Clarity of Mind
Thoughts are flitting across our minds every moment of the day. Some are important, some are completely meaningless. Not all of us are Buddhist monks, so we get distracted. We forget things. We feel stress. We feel nagging in the back of our mind that we forgot something, missed a meeting, or need to do something soon.
Then there are thoughts that are not action items but ideas, thoughts of creativity and curiosity. When we lose those we feel twice as sad, since we miss out on a potential creation.
I have struggled with this mental chatter and deluge of ideas for many years, constantly trying to get my life in order. I've spent countless days figuring out how to overcome this barrage of thoughts, and over time developed a system that allows me to keep my mind clear and life organized. Today, I am sharing it with you.
Saving Your Thoughts
I invite you to try a simple exercise with me right now. Take out a sheet of paper (or open a text file), and make a list of everything on your mind.
Shopping. Stress. Work. Reminder to walk the dog. Whatever it is, write it all down. Now put that paper somewhere safe (or save that file) and assess how you feel. Do you notice how clear your mind is, how calm you are? You know that when needed, you can go back to that list and do what needs to be done. But for now, you are at peace. I call this doing a Mind Download.
I do this simple exercise whenever I feel overloaded, be it with deadlines, ideas, stress, or simply mental chatter. This clears up my mind to be free and uncluttered, allowing me to focus 100% on the task at hand. Saving these thoughts puts me at peace, because I know they will be right where I left them.
The Flow of Information
Now, Mind Downloads are incredibly freeing and useful, but I've found that I need a way to efficiently store and access my thoughts rather than simply piling them into one giant notebook or idea bucket. I've been experimenting with many different mediums and programs, and ultimately developed a pipeline of sorts, through which my thoughts flow.
1. Mind to Inbox
The first step is to get my thoughts out of my mind and safely saved. This can be an unstructured Mind Download which I will later parse, or it can be just one thought being added to the Inbox. The Inbox is my primary destination for thoughts, and can be anything ranging from a post-it to a detailed note in my Evernote. Depending on the location and context of where I get a thought several possibilities emerge.
- Shower idea — write it down in my waterproof notebook.
- Thought while biking — save a voice text via my Moto 360.
- Inspiration in class — add a note in the margins of class slides.
- Insight in a meeting — jot it down on a post-it note.
Once I get back to my computer or phone, I input these little snippets of text into a special notebook in my Evernote called "@Inbox". I will then periodically sort and process all of these thoughts and ideas. If a task is immediately obvious as being a calendar event or a task manager entry, I will bypass the Inbox and add it to the relevant destination immediately rather than clutter up the Inbox. Keeping my Inbox small and sorted helps me "parse" it later on.
2. Parsing the Inbox
Every evening, I sit down and clean out my Inbox. Over the course of a day I can get anywhere from 3 to 100 new notes, and all of them need to be sorted.
- Ideas and projects get placed on my personal wiki. ("Explore benefits of polyphasic sleep." or "Build a robot to brush my teeth.")
- Immediate actions and reminders are added to my Google Calendar. ("Schedule dentist for next week.")
- Non-schedulable actions are placed in my task manager, which is currently Producteev. ("Sit down and sort my 10,000 photos.")
- Various links are what I call "consumables," and they usually get left in my Evernote or added to a "To Be Consumed" folder in my bookmarks bar. A consumable can be a video to watch, an article to read, or some random song to listen to. Once I have a chance to look over the content the source link is usually deleted, unless it was stunning enough to make it onto my personal wiki. These links are information that I will absorb, but the original location is not important. If I ever need to dig it up again Google will help me find it.
Notes that might become inspiration for various projects require a bit more effort to process properly. If I am certain this is something I would like to pursue, I make a short entry on my wiki, adding basic details such as a summary of the project, some initial first steps, and relevant links. I also like to schedule in an hour or two in the near future to take some time and get a start on the project. This allows me to see if it's something I plan to pursue further. If not, I can always demote projects into "Idea" status or even trash them completely during a monthly purge.
