Get Outta My Head and Into My. . .

To paraphrase Billy Ocean a bit, today’s post is all about getting material out of your head and into your task capture system (not as catchy, I know). Writing down what you need to do is the most fundamental building block in a comprehensive productivity framework. It’s a seemingly simple tool, but it really is the 80/20 tool in the framework. Simply keeping everything you need to do in one place that you check regularly will do more for your productivity and peace of mind than any other single behavior change. So let’s take a few minutes to step through why your head is a garbage place to store tasks, the importance of making your system comprehensive, how to trust that system, and finally, what are some of the tools you can choose from to make sure you find one that fits your needs and your life.  

So, as we’ve talked about before, I like to follow David Allen’s example in defining task capture as getting things out of your head and into a system you trust. You don’t want to keep your tasks in your head if you can avoid it for a few reasons. First off, if you store your to do’s in your head, they will pop up like eager puppies trying to lick your face and distract you from concentrating. This situation will totally destroy your focus - even a clear mind is still pretty full of “Monkey Mind” thoughts, but one full of to do’s might as well be the primate house at the zoo. Secondly, when you are relying on memory for tasks, it is much harder to intentionally prioritize what you should do and much easier to do whatever you happen to remember. Acting on whatever happens to come into your head leads to more reactivity and less purposeful action towards strategic goals. Finally, the unfortunate truth is that even the best memories are spotty. It’s really easy to “lose” stuff, even important stuff. To really solidify something, our memories require all kinds of context and reinforcement, which most of just don’t do with transient to do’s. Sure, you could mitigate this by improving your memory techniques, and such techniques have all kinds of great benefits, but I personally feel like the amount of effort required to master them is better put into memorizing things of more lasting value, so for tasks, I have outsourced the hard work of remembering to pen and paper.

Simply writing tasks down won’t totally do the job of getting them out of your head, though, you have to put them into a system that is comprehensive. Basically, this means that you need a home for everything you need to keep track of or worry about. Not everything has to go in the same place, and you will likely have a few components to your system, but to paraphrase Einstein, a good task capture system should be “as simple as possible, but no simpler.” At a minimum, you will likely want a calendar and a task list. Now, different people take different approaches here, and as we’ll discuss in a moment, an essential component to trusting your system is that it works for you and your own weird brain. As an example of some different approaches, you might take a fixed schedule approach as Cal Newport Recommends, or you might take a Weekly/Daily Goals approach like Scott Young recommends. One approach I would encourage you not to take is keeping everything in your calendar, for reasons that are again best explained by David Allen. Your calendar should be your map of the day, showing the fixed terrain you have to navigate around. The more you introduce optional stuff that isn’t actually fixed, or that you can do at any time, the less trust you will have in the parts that are fixed. In other words, if you get used to ignoring or moving self-determined tasks on your calendar, you’ll erode how seriously you take appointments that are actual obligations to other people - which is bad news. Besides a calendar, you’ll want one or more ways of keeping track of tasks - some folks like to maintain a sharp separation of work and personal tasks, others like to sort their tasks by context, and others like to have one unified place for everything. I fall into that last camp, and I use my Bullet Journal for all tasks, both personal and work. Some folks supplement other tools with an @ACTION folder in their email client, where they keep any emails that require an action until they complete it. Personally, I have found the benefits of reducing the number of tools in my task capture system outweigh the benefits of convenience in processing emails. Your mileage may vary, and experimentation is the best way to find out. 

Writing down all of your tasks comprehensively won’t do you any good if you don't trust your system. Today, I want to stress the importance of habit building when it comes to learning to trust your task capture tools. You have to train yourself to turn to your task capture system anytime you ask yourself “what should I be doing right now?” This is all pretty abstract, so let me give you a concrete example of what I mean by a system that you trust. You get to the office and you know you have some meetings today, but you can’t quite remember which ones or when they are, so you pull up your calendar. You see what you have to do, reorient yourself to the day, and trust your reminders to let you know when you need to pack up and head to the conference room. That’s a system you trust. Building up that kind of trust takes some time, but it will go much faster if you choose a system that you enjoy and find convenient. As I’ve said before, I’m all about making it easier to do the right thing, and it’s such an easy step to choose task capture tools that you find pleasant and satisfying. What do I mean by satisfying and pleasant? Wunderlist has a nice little “ding!” that sounds when you check off a task that fades from the screen. I use a hefty Leuchtturm 1917 notebook (in Army Green, naturally) with a lovely Saddleback Leather cover. I also write with fancy fountain pens. One friend of mine uses checklists in OneNote, because he likes to be able to organize and search the stuff he’s done in the past. The specifics are not important, as everyone has slightly different tastes in convenience and aesthetics - what is important is that you like your tools.

Speaking of tools, I’ve alluded to a few above, but there is really an embarrassment of riches out there. For the ultimate in a flexible analog system, go for the largely DIY Bullet Journal. There are tons of inspiring (and intimidating) examples on Pinterest and people’s personal blogs. Unless they are dead set on something digital, I recommend that my clients give Bullet Journaling a go - it feels a bit awkward at first, but becomes quite satisfying very quickly. Speaking of digital options, Evernote and OneNote have various task management systems built in, but I personally prefer to use these systems better as reference tools, and  mixing reference and task capture systems seems to muddy the mental waters. Other people swear by them as task management tools, though, so go with it if it feels right for you. The above mentioned Wunderlist is an easy (and free) online/mobile tool, and it’s what I use for recurring checklists. It’s also owned by Microsoft, and you’re starting to see the first few indications of integration with the rest of the Office Suite, which might create some useful workflows. A friend of mine prefers Stripes as more aesthetically pleasing and less clunky for his own checklists. For calendars, I recommend you just go with whatever calendar you are already using due to work or personal constraints - which probably means one of Google Calendar, Apple Calendar, or Microsoft Outlook. You might have some good reasons for keeping work and personal calendars separate, but if you can at all avoid it and consolidate things, I recommend you do. Finally, to return to analog options, there are a variety of pre-printed planners out there. One very nice brand that seems to cater more to the ladies is called Day Designer - I’ve yet to find something  as nice and comprehensive in a more macho style, but my wife swears by hers. 

Task capture is just one piece of a complete Productivity Framework, but even if you do nothing else besides write down what you have to do, you are way ahead of the pack. Getting work out of your head will give you a great sense of mental clarity, will improve your consistency in keeping track of slippery tasks, and will help to make everything on your plate a lot more palatable by breaking it into bite-sized, visible tasks. Don’t worry about getting it perfect from the start - you almost definitely won’t, and will have to tweak and adjust as you go, but that’s the beauty of continuous improvement. Have I missed any of your favorite task capture tools? Any approaches I haven’t touched on here? Let me know!


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