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Stop trying to remember things

One of the basic ideas behind GTD is what David Allen calls “mind like water” — keep your mind clear by keeping your tasks in a trusted system.  This simple premise has improved the quality of sleep as well as my prayer life, because my mind was no longer racing with things I had to do.

However, I was only doing that for significant tasks such as “upgrade WordPress on Joe’s site“, “contact Bob about that proposal“, etc.  For smaller things, like when my wife would ask me to start the dryer, I’d count on remembering to do it in a few minutes.  We know how that ends up…

For the past few months, I’ve worked very hard to get every thought out of my head and recorded before it had a chance to just slip away. Now I keep a notepad at my desk and write down everything as a quick note.  For example, I have one sitting here now that simply says “start dryer“, because there’s a load in the wash right now that we need clean in the morning, but it’s still going.  When I come back into my office to shut it down for the night, I’ll see that note. It helps to have a clean desk, or the note would get buried. 🙂

I’ve also been using the notepad on my phone more often (via a quick note in Evernote) when I think of things.  I used to use Jott for that, but this is a simpler solution.  By using it with Evernote, that quick notepad is with me wherever I go — it’s on my phone, my desktop, my laptop, etc.  When I get a chance to sit down and process my inboxes, I make sure to clear out that note and either do the tasks or add them to Nozbe.

Other techniques can help as well.  Some examples:

  • I need to drop a check in the bank tomorrow morning, so it’s in my wallet but I left it sticking out.  When I grab my wallet in the morning, I’ll see the check and remember to take it to the bank.
  • Our current dishwasher doesn’t have a delay timer on it, and I really miss that feature.  We do the dishes right after dinner, but can’t start the dishwasher right away because the girls need hot water for their baths. In the past, I’d intend to start it later in the evening so it’d be clean for the morning, but I’d often forget.  Now, I just put the dishwater detergent bottle out on the counter after I finish loading it.  Later in the evening, I’ll see it sitting out and it’ll remind me to start the load that’s in there.

I’m sure you have similar little techniques that help remind you of small tasks.  What are some of your favorites?

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Mickey Mellen

Co-Founder and Technical Director

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  1. i`d actually heard the opposite, with computers and phones we`re not using our brains as much as we were and so its making it even harder to remember stuff. that definitely feels true for me. we wrapped up a present for a friend this weekend and walked out the door to go to the birthday party and left it sit.

    • I’m certainly in favor of keeping the brain sharp; there’s a lot of research that shows that brain exercise is important, and things like “Brain Age” and Sudoku can make quite a difference.

      However, David Allen makes the claim that the brain isn’t make for storing to-do lists, and my experience has been that he’s right. Keeping that stuff in an external system keeps my brain free to actually get work done instead of worrying about not forgetting to do something.

  2. It can be a function of age. In my 20s, during a very hectic, 80-hour-week, graphics bureau job I had no trouble maintaining a floating balance in my head of the day’s work, the deadlines for the week, the domestic tasks, and who was doing what to whom and when!

    In my 40s, I find a little pocket notepad indispensable. That is, until I /did/ dispense with it, in favour of a free app for my Android phone. 😉

    I echo your sentiments on sleep. I hate leaving work tasks unfinished, but life isn’t that convenient, and clients certainly aren’t!. Ripping up the messed up day’s notes, and rewriting them neatly (even if a few carry over) is my last task of the day. I work from home, so it makes for nice little full stop to the day.


    • It can’t be age. No way. Please, no. Well, maybe. 🙂

      I agree that the last task is to get ready for tomorrow to help put your mind at ease. I’ll often have a few emails that live in my inbox for the day, but before I go to bed they’re either completed or added to a proper task list. Can’t go to sleep without an empty inbox!

  3. For little tasks, I like to use Google Tasks since it syncs with my calendar. I keep my calendar open all day and check it periodically. Having Tasks open as well allows me to add new tasks and reminds of outstanding tasks. I also utilize the old school note pad as well.

    for the big stuff, I use Nozbe and Evernote, similar to your setup. I also try to sit down once a week and do a “brain dump”. I’m not 100% great at writing everything down when it occurs to me. So its good for me to empty my mind once a week. I’ve found that as I begin to write things down, I begin to uncover things that may have happened earlier in the week that for one reason or another, didn’t make it into my system. Once I’ve got it all written down, I take a few minutes to review and either complete the task or add it to Nozbe. Seems to work pretty well for me so far.

  4. A couple more cute tricks along the lines of the detergent bottle on the counter…

    Ever forget you’ve left something on the stove when you leave the house … or worried that you did? Put a pot holder on top of your purse or car keys when you turn the stove on to remind you to check that it’s off before you leave.

    Ever forget you put something in the fridge to take along when you do leave the house? Put your car keys on top of the item in the fridge. That would work just as well for things outside the fridge like the wrapped present Andy mentioned. But it’s most fun to see the shock on your friend’s face when they agree to take home some dinner leftovers when they leave and you ask for their car keys to put into the fridge!

    Of course, these tricks only work if the house is tidy enough that finding your keys in the fridge or a potholder on your purse is unusual!

    • Mary — Great tips! I’ve heard the “keys in the fridge” before, but the “pot holder on the purse” is a new one. Very cool. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I’ve been using a system somewhat like this for years, maintaining a single master task list in Word, believe it or not. The master list has all my tasks – dentist appointment, create new website, whatever – culled from all my input – snail mail, email, phone calls, etc.

    Word outline view is great for expanding the display of a project into its subprojects (and the subsubprojects of that subproject if I want that detail) or contracting it back to just the main project with a single click. So I can get the high-level view or the most detailed view quickly when needed. When a project gets too big, then I usually create a separate Word file for it and replace it with a single line in the master list – but I can maintain quite detailed info about most projects in my master task list.

    Besides project-specific top-level outline items, I have date-specific ones with schedules/ticklers for that day or month or year. When dates change (or I was too ambitious with my plans for today), it’s trivial to slide an item (whether “call my sister” or “create website”) into another date.

    The one big problem with this scheme is that it works best when I have access to my PC – which I always did when I developed this approach for work. Now that I’m retired, I really need to investigate things like Evernote and Nozbe to have the lists more accessible where I spend my time, whether doing volunteer work or vacationing.

  6. one thought – would the fridge/freezer cause issues with the keyfobs that lock/unlock the doors and sound the car alarm? moisture, cold temperature, etc.

    putting the keys in the fridge with a can of pop that i only left there for 5 minutes would have been great, except i didnt put the keys in and left the can in there all day. luckily it was diet so it wasn’t sticky.

  7. I’ve never had a problem with that, but as the keys get smarter (and more temperamental) I guess we need to get smarter as well. Maybe just a note on the keys? But that’s not as much fun!

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