You should have been in bed hours ago, but you know it’s pointless. You wouldn’t be able to sleep, with everything you need to do racing through your head. You may as well do something about it and see if you can make it stop, or at least slow down enough to sleep. The same thoughts, over and over…
We’ve all been there, and it’s a terrible place to be.
There are three basic reasons why you can’t stop thinking about something:
- You enjoy thinking about it.
- You’re mulling it over.
- You’re afraid you’ll forget about it.
The first one isn’t much of a problem.
The second one represents pending change. You know something needs to be different, but you haven’t decided what. Maybe you need to clarify the outcome you want to achieve, or identify the next step. Maybe you need to step back and say no. Somehow, there is thinking work required to move forward.
The third one represents a lack of trust. You don’t have a system in place that your brain will trust to let go of a thought, knowing the thought will come back at the right time and place.
Without a trusted system in place, your mind will keep thinking the same thoughts over and over, afraid that if you stop thinking about it, you’ll never remember it again.
What is a trusted system?
Your trusted system is the tools and habits you have in place to capture, store, and remember the information you need to act on.
There are four basic types of information your trusted system needs to handle:
- What you need to do. Have a place in your system to keep track of tasks, goals, and reminders. It doesn’t matter how grand or insignificant it is. If you’re like me, this is what will swim around in your head the most if you don’t capture it.
- Where you need to be. This is your appointments, meetings, and parties. There are external commitments—you have told someone you would be someplace at a certain time—as well as internal commitments—time you have blocked off to work on the big rocks.
- Who you know. More specifically, you need their contact information—email address, phone number, where they work, where they live… Some of this information will build up automatically as you interact with them. If you ever have to go look something up, add them to your address book so you know you have it next time you need it.
- What you did. Broadly speaking, this is notes. It’s your daily record and your journal. It’s recipes and favorite comic strips. It’s something you found once that you want to find again.
Capturing Things You’ll Process Later
Everything needs to have a proper place, but you don’t usually have time to file things away as they come in. You grab the mail on your way in, but the kids want to play, or you have a brilliant idea in the shower. This is why we have Inboxes.
An Inbox is a set place that we capture things as they come in to process them later. Have as many as you need, but no more. Each week, during your weekly review, you should sweep every Inbox for inputs that you need to process and file.
A good Inbox will let you capture something in a matter of seconds and get right back to what you were doing. It’s not for storing things. You’ll process it and file things properly later.
Your System Won’t Work Without You
Finally, you need to know that what you’ve put into your system will find you again when you need it. Schedule events for the right time. Put due dates and defer dates on your tasks so they will show up when they’re relevant. Tag consistently. Learn how to use reminders. If you handle paper, set up a 43-folder filing system.
Technology can help with this, but at the end of the day, the burden is on you. You need to develop the habits of checking your task list and calendar, filing things appropriately, and having a weekly review to make sure things keep running smoothly. Your trusted system can help ease the burden on your brain, but you can’t switch off your brain completely.
You have a lot of flexibility in how you put your trusted system together. Pick the tools that work best for you and suit your style. Pick tools that you will enjoy using—there’s no point in going through the effort to set up a system that’s so awful you don’t want to use it.
“Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.”
You already have a system in place. Information comes to you and you do something with it. The only question is whether you trust it to help you get things done.