Don’t Use Your Mind

I have a table in my home that is not supposed to be cluttered. It’s a rule I have for myself, which I only occasionally break: Don’t put stuff on the dining table. Books and magazines belong elsewhere. Snail mail (can you even believe it still exists in 2013?) goes in a basket in the home office. Despite the rule, I recently found myself needing to clear off that table. The only way to do that is to remove things. Moving them around on the table does not help.

That table is a lot like Mind. Well, it’s hard for anything not to be a metaphor of Mind, but take my word for it. It’s impossible to solve problems with a cluttered mind. And you can’t solve problems with the same state of mind that created them.

David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, says that the main issue of a stressed out, non-productive life is the lack of bandwidth (table space) “… to be able to engage appropriately. Worse is that our creative energy is being used to fix and handle, remember and remind. We use our psyche to do this, instead of a system.”

Allen says, “Don’t use your mind to accumulate stuff and avoid it. Don’t use your mind to get stuff off your mind.” And, “Don’t keep anything in your head for the rest of your life.”

If I understand, he doesn’t mean don’t let certain things stay in your head that long. He means for the rest of your life, don’t use your mind for storage. It has better work to do. He says that our thinking has to be captured so that it can get out of the way of our problem solving or creative efforts.

“Capture your thinking. Get it out of your head. Anything and everything that is potentially meaningful – big or little – write it down.”

It seems I am constantly encountering people who are stressed out by problems but have no system for dealing with them. They have a mess to clean up but no space to work on the mess. Their mind is full of everything they need to keep remembering and there’s no bandwidth left for problem solving.

The worst part is when they blame the table for the mess that’s on it. They blame technology. Their computer or their phone, that’s the problem. Modern life is too complicated. It was better when it was simpler. The forget that any system, whether it employs sticky notes or Evernote, requires some planning, practice, and maintenance.

Well I remember the days before computers, when the phone hung on the wall and had a dial. The people who could solve problems were the ones who knew where their tools were: shovels and wrenches, glue and scissors, and the first aid kit. A place for everything and everything in its place. And if you needed to learn something, it helped to know the Dewey Decimal System and how to use the index cards in the library. There was a system, and it was not accessed by memory or luck. It was not kept inside of anyone’s head.

Ray Kurzweil is a prominent futurist, author, and a lead engineer at Google. He predicted the Internet, search engines, speech recognition, etc. He says that humans are becoming non-biological, that we are merging with our technology, and that our smartphones are extensions of our brains. So be it. Our forefathers had their parchments and notebooks. Da Vinci and Jefferson didn’t try to keep their projects in-between their ears.

We have better tools now. Whether what works for you is a desktop computer, a mobile device, a Moleskine and a pen, or some variety of tools, we all need a system to keep life from overwhelming us.  Even the humblest of intellects needs to prioritize their thinking to keep from overloading, stressing out, and teaching a colleague how to roshambo.

Since the invention of written language, Humankind has kept the bulk of its knowledge, wisdom, poetry, history, calendars, etc., in systems outside the damp confines of the brains of humans. They wrote stuff down. The difference now? We can carry it all – the entirety of amassed human information – around in our pockets. And Twitter too.

Right now, I’m thinking about these words and their best order. My Google Calendar knows when my doctor’s appointment is next week. I don’t. My technology will get me there, and remind me to pay my insurance bill and water the ficus in the living room, and what I’m supposed to pick up at the store. I’m not trying to remember it, is my point.

I hope you have a system that works well for you.

The next time someone asks me why I always have my phone, I’ll tell them it’s for thinking. I’m not playing bloody Angry Birds or laughing at grumpy cats. I’m thinking. Just like a notepad and a pen, this machine does mental work and is an extension of my consciousness. And someday, when I’m gone, you can download my consciousness into a Roomba, and I’ll quote T.S. Eliot while I vacuum the rugs.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown          
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

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