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Empty your brain: the key to productivity

This post was first published on September 24, 2008.

Reader Alyssa asks, “I’m wondering – are you still going to do, or have you done the GTD for Home Managers? I’m sooo interested in that!”

Thanks for asking, Alyssa. My short answer – No, I haven’t “done” the GTD for Home Managers yet. It’s still very much on my radar, and I’m still mulling over ideas and thoughts. I love the idea, and I feel like it needs to be done, if not by me, then by someone.

Some of you might be wondering – what is GTD? If you Google it, you’ll see that there’s quite a pseudo-cult following on the idea, even though GTD simply stands for “Getting Things Done.” Coined by David Allen, his system of productivity spawned a whole generation of people embracing the idea of sticking with a simple system to – well, Get Things Done.

While I like a lot of his original ideas, as well as the many mutations of GTD that have since been created online, none of them are perfect and THE go-to for making your life productive — especially for home managers.

The foundation for GTD is something I happen to agree with. And the idea is just as important for home managers as it is for Fortune 500 CEOs.

Write it down.

Write everything down. Get it out of your brain and on to someplace else. Whatever “it” is that’s on your mind — your to-do list, the chocolate chip recipe you just concocted, your need to call your husband and ask him to pick up milk on the way home — everything. Leave nothing in your brain. Don’t make your brain the holding place for all those bits and pieces hovering around your day.

How often have you said to yourself, “I don’t need to jot down a reminder; I’ll remember this.” And then how often have you forgotten that very thing?

Yeah, me too.

Forgetfulness is one of the main reasons you need to write stuff down. Other reasons are:

  • You’re more stressed when your brain is thinking about a thousand little things.
  • You’re not able to fully concentrate on the task at hand.
  • You overcommit, because you can’t clearly see what’s on your plate.
  • You don’t have true, relaxing downtime because you hold on to that nagging feeling that you should always be doing something else – but you’re not sure what.

So for me, the cornerstone to even hoping for a productive day is to write everything down, and to leave nothing in my brain (ha).

What Does This Look Like?

To simply start a basic GTD pattern at home, you need to grab yourself a blank something — a piece of paper, a white board, a new text document on your computer, something. I prefer paper because I like to doodle my thoughts in a more haphazard manner a la Todoodlist.

Photo by Jean-Louis Zimmerman

Then, jot down every. little. thing. on your mind. Everything. Don’t worry about making sense of it or putting things in order just yet – simply transfer it from your brain to paper. Don’t hold on to any of it – your body will physically react to it (stress, fatigue, not concentrating), and your soul will react emotionally (stress, frustration at innocent people, bitterness from having too much on your plate).

When you start seeing everything that’s been on your mind, it won’t take long for you to start seeing patterns, to begin making order of your agenda, or to simply file away ideas that you’ve held on to needlessly.

How It Works for Me

When I first started writing everything down, there was a lot to scribble down. I was floored with how much I let stay in my brain. But since I’ve made it more of a regular routine in my life, doing this is not nearly as overwhelming.

Each morning, I expel everything from my brain to paper.
I do this on the bottom half of my Daily Docket using the Todoodlist method.

From there, I start visually connecting the dots, and make my day’s to-do list on the Docket.

If there’s anything I need to remember while I’m on the computer (blog management, checking bank accounts, or browsing for a book I need, for example), I add it to a simple notepad widget on my iGoogle page.

If something involves a date, I add it to our family calendar, which I keep in Google Calendar.

Throughout the day, as I think of more things, I add it to my blank space on my Daily Docket as quickly as possible.

Designate One Place

The most important part of writing everything down is to do it all in one place. If you have a separate sheet for your work to-do list, a different one relating to each family member, and another one for family finances, that’s too much. You’re still adding stuff to your brain — keeping track of all of these papers and remembering where they go. When you take the first step of emptying your brain, it needs to be all in one place. You can then organize from there, if you want.

Some people have a basic notepad or journal dedicated solely to their brain-emptying, and not using it for anything else. That’s a pretty good idea, especially if you feel overwhelmed at first with how much you’ve been holding on to.

So, Alyssa, to get back to your question – even though I haven’t yet developed a GTD for Home Managers just yet, if I were to, this is where I’d start. Having you write down every last thing that’s on your mind, so that you don’t have to cart it with you wherever you take your brain. Allow your brain cells to retain something else.

Do you make a habit of writing everything down? Has it helped? If you’ve never done this before, I recommend taking five minutes right now and starting, just to see how it feels. Then comment below on how it felt to you.

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  1. Juggling Motherhood in New Zealand

    I totally agree that writing things down is such an important tool to combat the stress of living a busy life.

