Use These Action Lists to Free Your Mind and Get More Things Done

action lists
By David Allen

Your brain can’t possibly remember all the thoughts that swirl through your head during the day.

What’s the name of that person I’m supposed to call? What time am I supposed to pick the kid up from school on Thursday? And so much more…

The problem is, all these thoughts make for a clogged mind, hindering your creativity and ability to effectively get things done.

That’s why organizational productivity experts David Allen and Brandon Hall teamed up to write “The Getting Things Done Workbook”. In the workbook you’ll find step-by-step guides to stress-free efficiency, including how to make proper action lists and more.

So how exactly can we rid ourselves of these overbearing subconscious thoughts to create more mental space for creativity and mindfulness?

Try a “mind sweep”

This is a procedure that captures and clears one’s head of each and everything that has one’s attention. It can range from “I need a new adapter” to “I might want to get an MBA” to “What do we do about Mom’s birthday?”

It’s not a process of organizing or prioritizing—that can come later.

It’s simply externalizing in some recorded form what keeps popping into one’s head. This includes which decision to make and its (potential) action. It’s an inventory of all the “would’s,” “should’s,” “could’s,” “need to’s,” “might want to’s,” that continually bang around in the psyche.

Your mind is a terrible office. The brain did not evolve to be a reminder system.

Getting Things Done Workbook

Recent cognitive science research estimated that the number of things one could remember, prioritize, remind oneself of and manage the relationship between appropriately, is four.

Anything beyond that diminishes one’s cognitive capabilities. It tends to foster decisions and actions based upon whatever is showing up latest and loudest in one’s universe, as opposed to making intelligent, intuitive choices.

So we need to pay attention to what has our attention, whether it’s little, big, professional or personal. “I need a new adapter” and “I need a business plan for my start-up” take up the same brain-space if they’re not captured and objectified in some trusted external place. Either one could wake you up at 3am.

If there is no trusted reminder of those kinds of things external to one’s mind, they sit in a part of the psyche that seems to have no sense of past or future.

They are all now in terms of what we “should be doing”. That’s why they continually spin in the consciousness, mostly subliminally. They emerge in random moments of conscious awareness, usually at times we can’t do anything about them (e.g. at 3am).

Why you should “capture” your thoughts

It’s just as important to capture the little things as it is the big ones. Because if you don’t give appropriate attention to them, they will take more of your attention than they deserve.

These also represent agreements with our selves, no matter how big or little. They show up in one’s head because there’s some level of commitment to decide and potentially do something about them. They indicate a situation not yet on “cruise control.” This means our needed activity isn’t appropriately organized and implemented into a trusted system or process. And they take up psychological space which is then not available for other things, such as creative thinking.

At some point everyone has felt overwhelmed and confused. Sitting down and making a list helps you feel more in control and focused about the matters at hand. What changed after that? The situation didn’t—it’s still the way it was. What changed is the most important thing to change: how you are engaged with the situation.

If you like the feeling of being more focused and in control of your universe and were to reverse engineer that experience—how you created it—you would never keep anything in your head the rest of your life.

Tools you need to for “capturing” a “mind sweep”

Now, if you buy into this idea, you must have appropriate tools for capturing inputs and ideas as they come. You already have some obvious ones: your physical mailbox and your email in-basket. And the most efficient, in addition to those, would be pen and paper. No wi-fi or batteries required. A notepad on your desk and one portable version to carry with you for meetings is also a great idea.

You want to be able to capture things anywhere, any time. Some of your best ideas don’t happen where you are going to implement them. They often occur in some of the most random places—going for a walk, lying on a beach or while you’re buying groceries.

You can also use digital tools for capturing, like your phone, iPad and computer. Though your notes can disappear into the complexity of your digital system if not accessed regularly. Any tool can work, as long as you work it.

Capturing via mind-sweeping is a critical first step in keeping your head clear and optimizing your productivity. It provides the important raw materials you can use to clarify, organize and prioritize your thoughts. In order to make trusted choices about what to do moment to moment.

Use the right verbs for your action lists

Over the years we’ve found it makes a big difference to use the appropriate verb to describe the action in lists and projects you need reminders for.

If you only see “Get mom a birthday present” on some reminder list, it still has a psychological gap. Like where and how, exactly, are you going to move on that? “Surf the web for mom’s present” lowers the barrier of entry to engage in this commitment.

When you’ve already decided what “doing” looks like and where it happens, it’s much easier in the midst of your day-to-day busy-ness to take the few minutes to make progress.

Even something that may seem as obvious as “Write the article for the newspaper” can be daunting to your psyche and cause you to procrastinate. “Draft article for newspaper” is so much more palatable and motivating. “Draft” means it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, making it a whole lot easier to get started.

This may seem simple, but it’s not simplistic. Definitions of the necessary specific action and outcome in our lists are key to productive involvement with our commitments and interests. And they don’t show up by themselves. You actually have to think and make decisions to clarify what you need to do in your action lists.

What is a “Someday/maybe” list?

We all have things we might want to do at some point, but not right now. This might be because we don’t have the time or money required, or we’re not totally sure we should commit to doing them yet.

These could include “bucket list” kinds of experiences, such as learning another language, sailing around the world or learning the tango. It could even be something you want to do with your family if you have a free weekend, like going bowling or taking a cooking class together.

But why capture those things on a list? For one thing, there’s no need to keep thinking about them, unless it’s enjoyable doing that. So, just like the reasons for a Mind Sweep, it helps to keep your head clear. Especially when you know you have those ideas parked someplace you can refer to when you want. It’s also great to review those lists every so often, reminding you of cool stuff you may have forgotten about.

Another and more subtle aspect is that it can keep you thinking creatively without overwhelming you with too much to do.

Many people have committed to way more projects and action than they could possibly manage well; and the Someday/Maybe list can serve as a release valve for parking not-so-critical, not-so-urgent things to do.

For many people, this list allows them to open their thinking, which had shut down because the feeling of too many prior commitments.

You probably have more than one kind of Someday/Maybe list lurking in your psyche. Including, books you might want to read, recipes you’d like to use, movies people recommended, places to visit, etc.

Having a trusted list-management system, will give you the freedom to create and maintain many interesting and fun possibilities for yourself. Make as many of these kinds of these action lists as you’d like. You may, as many people do, discover that simply having and populating these lists creates automatic motivation to do a “someday” today.

David Allen, co-author with Brandon Hall of “THE GETTING THINGS DONE WORKBOOK: 10 Moves to Stress-Free Productivity” (Penguin Books), is an international best-selling author. He’s widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on personal and organizational productivity.

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