why having a fully functioning (technology) system is critical to stress-free productivity

one of the biggest lessons i learned from david allen’s getting things done (gtd) is about how the human brain handles information and responsibilities.

for better or worse, our brains are designed to help us not forget things. i forget the exact terminology he used for this phenomenon, but almost everyone has experienced it. your brain helping you not forget looks like this: you get an email that requires a response. however, you can’t respond right now because you’re headed into a three hour meeting. you focus on the meeting and then later, on your drive home, you have the “oh shit! i forgot to respond to that email!” moment.

when a task that requires action enters your conscious task processing and doesn’t finish, your subconscious brain holds onto it. this is important because if we could never move things back and forth between these levels of consciousness, we would never get anything done. however, just because a task isn’t in your conscious mind, doesn’t mean it’s not taking up energy. in fact, your brain uses a small amount of energy for each subconscious task it holds onto.

so one not-so-great implication of this great thing your brain does to help you out is use more energy when you have lots of unprocessed tasks.

the other implication of this is that your brain is strategic about when it pushes things back into your conscious mind. basically, your subconscious waits until you are unfocused and seizes the opportunity to interject with one of the many things you need to be doing. many people experience this in the shower or in transit (driving, walking, biking). it can also happen when you settle down to take on a large, important task (starting that big report, taking on a big design task, etc).

the trouble with this is that this prompting totally wrecks your ability to focus on the task at hand. it undermines your ability to get into flow and that can destroy your productivity.

ok, so those are all the negative consequences of not handling tasks in the moment. but, of course, we can’t respond to everything the moment it enters our consciousness. if we did, we’d forever be responding to urgent things and non-urgent but important things would never get done (and the implications of THAT are dire).

so what’s the solution? you need to placate your subconscious brain such that it lets go of unprocessed tasks. this, in turn, allows you just to use your conscious brain to focus on what’s at hand.

how do you do it? by having/building good personal systems to handle those thoughts. mine systems (heavily influenced by gtd methodology) consists of a comprehensive task management system (which is really just several todo lists), a calendar system, email addresses, and specific protocols about how those three things interact.

i think i’ll take the next few days to explain the different parts of my system and how it all works together. for now, though, i’m WAY over time.