Keep in mind that this system is quite flexible. If you don't keep a personal wiki, then add your permanent information to some text file, or even index cards if that's your thing. If you don't have a Google Calendar, go ahead and use some other service, or a paper calendar. For keeping track of tasks, there's a plethora of Task Management systems, ranging from full-scale suites such as Producteev, Asana, or Bullet Journaling, all the way to Apple Reminders and Clear. Pick whatever works best for you.
In short, the goal of this method is to clear out the Inbox as often as possible, sorting relevant thoughts, ideas, and random info into the appropriate locations. This serves to minimize your stress. Your Inbox is always clean, you know that your urgent tasks are scheduled, projects are saved, and links are ready to be consumed.
Storage and Structure
As you saw above, my Evernote Inbox is transient storage. You want your inbox to be very easily accessible, and ideally be backed up in the cloud so you can work on it from anywhere. Given the fluid nature of it, I would also suggest something that is easy to go through and clean out as needed.
The main repository for permanent information is my personal wiki. Some people will prefer to keep everything in an alternative platform such as Evernote, Google Keep, Simplenote, OneNote, or something else entirely. This is completely up to you - I outlined my reasons for making a wiki in an earlier article, so take a look and see what you think.
Whatever platform you choose, organize it into several main categories. On my wiki I have a folder for projects, with a page for each individual project. These pages contain relevant links, information, lists of upcoming actions and any other information I may need.
A good portion of my wiki is full of research and idea pages, which are collections of links and information on cool topics that I'd like to explore. These range from hang gliding to Linux administration to car buying negotiation tips. Any information relevant to my areas of interest is added to the appropriate page. It may seem neurotic to add all of this information, but the goal here is to keep my mind empty and ready to focus. I don't want all of my ideas spinning in my head until they are needed. By saving all this information, I am free from the stress of forgetting anything.
My wiki also contains various reference information that I want to keep track of, but may not necessarily be important in day to day life. I keep notes on my computer specifications, various recipes, lists of computer programs I have installed, and notes on backup procedures and upgrades. I also have a page that lists out the actions I've taken with my phone - SIM unlocks, flashing custom recoveries, etc. I keep my packing lists in there as well, sorted into common categories such as a two-day urban trip, a week long camping trip, or a flight to Europe. Basically, my wiki serves as offline storage for my brain. I prefer to keep my mind free and uncluttered — by entering all of this information I can forget extra data and only load it in when I need it for the task at hand.
My wiki is not my only storage solution, although it is my favorite. I've mentioned my task management system several times in this article - I currently use Producteev. It allows me to set deadlines, assign priorities, add tags, and easily add new tasks from the web and phone. I have yet to find a perfect solution, but this has all the major components I require. I use it to keep track of my various projects, sorted by priority and deadline. A project can be anything ranging from building a personal website, remodeling the kitchen, or a computer upgrade plan. Anything that consists of a series of major steps is a project in my system. Your needs may be different, but something along the lines of Producteev should be a good start.
My calendar is the third destination for thoughts. Anything that is added to my calendar is guaranteed to get done or at least rescheduled if my day drastically changes. If a task is pushed back too often, I add it back to the stack on Producteev and snooze it for however long is needed. If it's more of an ephemeral idea I will move it into my wiki, filed away under the appropriate ideas list.
Finally, we have links. In today's world we are absolutely barraged with new links and articles on a daily basis, and keeping up with them can be a quite a chore. I used to add various links to my bookmarks folder, but I've found that gets way out of control too quickly. My Xmarks started crashing on me after I stored 10,000+ bookmarks, so I've lately kept it simple - a folder for music, videos, and text to be consumed, which is cleared out pretty ruthlessly every week. If I delete something and it's important it'll land in front of me again. If it doesn't, well, I have no tears lost over missing out on the latest viral video or skipping reading "The top 10 reasons you MUST polish your elbows weekly!"
