Don’t think about a pink elephant! Most people, when told this, think about a pink elephant. In psychology, this is known as the “Ironic process theory”, which means that when you try to avoid thinking about something, you’re actually more likely to think about it. This sort of process also works for more concrete things, such as trying to break habits — if you’d for example try to stop smoking, thinking about how you shouldn’t smoke triggers the mechanisms in your brain that make you to want to smoke more.
This is one of the reasons knowledge work in today’s open-space environments can be difficult for some. The environment is full of stimuli from your own computer and phone and your colleagues, and telling yourself not to check your phone or talk with a colleague only makes you want to do it more. If you’re working from home, as most of us now are, things are not much easier. Even if there are no colleagues, there might be a spouse, kids, pets and a fridge to compete for your attention.
When you’re in an ideal flow-state of mind, you’re extremely focused on the single task at hand. In this state, you’re using mostly your unconscious mind — also known as System 1 — while the conscious mind — that’s System 2 — is fairly inactive. However, whenever we’re interrupted either from outside or from our own mind (for example thoughts like “Did I remember to empty the trash this morning?”), System 2 takes over again. And System 2 has severe limitations. The conscious mind can only handle 4–7 pieces of information at a time. If you’re trying to focus on a task, like writing a report, and at the same time listen to your colleagues chatting, get email notifications and another colleague is asking if you’ve seen this super funny cat video, your working memory is already at pretty much full capacity. When you are close to the limit of your working memory, your stress level increases. Therefore, we need tools to externalize our thinking: writing tasks and thoughts down so we don’t need to keep them in our heads to distract us from whatever we’re trying to focus on. This is where many will think of to-do lists.
Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.
– David Allen
However, the problem with to-do lists is that they usually include items like “create new website” and “reply to Mike’s email” in the same list, and rarely include items like “call grandma.” They don’t make a difference between larger projects and immediately achievable goals, and most often lack things we know we ought to do, but don’t feel like they’re important enough to put down on a to-do list. Thus, these things continuously pop up in our head to interrupt our flow. When we’re trying to externalize our thinking, we need one reliable system, that can deal with large amounts of information and categorize it purposefully. At AVP, we’re using Outlook, but you should pick anything you think works the best for you. Tommi Byman and Myung Gi “MJ” Suh from AVP’s communications team have now used Outlook for a month to externalize their thinking.
Step 1: Visualize & Collect
The first step is to visualize your following week and list down everything you need to do; creating a website, replying to Mike’s email, calling granny, waiting for Susan to get back to you on Teams and even checking that colleague’s cat video all go here. At this point it’s important to just write down everything that pops into your mind in one place, without any processing. In Outlook, just use the New Task function for every item. “Previously, I had a to-do list in my Notes-app and kept forgetting to do non-work related stuff because I hadn’t written them down”, says Tommi, “actually writing everything down in one place really helps, especially now that there’s no difference in physical location between work and leisure.”
Step 2: Process using the four D’s
At least once a week, we process all the information using the four D‘s: Delete, Do, Delegate, Defer. First, go through the list and see if everything is actually necessary. Often, we think we need to do something, but we realize it might not be that important after all. Delete all items that can be left undone with a clear consciousness — if you’re pressed, that cat video might need to go. Once you only have items left that absolutely need to be done, go through the list again and do everything that takes less than 5 minutes to do. Just get them done. Again, go through the list and now look for items that someone else might be able to do better or even enjoy doing. Delegate these items to that person. Finally, we’ll defer the remaining items and create action steps for doing them later. In MJ’s work, this processing has been very helpful. “Especially delete and delegate have helped me a lot. I feel that I have much more space in my mind because I deleted unimportant stuff from my to-do list”, she says.
Step 3: Create projects
Next, turn every item that contains more than one concrete action into a project. You can’t create a website in one action; you might need to decide the platform, email to companies for quotas, write contents and so on. Therefore, creating a website is a project. Each project should include at least one actionable task. In Outlook, projects can be created by making new folders, and adding your tasks to the correct folder. For tasks that don’t fall under a specific project, create a new folder called something like “Other” or “Quick tasks” and move them there. Now, your initial list should be empty with all items either deleted, done, delegated or moved to their respective project folders. “Big tasks can seem intimidating but chopping them in pieces makes them more digestible. I look at my list now and only see things I know exactly how to do, instead of complex projects I keep avoiding”, Tommi says.
Step 4: Organize & Do!
Finally, we’ll organize our tasks by adding due dates and categories. It’s recommended to view all your tasks in the same view, even though they’re in folders. In Outlook, this is done by simply choosing all folders. First, add due dates. This is rather self-explanatory: organizing by due dates helps you focus on urgent tasks and meet deadlines. The next step, however, might be a game-changer for many. Assign a category to each task to group them by context; at AVP we use the categories of Computer, Errands, Home, Office, Phone and Waiting For. All calls you need to make go to Phone, visiting your aunt and getting groceries to Errands, writing reports and making presentations to Computer and so on. Waiting For is a magical category for tasks that you don’t need to do anything with until someone gets back to you. With categories, when you make one call you can easily check what other calls you were supposed to make that day and do them all with the same flow. And it helps you remember to get groceries and buy a Mother’s Day gift without going out twice. In Outlook, categories can be added and edited using the Categorize-function. “I used to use different projects as categories. The problem of that is I’m often switching the flow between computer or phone or office, which takes lots of energy for the brain. This context categorization is really eye-opening”, says MJ.
After you have all the tasks you need to do neatly organized and categorized, you don’t have to think about them anymore, freeing your mind’s capacity for more important things than thinking what you were supposed to be doing. Now you can just add whatever comes up to your uncategorized task list, then go through the list on Fridays and go through the process above: delete, do, delegate or defer by assigning the task to a project and giving it a deadline and a category. If you do this weekly, there will be no random tasks floating around for more than a few days, and you always have a clear idea of what next week will bring. Make this a habit, and you’ll find yourself in a flow-state more often than now, your mind having capacity to focus on the task at hand since your worries are externalized. Like David Allen, the creator of Getting Things Done time management method, says: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”
This blog has been written based on a Mind Management workshop run by Lauri Järvilehto, Professor of Practice and Co-Director of AVP.
Allen, David 2002: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Penguin.
Covey, Stephen R. 1989: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press.
Järvilehto, Lauri 2015: The Nature and Function of Intuitive Thought and Decision Making, Springer.
Kahneman, Daniel 2011: Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.