to neutral is a ritual where, “whenever you finish an activity, you [move] everything so [its] is in neutral position.”1 According to Thanh Pham, a writer on the blog Asian Efficiency, when you return to an environment that is neutral, you are much less likely to put off what you want to accomplish. Returning an environment to neutral eliminates all of the friction you would have otherwise had to get started later.
Pham also lists a few other examples of returning to neutral:
- Resolving issues with family, friends, and your partner
- Setting everything up for the next morning after you finish your morning ritual
- Getting enough sleep tonight be ready for tomorrow
The bottom line: if you find yourself procrastinating, it might not all be in your head – it might be that you don’t return your environment to “neutral” to be ready for the next time you need to get stuff done. Clearing to neutral is a great way to clear your mind and focus on your New Year’s resolutions.
Start a ‘Waiting For’ list
One of the important elements of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system is keeping a list of everything you’re waiting on, so you don’t have to think about it while you work. You likely have a to-do list because if you didn’t, you would have a thousand commitments bouncing around in your head everyday. But it’s just as mentally taxing to keep track of everything you’re waiting for.
The ‘Waiting For’ list is one of my favorite parts of the GTD system, and it’s also very simple. The list is exactly what it sounds like–it’s a complete list of everything you’re waiting on at a given time.
Whether you’re waiting on an email, letter, phone call, text message, response to a voicemail, or even a package from eBay, after you add it to your Waiting For list, you can stop thinking about it and clear up valuable brain cycles to think of better things.
Then, and this part is crucial, you review your list a few times a week so nothing slips through the cracks. When you schedule reviewing your Waiting For list, you don’t have to think about it while you work, which will clear your mind of a lot of things you would normally think about. I recommend that you review your Waiting For list when you review your hotspots every week.
The list is simple, but it’s amazingly effective at reducing your stress and clearing your mind of things you have to remember.
Here are two tips to level up and make your Waiting For list even more powerful:
- Group the items by context. I divide my list into categories like: email, Internet things, texts, phone calls, and paper mail. Grouping items by what they are (or by location, like “home”, “office”, and “cottage”) significantly reduces the time it takes you to process and organize stuff in the list.
- Keep track of how long you’ve been waiting for something. I always jot down the date I started waiting for something. That way I know whether someone is late to get back to me when I look at the list, and I can use that information to politely remind that person to get on top of things.
I see the Waiting For list as the to-do list’s sexy, secret lover. Sexy, because it works so well; secret, because hardly anyone knows about it or uses it; and lover, because the two lists work so well together. The Waiting For list lets you stay on top of your work, and it will make you infinitely more productive. Still not convinced? Here are a few more benefits.
- The Waiting For list helps you focus. After you routinize adding items to the list after you send an email or leave someone a voicemail, the list essentially stays on top of things for you. You can be confident that you will stay on top of everything when it’s on the list (and you review the list frequently), and you can focus better on whatever you need to be working on in the moment.
- Nothing will slip through the cracks. When you track all of the stuff you’re waiting for, and review that list regularly, it’s pretty much impossible to not keep tabs on stuff.
- People find it pretty damn impressive when you stay on top of stuff so well. Every boss at the desk jobs I have had have been impressed with how much I remembered and got done. This list is largely the reason I was able to keep tabs on everything, while reducing my stress at the same time.
- The list doesn’t take much time to update. I keep my Waiting For list as a text file on my computer (though I’ve kept physical copies too), and it takes about five seconds to add an item to the list. That’s a tiny price to pay for the mental load and stress you’ll save!
Keeping a Waiting For list is one of the most valuable tools I know to clear your mind and focus on your goals.
Start a ‘mind capture’ ritual
Every once in a while when I find 15 minutes of quiet time, I shut everything off (my computer and cellphone included), set a timer for 15 minutes, and lay down with a blank notepad and no distractions.
I’m always surprised what I capture.