    I have always called it “de-cluttering your mind”. The clutter (unwritten things in your mind) really does add to the stress of your day. When you eventually write it down, it usually ends up only being 3 things!

    I also find it useful to have my piece of paper on my beside table when I go to bed at night. It is amazing what things you remember when you are “supposed” to be sleeping!

    Happy juggling everyone!
    .-= Juggling Motherhood in New Zealand´s last blog ..Valuing what we have: Day 1 =-.

  2. Lisa

    When I take a moment in the mornings to do this, I’ve found it so helpful in organizing a smooth day for sure….
    I’ve also found that if I give myself some time at the END of the day as well, it is super helpful too– especially since many nights my mind is full and mulling over things when I should be unwinding and preparing for sleep. This process helps me get the stuff out, so that I can let it go from my thoughts.
    Great article, Tsh!
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..What Do You Believe About Cleansing? =-.

  3. steadymom

    I’ve never really heard of this idea, but I like the sound of it. I find writing things down quite soothing – so a brain “dump” each day does sound appealing!

    .-= steadymom´s last blog ..Our Children’s Changing Seasons =-.

  4. izzat aziz

    this is really good tips, human brain can handle everything, but human not born to reach the maximun of the brain, human need help in memorizing something.. i agree by writing everything done at least you can relax yourself and also everything will make sense. 😀

  5. Tiffany

    I’ve never heard of GTD method, but I like it. I do best if I write my list down. I keep a simple paper calendar by my computer and try to list everything in it.
    .-= Tiffany´s last blog ..Weekly Menu, Grocery List, Recipes – Week 15 =-.

  6. Emma @

    I’m lost without my notepad. I really am. My memory isn’t what it used to be, and it wasn’t great to begin with 🙂 Things get done when they’re on the list, period. Anything that is a part of my routine, of course, doesn’t need to be on my list – I am doing it out of habit already, but any shopping, things to do, appointments, birthdays, etc – a list is the way to go.
    .-= Emma @´s last blog ..Grandparents… a helping hand or a real handful? =-.

  7. Tanna @ Complete Organizing Solutions

    I carry my notebook everywhere I go! I write everything down daily. If I’m on the computer and blog post ideas start overwhelming my thoughts I click open the TextEdit (on mac) and start typing everything real quick and go back and complete it at a later time. It always feels so good to get all of the little roaming thoughts out of the way! GTD is too cumbersome for me right now. I have a very minimalist approach to keeping track of things. I even draw out my calendar in my notebook so it works exactly like I want it too. I haven’t written a post about it yet, however I have been wanting to so I’ll get that up soon.

    I am a firm believer in a brain dump no matter which approach you take whether you write ideas in a list, or a mind map, or a napkin. Just get the thoughts out there. Some great business ideas have been launched from scribbles on a napkin.
    .-= Tanna @ Complete Organizing Solutions´s last blog ..Change Is In The Air =-.

    • paige

      Me too! I end up with a million little notes in a billion places that I never find/read again… talk about frustrating!
      .-= paige´s last blog ..What’s Lurking in Your Soap? =-.

  8. Amy

    Great post! I’ve been keeping a ‘log book’ at work for about 10 years. Every phone call w/ number, meeting and my weekly to do list for the past 10 years is logged. When I don’t do it, I am lost and can’t focus.

    I’ve tried to do the same thing at home but haven’t found a system that works. I like the idea of a white board.
    .-= Amy´s last blog ..What I Learned This Week: Fresh Pumpkin Pie is the Best =-.

  9. Amy Reads Good Books

    I love your daily docket! In fact, I just happily crossed two items off my list, so I’m taking a little blog break. 🙂
    .-= Amy Reads Good Books´s last blog ..Shelf Discovery =-.

  10. Greta @ Mom Living Healthy

    I’m off to write this list now! Thanks for the tip. I think if I had a notebook dedicated to this purpose, it would really help. I usually write my lists on sheets of paper and then they float around our house and create more clutter. I just love all of your blog posts, thanks!
    .-= Greta @ Mom Living Healthy´s last blog ..Menu Plan Monday =-.

  11. Liz Jenkins

    Excellent post! I do this every evening – by gathering all of my scribbles throughout the day and putting them where they belong.
    I just ordered the Todoodlist book – more for recommending to my clients. The GTD method is really too much for most of the people I know and this sounds like it’s what I do – just written down in a more coherent manner than I could ever explain!
    .-= Liz Jenkins´s last blog ..Always Learning . . . Organizing Conference in Washington DC =-.

