If you want to be truly productive, you must be able to focus 100% on what you are doing. If the task at hand is perceived as fun and/or interesting, that shouldn't be too hard; you will probably just do it.

But if you need to deal with something you don't feel like doing, like a not-so-interesting work task, then the game changes completely. Depending on how strong your self-discipline muscle is, your mind will start to wander, and it will be harder to stay focused.

How can we deal with this? Often, the biggest hurdle is that we haven't yet decided exactly what to do, and/or how we should do it. As you have already heard a million times before, you should break down the problem into smaller, consumable parts. Not exactly ground-breaking news.

However, if your preferred method of doing this is leaning back and contemplating for a while, you are doing it wrong. What!? Why? After all, this is the preferred way of solving (at least semi-complex) problems for most people.

Well, here's what happens with that approach:

  1. Every thought will lead to another, and soon you have flooded your working memory. Ever heard of the 7±2 rule, a.k.a. Miller's Law? In short, it states that our brains can only juggle a finite number of things at any given moment.
  2. As an effect of this, you will miss out on potentially useful insights. When your mind enters associating-mode, it will generate a lot of thoughts. Some will stick, some won't. Which leads to the unpleasant feeling of that you had this marvelous idea, and now you cannot recall it.
  3. It's all too easy to stray away on a useless but seemingly relevant tangent to the matter at hand. Like a totally improbable – but technically interesting – edge case.
    More often than not, the ideas one fail to recall tend to be like that. Which we often don't realize until further down the road, when that thought finally presents itself again. Needless to say, that always occur when the problem has already been solved.
  4. External distractions – it doesn't take much to break our train of thought if we don't find what we should be focusing on interesting.
To summarize: while it sure is possible to reason about complex problems without writing anything down, you will get far better results if you practice thinking in writing.

Do the [write] thing

So, what happens if you approach the thinking process armed with your favorite note-taking gadget instead of just your brain? For starters, when you practice thinking in writing, you will free up space in your brain's short-term memory as you go along. Which in turn allows for more ideas and perspectives to pop up.

Also, when all your thoughts are puked down on the screen (or on paper), it is a lot easier to categorize them. Which, in turn, will generate even more associations. You will probably end up with a couple of possible solutions to the problem at hand, pros and cons for each of them, and a step-by-step action plan. And maybe you realize that those tangents actually will benefit another project you are working on.

I find this technique particularly useful for small, tedious tasks. The seemingly unnecessary act of writing down each step in advance usually results in a recipe I can follow step by step. Which I can also turn into a checklist if the task has to be done again in the future.

In general, the brain is lazy. It will avoid the pain of thinking as long as it can. And if that means it has to trick you into zooming out on tangents instead of doing some real analysis, it will do just that. (Read Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on that.)

If the plan is all in your head, it's far more easy to justify that you haven't started executing on it yet, than it would have been if you had found yourself staring at a dumbed-down 10-step action plan.

Always think in writing.

Free up resources with continuous capture

The next thing is to be preemptive. Everything that you subconsciously think of as an unresolved problem will be resident in an unconscious part of the brain until you have clarified what needs to be done and made a plan. This constant background noise of thoughts are all the loose ends you have in your life; or as I like to call them, your Woulds, Shoulds and Musts.

Since you cannot consciously think of all these things simultaneously, your brain will keep notifying you. Hence, all these loose ends will surface repeatedly. Often when you cannot deal with them, and often in the form of a guilty conscious. Which, in computer terms, is a waste of resources.

Ever had that feeling that no matter how hard you work, it is never sufficient? That you are constantly overwhelmed by all the stuff that you should do? This state of feeling constantly overwhelmed is the human equivalent of a StackOverflowException in software.

How can you battle this? Easy – capture everything. As soon as you come to think of something, write it down. If you're walking the dog or sitting in your car driving to work, use the voice recorder on your phone. Whatever springs to mind – whenever, wherever you are – make sure you capture it.

This simple technique is one of the pillars of GTD (Getting Things Done), and you have to experience it first hand to fully grasp how profound a difference it can make in your life.

Soon enough, though, the problem of constantly reminding yourself will be replaced by a note-management problem. How do we structure this ever-growing, soon-to-be-gargantuan mess of thoughts? Again, GTD has a solution to the problem. By implementing a system of lists and archives that you trust and know you will check periodically, you will be able to keep it all out of your head.

The keyword here is trust – you need to know that you will check the system regularly, or it will gradually start to erode.

So, is GTD the silver bullet? Well, it is actually backed by science; in 2008, Francis Heylighen and Clément Vidal, researchers at the Free University of Brussels, published an essay called "Getting Things Done: The Science behind Stress-Free Productivity" in which they explain the scientific basis that underpins the GTD method. In short; utilizing an "external memory" works.

On the other hand, while GTD it is great for managing concrete stuff that you can act upon in some way, it has very little to offer when it comes to dealing with more abstract stuff; like long-term goals, loose strategic plans and thoughts about life in general. What we need is a place to jot down those things, where we can reason back and forth with ourselves. Something that is flexible enough to allow for anything; albeit structured enough to be at least remotely searchable. And that place is the daily journal.

Dear diary...

So, what goes into the journal? Pretty much everything. Apart from reflections on everyday life and thoughts about goals and projects, I have found that it is an excellent place for doing my daily and weekly planning. Regardless if your primary system is GTD, Personal Kanban or something else, the journal entries can serve as daily snapshots of your action lists (very useful for long lists). It can also function as a bridge between the hard landscape of the calendar and your action backlog; allowing you to map out a draft plan without polluting your calendar with wishful thinking.

And while talking about wishful thinking: a side effect of keeping a journal is that you will become painfully aware of exactly how bad your procrastination habit is. I constantly get called on my (often too high) expectations on what I will be able to accomplish when looking back in the journal. Aim for the stars and maybe you'll reach the sky. :-)

In general, I try to keep the entries short and concise, but not too dry either. Capturing the emotional side of things is a great way to gauge your overall well-being, so don't just write about what you have done – write about have you felt while doing it. Also, the journal is *the* place to work that gratitude muscle. Don't just rant about stuff that bothers you, but take the time actually to savor all the good things you have in your life.

Another important aspect of journaling is that it can serve as self-therapy. As you are in effect tracking your reasoning, you will gain valuable insights about your habits and behaviors over time.

For example, when I've had an argument with my wife or my kids, the feelings involved (disappointment, guilt, frustration, etc.) can make it very hard to be objective about my own (and their) reactions. If I write down the situation and my feelings about it, it almost always becomes very clear how ridiculous the argument was. And often this insight comes as I am writing it.

Conclusion: It gets a lot easier to let go of things that are bothering you if you write them down. Again: thinking in writing is a powerful technique.

Just to be clear, though – for this to work, you need to keep the journal private. If you don't, it will affect your writing. You wouldn't write about your relationship problems in all their ugliness if you knew your partner was going to read it, would you? Of course not.

My tip is to keep it as objective as possible. Sure, if you are upset and need to get it out of your system – by all means, hammer away at that keyboard. But I can more or less guarantee a very painful reading experience when you go back to those entries a couple of months from now.

Journaling as a life compass

Finally, I use the journal to track the progress of my long term goals and commitments. Am I making progress? Am I moving in the right direction? And most important – is this goal still something I want to pursue?

While your action lists ultimately are all about ticking off stuff, the journal is your actual track record. Read it periodically, evaluate and adjust accordingly.

In the end, the habit of continuously writing down your thoughts is way more than a productivity enhancer. It is a way of exploring yourself and your purpose in life.

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