The Joy of Freeing Up Mental RAM

I’ve always been somewhat prone to procrastination, especially in my personal life, but I’ve watched with growing trepidation as my task list has slowly grown out of control over the last several months.

Part of this trend is due to being a new parent. I expected that having a newborn would consume the majority of my free time, although I must admit that it didn’t completely sink in until it happened. What I didn’t expect was that my “honey-do” and “male provider” lists would also grow dramatically as my both mine and my wife’s biological instincts kicked into high gear. Meanwhile, my list of new tools and technologies to explore continue to mount as suggestions pour in from twitter, my blog, and my RSS reader.

The result is that I have many times more tasks to do than before but now I only have a faction of the time to get them done. This new reality has left me feeling overwhelmed, paralyzed, and generally less productive with the time I do have.

A few weeks ago I finally came to the conclusion that I needed to severely overhaul my approach to managing my tasks if I ever had any hope of feeling calm and productive again. Someone on Twitter suggested I pick up a copy of David Allen’s Getting Things Done book, so I started there. I’ve always had an aversion to business self-help books, but desperate times called for desperate measures so I picked up a copy in the bookstore.

I was surprised by how quickly my skepticism disappeared. I was especially sold on the author’s clear explanation of the negative consequences of relying primarily on our brain (mental RAM) to juggle all of our TO DO’s. Not only is this common approach tremendously inefficient since our brain randomly reminds us of things we need to do repeatedly at times when we can’t usually do anything about it, but it also perpetually consumes a limited resource (especially in my case) thus slowing down our overall mental functioning. In other words, it is like trying to get something done on your computer while running a dozen instances of Visual Studio 2008. You can do it, but it just isn’t what I would call an optimal experience.

The premise of the book is that it is possible is overcome this dynamic and achieve a calmer and more productive state of mind by simply transferring all of your tasks from your head to a trusted external system. In GeekSpeak, it would be the equivalent of flushing all those nagging thoughts from RAM to disk, which makes sense since you really only need them in memory when you are actually in a position to do something about them.

This analogy, along with the remarkably clear and helpful diagram below, convinced me to make a several week investment in optimizing my approach to getting things done.

The results have been dramatic. Not only do I feel like a huge psychic weight has been lifted from my shoulders, but I’ve completed a huge list of tasks that I had been procrastinating on for months and in some cases years. I also find myself fitting tasks into much smaller chunks of time during the day because I have organized them in such a way that they take much less mental energy to tackle, thus I no longer feel that I need to set aside a huge block of time to do them.

Even more surprising is that I find that doing things on my “Next Action” list is slightly addictive. Crossing off an item feels like lightening the load by removing something from a heavy backpack I have to carry around with me everywhere I go. There is an immediate relief in it.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, then I would recommend picking up a copy of David Allen’s book. It’s a very quick read.

For those of you that are intrigued but not sold enough to actually buy the book, stay tuned for my next post where I’m going to share all of the concrete tips that I’ve edited out of this post so as to keep it a reasonable length for a change.


  1. Tejvan Pettinger May 9, 2008 3:23 pm 

    It’s great to be able to free the mind. We come to realise most stress is self generated

  2. Fervent Coder May 10, 2008 8:43 am 

    I have always said I suffer from CRS. Can’t remember sh-, uh stuff. :D
    I have always carried/made use of some reminder system, whether a notebook or a PDA. At some point along the way I discovered Outlook and immediately liked it for the calendar, reminders, etc. Then when I could use Outlook and carry with me on my phone, I was in love with Microsoft Mobile.

    When I first heard of Scott Hanselman putting GTD folders in his Outlook, I was immediately intrigued. That is, I used to leave everything I hadn’t processed yet in the inbox. Now I move things to folders @Action, @Blog, @Reply, @Snooze, @Someday, and @WaitingFor. That keeps my inbox clear. Also, I am a heavy user of rules and alerts to keep things out of my inbox.

    Here are some links to that:

  3. Hank Thomason May 11, 2008 10:09 am 

    I love the blatant copyright violation at the bottom of the diagram. Great post, really enjoyed it.

  4. Russell Ball May 11, 2008 4:23 pm 

    Hank – Glad you enjoyed it.

    Thanks for the copyright reminder. I usually operate under the assumption that as long as I am attribute and promote the source (I’m encouraging people to buy his book), then I am not violating the spirit of the copyright protection. I assume they would see it as free advertising rather than intellectual property theft. However, I know that a lawyer would disagree with me, so I’ll put “email with request to display image” on my Next Action list…:-).

  5. Russell Ball May 11, 2008 4:25 pm 

    @FerventCoder – I have also organized my email inbox with similar folders in the last few weeks. Thanks for reminding me about the Hanselman posts. I’m going to go back and reread them now that I have more context into understanding the inspiration behind them.

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