Just as a full voice mail box can’t accept new messages, a person preoccupied with too many thoughts can’t accept new ones. For many people, an excessive workload is anything beyond what they can hold in their immediate memory. That excess is experienced as stress, causing them to either overreact to all the things they have to do, or in extreme cases, to simply shut down to it all and drop out. Another popular piece of advice on how to get things done is to limit the number of tasks to do on a given day to two or three, then ignore the rest.
The stress of heavy workloads doesn’t come from having too many things to do. We can all think of infinitely more worthy things to do that we’re not doing than think of the few things we are doing. If that was really the source of anxiety, every person on the planet would be in a permanent existential crisis. On the contrary. At any given moment, we have one of two choices: we can feel bad about all of the tasks we aren’t doing, or we can feel good about having made the right choice of the one task we are doing.
Workload induced stress comes from two sources: blurred priorities and overtaxed memory. The first is obvious. If you’re unclear that what you’re doing at the moment is the best use of your time and energy, you’ll feel anxious about that misuse. But attributing stress to overtaxed memory rather than too much work seems like a bit of a stretch.
The Limits of Mental RAM
Let’s first look at the notion that having too much to do creates stress. Do you get stressed about solving world hunger? Probably not. It’s clear that feeding the world is beyond your means, so you’ve taken that project off the table as a legitimate option. If you really have to much work, you’ll make an executive decision to delete, delegate or defer the excess — but you don’t stress out about it.
Stress comes from either explicitly accepting a commitment that you implicitly know is unrealistic, or implicitly accepting a commitment you haven’t made explicit. Thinking, “I should set up that Roth IRA” is an implicit commitment that will eddy in the psyche indefinitely until the loop is closed with a specific next action that can be viewed objectively and retrieved conveniently. If you’re near a phone and you have a list of calls you have to make, and one of them is “Bank Customer Service: request Roth IRA,” it’s far easier to manifest that intention.
The first step to relieving stress is to capture everything that has your attention. That goes beyond just making a short list of the loudest or most recent claims on your attention; it means everything — big or small, important or unimportant. Most people resist going that far, then in stopping short of everything, they end up with a large but incomplete list that makes them more stressed than an absolutely total inventory of everything that’s on their mind would.
Having everything out in front of you, and knowing that it’s everything creates a sense of relief, even if you haven’t yet made a decision about what to do with anything on the list. A long list that’s finite is much less troubling than an incomplete list for the same reason that knowing you have $15,000 in debt is less troubling than wondering how much you owe.
Working memory can only hold about seven bits of information, give or take a few depending on your source. It’s clear that the mind wasn’t designed to manage a large inventory of commitments. But with tools, we can extend our storage capacity, which is where a system of externalized task management like Getting Things Done (GTD) comes in.
Think of GTD as a set of shelves for storing your stuff, rather than trying to carry it all in your arms. If you had to do something with any one thing you were carrying yourself, you would risk dropping the rest of the load. So you spend all of your energy keeping things close to the vest, hesitating to take action.
Without that shelf space available, you’ll resist capturing new items, sometimes making premature judgements about whether or not those items are important enough to capture in the first place. When you give yourself the freedom to capture everything that has your attention, and have a full array of placeholders to shelve it, you give yourself the discretion to evaluate it at a more appropriate time, when you can give it the full, objective attention it requires.
Total capture isn’t enough to keep things off your mind. You still need to process, organize and review what you collect regularly enough to trust that your outboard memory. But total capture is the necessary entry point. Without a good capture protocol, having any systematic approach to task management will seem take more work than it saves, because you’re working to systems in parallel: one of written notes, and another of mental notes. The more you try to remember, the less inclined you’ll be to write things down, and the more you’ll overtax your working memory.
Barriers to Fluid Capturing
If writing things down when they first occur to us is so important, why do so many of us resist the process? A few reasons:
1. Lack of trusted system downstream. If your processing skills are weak, your brain already knows that whatever you capture will just pile up for nought. Being efficiently lazy, the brain will preempt the extra work by gradually short circuiting your motivation to write things down. Likewise, if your habit of regularly looking at your calendar, project and action lists at least weekly loses momentum, the brain will again disengage from the preliminary work of capturing — after all, why create content that won’t be reviewed?