  12. Tabitha

    I have a gazillion notebooks for a dozen different uses, all of them with lists galore!! It reeeeally helps with “Mommy brain!” Sometimes, when I start feeling overwhelmed, I just sit down and write it all out, as much as I can think of, and I feel sooo much better!! I learned my lesson after too many failed attempts at, “Oh, I don’t have to write it down–I’ll remember.” UGH! I write shopping lists, to-do lists, I keeps track of RSVPs for various events, I write gifts needed and ideas, etc. etc. I can’t function without lists–my brain can’t hold as much as it use to! 🙂
    .-= Tabitha´s last blog ..We don’t so much DO costumes =-.

  13. Danielle

    You are so write I do so much better when everything is written down and out of my head!!
    .-= Danielle´s last blog ..Dreams and Vision Board =-.

  14. Roslyn

    GTD is awesome. But as soon as I got my feet wet, I realized that as a mom and home manager, I just don’t have the same needs as a corporate exec. Tweaking GTD for the home can be challenging because we need to be far more flexible! I am very much looking forward to your interpretation. Right now I use a small spiral notebook with a pocket in the front. The pocket holds my small calendar and my little daily dockets. (Thanks!!!) On the first notebook page are two columns: HAVE TO and LIKE TO. This is basically my “to-do list” where I record every action that occurs to me, and I separate them that way so I can easily find the really urgent stuff. I also tabbed a section for “SOMEDAY” and “IDEAS” in order to corral all those other ideas that float around. It works well, is more simplistic than GTD but seems to provide as much relief! Thanks for all your great tips.

  15. Jennie

    I tried the daily docket and found that I give myself WAY too much to do. When I try to write everything down that I need to I find myself with an outrageous to do list. The flip side is if I don’t write it down my brain gets muddled. I’m really not sure what the solution is!

  16. Juggling Motherhood

    I totally agree that writing things down and getting them out of your head is so important to stay sane when we are really busy.

    I always referred to it as “decluttering your mind”. I think that the clutter (all the stuff that you are trying to remember) really does add to your stress.

    I also like to put my planner and a pen on my bedside table in the evening. It is amazing what comes to you when you are “supposed” to be going to bed!

    Happy juggling everyone!
    .-= Juggling Motherhood´s last blog ..Valuing what we have: Day 1 =-.

  17. Post-Modern Jen

    I definitely have to write every…thing…down. And I completely agree- the most important thing is to jot all your notes, numbers, ideas, lists etc. in ONE PLACE, at least to begin with. Brook Noel’s book “The Change Your Life Challenge” refers to this as your “Catch-all” notebook for good reason. I keep a notebook in my purse at all times to catch all of my thoughts. I can move any phone numbers to my phone book and any events to my calendar once I have more time.
    .-= Post-Modern Jen´s last blog ..Aw Honey You Baked: A Little Late Recipe for Roasted Pumpkin Seeds =-.

  18. Shannon @ AnchorMommy

    I love the brain dump! I’ve been using a spiral notebook, and I love having all my notes and to-do lists in one place. Plus, using it everyday fulfills I craving I never really knew I had to use school supplies again! I LOVE my notebook and fine point, black pen. I am a complete nerd.
    .-= Shannon @ AnchorMommy´s last blog ..Eeek! The frights of parenting =-.

  19. Tamara

    I run a paper diary. It keeps everything from my day to day work, my sons many medical apts etc (too many to mention), the to do list and any other lists I make create and use. It is starting to fall apart now but a computer one is not set up in a way that I can easily use it at this stage. Perhaps it is just me.

  20. Donna S

    I’ve been doing a brain dump for a few weeks now and if I forget a day I can really tell. I get stressed and can’t focus on what NEEDS to get done. I just wrote my list for this morning now I’m off to conquer!

    Thanks for the great advice!
    .-= Donna S´s last blog ..Felt Food – Inspiration =-.

  21. Rana

    This is the first time I have done this. What a great feeling to get it all out on paper and see where my mind is going. Now I have a clear head and an idea of what needs to be taken care of right now and what can wait until later. Thanks!
    .-= Rana´s last blog ..See Jane Read. =-.

  22. Tashia @ The Household Planner

    I started writing everything down a year or two ago and I can’t believe how much more productive I am! I created my own Household Planner around the idea of being able to write out monthly and weekly to-do’s and goals that pertain to a busy mom’s life. My weekly planner sheet has to-do categories such as: personal, work/project related, financial, household, calls/emails, shopping and other to-do’s.
    I load it up at the beginning of the week and then each day, choose and list the tasks for that day.
    You can see my weekly planning pages here:
    .-= Tashia @ The Household Planner´s last blog ..5 Free Excel Holiday Budget Worksheets =-.

