The Art of an Empty Mind: Writing it Out of Your Head

infrastructure Feb 19, 2021

I’m not sure how many different types of personalities there are in the world, but I know that there are only two types of people when it comes to lists… those that love them and use them, and those that do not. My wife is a list lover. She actually writes things on her list – even the easiest of things – just so she can cross it off. That positive feedback makes her feel productive and keeps her motivated to go to the next item. I would say I totally stink when it comes to lists. I write things down and they go into a pile on my desk, which is later moved to a box, never to be seen again. Perhaps I am stressed and overwhelmed at all that I need to do that when I see it written. Or, perhaps, it’s because the physical act of writing it down seals it in my memory. Either way, I know I have an ongoing need to get better at task management.


In my constant effort to self-improve, I read a pretty famous book by David Allen called “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” I have to admit that it actually did increase my productivity. Here is a gem from the book that I think can help you no matter your list-making personality trait. For those of you who are like me – a pile of post-it-notes that will never be revisited – I’ve added some extra tips since we don’t always fit the mold!


Brain Clutter is a Thing: To-do items, reminders, being afraid of forgetting something, etc. can actually inhibit your brain’s function. The act of writing things down and downloading your ideas and goals onto paper allows your mind to think clearer. Your dynamic thoughts no longer occupy your mind and you begin thinking with more clarity and focus. Clutter robs your brain and day of productivity. David recommends that you jot down ideas on a notepad so you can empty your mind of clutter and allow it to work on higher level tasks.


Kevin’s Pro Tip: This only works if the place you put your ideas and to-do items is really a safe place. Otherwise, it didn’t address your brain stressing about the possibility that you might forget. List-focused people put it on a list and it’s good as done, as they’ll re-visit it regularly. But, for me, putting it into a notepad is a death sentence. The first super-safe place that I tried using was my iPhone’s reminders app – figuring my mind could rest easy knowing it would pop up and remind me. I didn’t forget… but there were so many I had no choice but to ignore them. In the end, the solution that worked for me was very low-tech… I got a large whiteboard for my office. This keeps the info in front of me but off my desk and off my mind. I can visualize the tasks in context and my thoughts can be moved around more easily. For some reason, it’s less intimidating to me. I can also erase things as they are done and begin to see the final goal physically clearer.  


Surprising Benefit: In addition to more brain power that leads to more productivity, one benefit that I’ve found to emptying my brain is that clearly thinking helps me determine which ideas I should follow and which ones I should discard. Ideas are suddenly unclouded and I can put new ideas into context and quickly assess their worth. I can often visualize it on my whiteboard without even needing to draw it out. Sometimes you may determine fairly quickly that an idea isn’t feasible. That’s okay, it is no longer taking up brain space needed for additional creative and fruitful thinking.


Your written thoughts remind you of what to focus on first or next. It is very easy to get caught up in everyday “stuff.” Instead, I find that I can prioritize the “stuff” into specific action items that focus my finite amount of energy and focus on a given day.


Ask yourself questions along the way. Is this what I should be doing right now? Are there other priorities? New ideas will need to be written down and soon you will see how this method begins forming a path to better problem solving and making goals a reality.


You have now created an atmosphere of reduced stress and optimal focus.