The key to success with this system is trusting that when you add something to the Inbox, it will get handled. This can only be accomplished if you have reasonable willpower and commit to following up. I've found that a weekly review (held every Saturday morning) is perfect for me — there's only at most around 700 new notes and ideas to handle, and this gives me a fast enough turnaround time for any urgent tasks or events. This time is also great for keeping this system fluid - ideas transition into projects, projects have actions generated and added to a task manager, with time on the calendar to get them done. Some article that I read may inspire a new idea or thought, which in turn gets added to the wiki. It's a pretty flexible system, with a lot of movement.
As I go through my Inbox, I think about each note and examine what it means for my goals and plans. Various ideas may get trashed on the spot, added to an idea bucket, or even instantly promoted to project status with time scheduled in on my calendar. If I have some extra time after I'm done reviewing, I might consume some links that are on my list or complete a few quick actions.
As part of my weekly review process I also read over my list of projects. I have them sorted into two categories — "Active" and "Inactive." I try to stick to a maximum of three to five active projects, with the rest bumped to "Inactive." This helps me focus and actually have meaningful progress on all of them. If I lose interest in a project, I will move it to Inactive or delete it. If I look over the list and get my interest rekindled in some Inactive project, I will swap it into the Active list, and quickly schedule the next relevant task on my calendar.
My ideas list is visited once every few reviews, which for me translates into once a month. Good ideas are promoted to projects, and others bide their time. After I'm done with ideas I read over my goals, and see if I still align with them. I ask myself if my projects are leading me towards success, check that I'm still learning what I need to be learning, and reassess my priorities in life. It's easy to get caught up in the day to day flow, so it's especially important for me to dive deep into my motivations and generate new inspiration to continue along my chosen path.
Checking my alignment is absolutely critical to the success I've achieved. I easily get sucked into engaging projects, but sometimes they actually have nothing to do with my greater goals. When I look back and see how I've spent the last month, the tasks that got accomplished and where I stand in life, it really puts my life in perspective for me. The daily routine can eclipse even the greatest dreams.
Deciding What To Do
Having an elaborate calendar system is great (assuming you decide to use one), but often the question of the day is "What do I do now?" It's easy to get intimidated by a huge list of tasks, projects, ideas, and obligations and end up procrastinating away an entire day watching Netflix or playing games. Learning how to prioritize and schedule tasks is crucial.
There are several approaches to setting priorities. The first one is to prioritize by deadline — focus on whatever is due next, and repeat until all tasks are done. This can be useful if all tasks are of equal importance, but life is rarely that simple. I usually prioritize by which segment of my life the task is in - anything that falls under the work or school category usually beats out entertainment, and obligations to people win over my reading time. That being said, balance is key. Check out my thoughts about priorities in my calendar article for more examples.
As you schedule in your various tasks, don't forget to include breaks. You want to balance out the type of work you are doing. Remember — a break is not turning off your mind and watching Netflix, rather, a break is switching tasks. Write some code then do the dishes. Then write some code then hit the gym. Do some homework then read a book or sleep. Alternate tasks so that one part of your mind rests while you do something else productive. This will help you avoid burning out and will also boost your creativity. I've always gotten my best ideas while doing dishes in between coding sessions. The human mind works in odd ways.
One final tidbit of advice on scheduling: when dealing with a myriad of small tasks, lump them together into one block of time. Set aside 30 minutes, an hour, or however long you have and pound out all the little actions floating in your task manager. Pomodoro is good for these kinds of runs — your goal is to simply do stuff for the entire duration you set aside. You'll be amazed how liberating it is to obliterate dozens of tasks in an hour.
Take a moment now to assess how you feel and decide what you will do with this information. At the very least, I invite you to create an Inbox for your thoughts, in whatever medium you prefer. Think about your goals, projects, ideas and various tasks you need to get done, and decide how you want to structure all of that. Schedule some time to perform weekly reviews and other general life maintenance. Set everything up so that the next time you get an amazing idea you will have a safe place for it. Optimize your mind for a better life.