Do you write a well-structured to-do list in the morning… only to see the day get completely derailed by 10 am?
Do you get a new productivity app every week… only to witness a 0% increase in productivity?
Do you sit down for a deep work session… only to find out that you feel like a computer that’s out of RAM and on the verge of freezing?
Well, no matter which productivity system or hack you’re trying out, you’re probably missing out on the most important thing. There’s a single underlying reason why you’re not productive despite your best efforts.
Your Mind Is Like A Room… And It’s Too Cluttered To Focus
Does your mind feel like a cluttered room in an episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo?
The cat needs a vet appointment. I should learn Finnish someday. Why is the kitchen dirty again? Should I cook or clean now? Oh no. Wait what? Is my project actually due tomorrow? NOOOO! But my to-do list says I have to shop for Halloween decorations. Whatever. I need wine.
Writing to-do lists is like trying to rearrange the clutter without actually decluttering. You’re trying to structure some of the things that are on your mind – but all the other things are still there cluttering your mind and draining your mental energy.
Doesn’t this picture feel mildly terrifying? Well, this is what your mind feels like when it’s trying to keep hold of many things at once.
You see, your mind is bad at multitasking. It’s a biological fact. So if it’s forced to focus on several things at once, it either wanders off or gets tired easily.
If you have too many thoughts wandering around your mind at the same time, you’ll never manage to complete anything.
The reason why you’re not productive is that you’re trying to store everything in your mind.
It’s time to dump the contents of your mind on a piece of paper. It will give you a sense of control and clarity you’ve never experienced before – now that all of your plans and ideas are physically laid out in front of you, you can start planning and scheduling and focusing and incubating new ideas.
Without this crucial step, your mind is like a computer with 15 browser tabs open. It just doesn’t have enough RAM to focus on any important task.
And here’s how to clear your mind.
How To Capture All Of Your Thoughts
Schedule a few hours of uninterrupted time in your calendar.
Grab some paper and a pen and start writing down ALL the to-dos, plans, unfinished ideas etc. – everything that’s floating down your stream of consciousness. The vet appointment, the Finnish course, cleaning the kitchen, completing your project… Don’t differentiate between work-related and personal items.
If you’re doing this for the first time, don’t be surprised if you come up with over one hundred loose items and a few dozen projects. Yes, this is how much stuff you’ve been carrying around in your head all along.
Stuff may sound mildly offensive (your thoughts are valuable and important, after all!). But it simply refers to that tangled mess of plans, actionable items, random bits of information.
After dumping the contents of your mind onto paper, you’re probably feeling relieved and overwhelmed at the same time. Your mind is happy because it doesn’t have to store all of those things anymore – but at the same time, it’s wondering how it’s going to make sense of this tangled pile.
Take each item one by one. Now, schedule a time and a place to do it if it’s actionable. If it’s not directly actionable but still a useful piece of information, write it down and file it.
Slowly, you’ll witness confusing stuff untangle itself into series of actionable steps. A series of steps is called a project. In one of my next posts, I’ll talk about projects in more detail.
Now, give all of your items a home, a trusted system that can hold all of your plans and ideas like a chest of drawers holds your neatly folded clothes. It can be a bullet journal, a set of hanging file folders or a productivity app.
It doesn’t matter if you have an IKEA Malm or a fancy antique piece of furniture you’ve inherited from your great-grandfather – it will still hold your stuff. In the same way, it doesn’t really matter which productivity app or paper-based tool you use to store your projects and actionable items. The important thing – as with furniture – is that you enjoy using it.
Thanks. Now I’m overwhelmed and I still haven’t done anything.
Clearing your mind might feel like an inspiring and liberating experience as you finally gain a complete overview of your projects and tasks. Or it might feel daunting and overwhelming. If it does… simply focus on the most urgent projects for a few days and let the rest sit for now. You’ve just made your first step towards ultimate productivity – and it’s OK to feel tired afterwards.
But you’re on your way towards crafting your own productivity system where nothing falls through the cracks. Once you’ve mastered the initial steps, the rest will become increasingly stress-free as you gain a sense of control over your life.
You weren’t productive because your mind was too busy storing information and couldn’t focus on processing it. Now you’ve freed it.