Your Brain is a Lousy File Cabinet

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Have you ever found yourself standing in the aisle of the grocery store, certain in the knowledge that there was one more thing on your list (which is sitting on the kitchen counter instead of in your hand) but completely unable to remember? I can see you nodding, so this will come as no surprise:

The human brain is not very good at recalling details.
Your Brain is a Lousy File Cabinet

It’s that very reason that caused you to jot a grocery list in the first place – you know better than to think you can remember it with any kind of accuracy.

Why then, do most of us completely forget this truth when we plan and manage our daily lives?

When I’m working with a client to improve their productivity, one of the first exercises I have them do is to sit down and “brain dump” everything they’ve committed to, every task they need or want to do, every goal they have, everything they owe someone else, everywhere they’re supposed to be in the coming days and weeks.

Guess what? Most people can’t do it quickly or comprehensively. Usually, they need to rack their brain, scroll through their email, check saved voicemail messages, gather all the notes scattered around, and shuffle through the piles of mail on the desk.  And they’re always quite certain that they’re forgetting something.

This tells me that they’re trying to rely on their brain to remember what’s important, and using a mishmash of reminders to support this gargantuan task. Not only is this a pretty futile way to stay on top of the details of a busy life, it doesn’t feel very good, either. The stress of frantic searching and the fear of remembering an obligation an hour too late are uncomfortable reminders that this method isn’t foolproof.

Assuming that we have a limited amount of “space” in our brain, perhaps cluttering it with details that can’t easily be remembered is not a good idea. Not only are we particularly bad at it, but it also takes up brain power that would be better used for things like creativity, brainstorming, problem solving, and imagining.

Albert Einstein was noted as saying, “Never memorize what you can look up” and most of us honor this principle when it comes to world capitals, grandma’s recipes or friends’ phone numbers. The challenge is to view all your life details as data that you can (and should) file away and then “look up” as needed.

To solve this problem, I recommend taking all the tasks and appointments uncovered in the “brain dump” exercise above and putting them in a single place, with the goals of:

  • Capturing all the required details,
  • Storing them in a way that is easy to track,
  • Organizing them in a way that gives you clarity, and
  • Prioritizing and setting reminders to push you toward your goals.

So give yourself permission to forget! The secret is getting the details out of your head and into a system that is logical and useful; one that sophisticated enough to handle the complexity of your busy life, but is not overly burdensome; one that becomes a simple addition to your workflow that you can rely on, so you can use your brain space for more useful and productive things.

For help getting started, check out this post and this post.  Thanks for reading!

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