When I shut everything off, I find that my mind still runs at 10,000 RPM, churning out things like: things I have to do (but haven’t captured), things I’m waiting on, ideas for A Year of Productivity, long-term ideas and plans, and a lot more.
Most of the things I capture are valuable and actionable, and I wouldn’t have thought of them otherwise, bouncing around between so many distractions.
Here’s a picture of everything I captured the other day:
Our minds are often an arcade of thoughts that we don’t get the chance to step back and observe. When you force yourself to step back for 15 minutes with nothing more than a notepad and a pen, the thoughts bouncing around in your mind have no choice but to defragment and organize themselves while the best ones bubble to the surface.
This method is also invaluable for sticking to goals, because all of the open loops that are bouncing around in your head (things you have to do, schedule, and plan to stick to your goals) bubble to the surface.
Another similar ritual: walk around your house (or office) with just a notepad and a pen. Don’t do anything that needs to be done, no matter how small it is; just capture everything that needs to be done so it’s all in one place and out of your head.
Both of these methods capture everything you need to get done so it’s all in one place. This not only helps you organize everything you need to get done, but it also helps you clear your mind of everything you need to do, regardless of how small it is.
Next time you have a spare 15 minutes (or even if you don’t), try shutting everything off and laying down, or walking around with only a notepad. You’ll be surprised at what what you capture.
Create a ‘mindless’ list
One of the experiments I’ve done for A Year of Productivity was watch 70 hours of TED talks in a week (to experiment with information retention). During that experiment I made a wicked discovery: I could easily do mindless activities (cooking meals, cleaning, doing yard work, working out, etc.) while I listened to a TED talk. After the experiment ended I played around a bit more, and realized that even with podcasts, audiobooks, and phone conversations, I always had enough spare brain cycles to dedicate to something mindless and mechanical.
Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that our minds are able to process 110 ‘bits’ of information at once, and listening to a conversation (or TED talk/podcast/audiobook) takes about 60 bits of our attention. This is great news, because it means that even if you’re listening to a dense TED talk about dark matter, you still have spare brain cycles left over for something mindless while you listen.
Enter the mindless list.
Since you have so many spare brain cycles while you listen to a talk, podcast, audiobook, or something similar, you can easily tackle mindless activities while listening to something productive. That’s where the idea of a mindless list comes in. Your mindless list contains everything you need to do that you can do mindlessly (without thinking about it). A mindless contains:
- Tasks that require a good amount of time, but little attention
- Tasks that require no thought to complete
- Tasks that you can lean on your habits to get done
To create a mindless list, simply collect all of the mindless activities activities you need to do in one place (I diary them in a note on my phone), and when enough of them accumulate, do them all while listening to a podcast, audiobook, TED talk, or anything else that requires a good amount of attention that you can do passively.
My list usually includes stuff like:
- Washing and folding the laundry
- Sweeping the front walkway
- Raking the yard
- Cleaning and putting away dishes
- Sweeping the floors
- Shovelling the driveway
- Putting away all of the crap on my desk
Activities like these require almost no thought, which means you can listen to something productive while doing them.
My favorite part of keeping a mindless list is how simple and effective the idea is. I’m not a huge fan of multitasking, because multitasking compromises your focus and attention, and ultimately your productivity.
Mindless activities are different: they require very little of your attention, but often a lot of your time. And since you can lean on your habits to get them done, you can easily do them while you consume something more meaningful and productive, whether you consume something on your phone, the radio, or the TV.
Crossing things off of your mindless list while listening to something productive feels great and lets you get more done in less time. Plus, creating a mindless clears your mind of everything mindless that you have to do, allowing you to focus on bigger and better things. Most people keep a to-do list of all of the involved activities they want to do, but I think capturing mindless activities (while doing something productive with them) is another incredible way to clear your mind so you can focus more on your goals.
Another great way to be productive with your mindless list: lump all of the boring, maintenance tasks you do throughout the week into one solid block of time on one day. That will leave you with with time for things that are much more important for the rest of the week