Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

DRY Thinking: Don’t Repeat Yourself

by Andre · 2 Comments

Repetition II Thinking about something more than once usually represents an improvement opportunity. It means that something isn’t getting captured, evaluated, acted on or consciously dismissed. Wouldn’t it be nice not have to think about the same things over and over — things that usually start with “I should . . .”?

Having the same thought twice

Ubiquitous capture is nice in theory, but realistically, writing everything down is unrealistic. The real goal isn’t it write down every thought or every piece of information that enters your head, but to capture anything that captures your attention. Ideally, if you’re doing A, your mind should be on A, but if B enters your mind — either from an external interruption or an internal thought — the effort spent trying to ignore it will just amplify it. By writing it down, you can turn your attention back to your primary task.

But suppose A is “obviously” more important than B. It’s tempting to avoid writing B down, since the act of writing it down seems like giving it undue attention in light of your priority task. That’s a problem, since anything you’re not consciously investing effort in at the moment will comparatively seem insignificant. The attention you give to whatever you’re currently doing will always overshadow what you’re not doing. So trying to rely on a subjective standard of what’s significant “enough” to write down will probably lead to inconsistent results. Few things are more annoying to worrying about something you forgot to write down when you had the chance, but now can’t remember.

So don’t use subjectivity as a standard. Whenever you find yourself thinking about something more than once, write it down. Having the same thought twice might seem like a problem, but it’s also a cue. Don’t deliberate over whether or not it’s worth writing down, just write it down with extreme prejudice. If you’re wrong, and what you’ve captured turns out to be interesting but not worth taking action on, you’ve wasted five seconds of your life by writing it down.

Deferred evaluation

Just as doing A while thinking about B dilutes focus on the task being done, the converse is also true: doing A steals focus on thoughts about B. Neither object of attention is being given full attention. By collecting the secondary thought, you’re making the conscious decision to defer thinking about it until you’re in a context where you can give it your full attention: when you process your in-basket. Your “doer” role is mailing stuff to your “thinker” role.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Capturing minutiae isn’t really a problem if thinking about minutiae takes attention away from whatever you’re currently doing. Some of those items might actually turn out to be more important than you initially realized, once you look at them without the distraction of doing something else.

Not everything needs to be acted on. Some things capture your attention because they’re interesting, not necessarily because they’re consequential. Many more books are interesting than the ones you’re willing to commit time and energy to reading. Processing what you’ve captured gives you the opportunity to distinguish between the two attractions, and to prioritize them.

(Photo credit: dailyinvention)

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  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2008 at 10:33 am

    I love reading one of your articles, then realizing “hey, I’m doing this already!”

    I have notebooks and pens everywhere, including in each car and on the bedside table. Thoughts and ideas occur to me throughout the day. I can’t possibly act on every though right away. Even going through the process of deciding whether it’s worth acting on would be time-consuming and distracting.

    But as you say, if I try to just push a thought out of my mind, it tends to keep coming back. It’s even worse if I try to remember it without writing it down. That definitely takes too much focus and energy away from my current task.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Dec 5, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Even going through the process of deciding whether it’s worth acting on would be time-consuming and distracting.

    Absolutely. I’m too lazy to be bothered with asking myself whether or not I should write something down, especially if I’ve thought about it more than once.