If the problem lies downstream, so does the solution: become diligent about processing, organizing and reviewing what you’ve captured. Many people allocate too little time to processing their in-basket on the grounds that it doesn’t seem to qualify as “real” work. This is one of the areas where GTD contrasts sharply from traditional time management systems: it explicitly acknowledges defining work as an essential phase of work, over and above doing predefined work.
2. Lack of preestablished capture tools. The time you need to capture something is not the time to decide what you’re going to capture it with, or how. In a moment where two decisions have to be made simultaneously — what to collect and how to collect it — the tendency will be to forgo the need to collect, and hope that whatever’s important enough will be remembered.
Capture tools needs to be thought through ahead of time, so that they’re available at a moment’s notice. Think through all situations throughout the day where you need to take notes:
- When you’re at you’re desk
- When you’re in a meeting
- When you wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea
- When you’re on your cell phone
Determine your preferred method and medium for dealing with each of these situations. Would you rather type your notes or jot them down by hand? Do you type notes with a specific application or a generic text editor? Do you handwrite notes better on large or small pads of paper? Where is the most strategic place to put them? Do you carry a ubiquitous capture tool like index cards in the back of your pocket, a Moleskine or a Notetaker Wallet. Five minutes spent on making decisions about how and where you’ll capture notes will save you from those future split seconds of indecision that make the difference between writing things down and hoping you’ll remember them.
3. The seduction of busyness. The act of capturing something demands hitting a pause button on whatever you were doing. In effect, it’s like a moment of instant meditation. For Type-A workers driven by latest-and-loudest, taking a moment to note something that could possibly be more important than whatever they’re doing (though perhaps less urgent), is something to be resolutely resisted. You’re smarter than that. You’d rather be productive than busy. The three seconds it takes to write something down is far more efficient than the 30 seconds it would take to remember what you didn’t capture, assuming it’s remembered at all. As always, the way things get done is one at a time.
4. Excessively formal notetaking. “Notetaking” is probably a misnomer here. Capturing needs to be agile: a few words or a few bullet points necessary to jog your memory when you process them. For instance, when I was driving I came up with the idea for this post; so I grabbed my voice recorder and said “getting things dumped” — and nothing else. I didn’t need to elaborate on the idea, because I knew that I would put the voice recorder in my in-basket later, and figure out the project and next action when I processed the voice note. Almost all of my voice notes last three to five seconds.
There are times when a lengthier capture process is preferable. A few minutes spent creating a mind map or an outline might be necessary to get a project off of your mind to an extent that a few words wouldn’t. But for general purpose capturing, shorter notes encourage more prolific collection.
5. Thinking through projects and next actions rather than capturing stuff. GTD users who get good at processing — looking at a note, deciding whether it’s actionable, and determining the specific project and action — are often tempted to process any new input right on the spot, essentially replacing capturing with collecting and organizing. That’s often more efficient, but it’s better to develop the skill of jotting raw notes rapidly so that you have the choice of whether to process now or later, depending on what’s appropriate give the time and attention you have available. I didn’t realize how much I wasn’t capturing until I got a notetaker wallet. Before that, I spent too much time trying to enter projects and next actions into my organizer instead of just capturing a short representative reminder.
You might, for instance, use a paper planner to manager your tasks. Assuming you don’t carry it with you at all times, it might make more sense to write a note like, “Meeting with Earl 7/12 at 3:00pm” on an index card when Earl first proposes it. Later, when you’re processing the note from the card into your planner, you have the leisure to determine if there’s a larger outcome involved that would go on your project list, any task to prepare for the meeting that would go on your next actions list, or any other considerations that might form a checklist.
It’s generally a good idea to keep capturing and processing as a two-step process, but skip capturing when the project and next action are obvious.
(Photo credit: World Economic Forum)