    • Ellie

      I really like your planner sheets – thanks for the free ones!! I’ll let you know how it works. I’ll add you to me Google Reader too!
      .-= Ellie´s last blog ..Evaluate Your Time =-.

  23. kat

    I have a planner/notebook I lug around at all times.:) It has several different tabs-planner, project, memo, datafile & address. I have tweaked GTD to suit my personal needs as a home manager & member of the workforce. Here, I jot my to-do list/next actions. I use @phone, @home, @computer to categorize my next actions. I also schedule in my sons’ appointments with the doctor, my meetings, parties & events to attend. I keep masterlists of things/projects I would like to do, like organizing photographs, home maintenance & improvement projects. I jot down notes such as our medical history, kid’s vaccination records, my wish-list, my prayers & prayer requests, my goals, expenses, vehicle maintenance, grocery lists, weekly menu, etc. Using the Someday list of GTD I created sublists such as books to read, restaurants to visit, movies to watch, websites to visit. Although jotting things down doesn’t really guarantee having it done, but it lessens the stress cause my worrying too much. At home, I also have a small whiteboard, where I leave instructions to the babysitters. I also have monitoring charts for my sons’ vitamins and other what nots.

  24. Rachel

    I am slowly becoming more and more attached to this type of brian dumping and list making. Right now my routines consist of a dry erase board on the fridge that has space for each of the stores I regularly visit so when we are out of something I can just write it under the store I usually purchase it at and so when I go to that store there is my list already made out. I have just recently started putting short todo lists on this board as well although I am really feeling a need to create another space where I can organize more long term thoughts and ideas not just, “this has to get done this week!” ideas. Hopefully this post has given me the motivation I need to create a space for that. I also have papers on the fridge where I write down Christmas and birthday wish lists for myself and my son as they pop into my mind (like when I am cooking and the olive oil spills down the side of the mason jar and I think “I really want a great olive oil pourer!!!”). That way at gifting time I already have a list to give to people. One less thing to do! Thanks for the thoughtful post Tsh, love your site!! 🙂

  25. Debbie

    I love this idea! I have tried it the last couple days and it has helped so much. It was amazing how much I got done in an hour and a half this morning when I was not thinking about all the stuff I need to do later. I have always had an affinity for spiral notebooks. So I have started doing the brain dump in a spiral notebook and then paperclipping a pocket docket over it. I feel so much better. I can even sit here and read simplemom w/o feeling guilty because I know I have accomplished something, and I am not missing anything urgent. Thanks!

  26. Lucy

    I actually do this on a regular basis, but I didn’t know it was an actual system. My mind often fills up with ideas for posts and also things to do. Most of the time, I don’t write everything down. However, when it gets overwhelming I end up writing EVERYTHING down. It really does help. Most recently, I decided I have to complete several tasks/goals before the end of this year by removing distractions from my life and prioritizing. I wrote everything down and set them up as tasks in my blackberry with deadlines and reminders. It is going very well so far.
    .-= Lucy´s last blog ..2009 Halloween Events in Vancouver =-.

  27. Paula@Motherhood Out Loud

    Okay, so I spent the last 10 minutes writing down everything I could think of that needs to be done…and I feel so much better! I like the commenter who mentioned doing this each evening. That is a perfect time for me, might even help me fall asleep faster if my brain is “empty”! I have been using a home management notebook for the past couple of months and it has been a huge help, this is one more great strategy to add. Thanks!
    .-= Paula@Motherhood Out Loud´s last blog ..Second Time Around =-.

  28. Kayla

    I love Omnifocus because I carry it my list on my iphone and on my computer – this allows me to stay focused on the areas I am working in – household, errands, phone, computer, etc. Wherever I am, I have a list of things I need to do in that place with me. Especially helps with times I have waiting places I can find something else to do in that downtime. I love GTD and think it is a great system that could be adopted to anyone’s daily tasks. The book is fabulous as well.
    .-= Kayla´s last blog ..Source for Card Stock =-.

  29. Trish@TheOldPostRoad

    Thank you! Thank you! Am trying this , starting today! My dreams explain to me how much I have trying to occur inside my little pea-brain. Focus is hard for me because I am now a sahm and always think – I can do that later.
    .-= Trish@TheOldPostRoad´s last blog ..Thrifty Etsy Shopping =-.

  30. Arielle

    Just found this through The Shabby Nest- it’s SUCH a great idea! My husband always gives me a hard time for never being able to stop thinking of everything I need to get done. What a great way to get some of these things out of my head! Thanks for such a useful post!
    .-= Arielle´s last blog ..A Little Fall Treat =-.

  31. jana

    I love writing everything down…I’m so much more productive! Great blog entry!!
    .-= jana´s last blog ..Read Together =-.

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