At the start of every year, I tell my students I’m about to give you a gift you can use to change the world. As they sit in nervous expectation, I reach into a paper bag and start handing out colorful composition notebooks. These little 80-page journals—50 cents each at Staples at the beginning of the school year—are an incredibly simple, and devastatingly effective, tool to restore order to our chaotic lives.
One of the most influential books (I find myself saying that a lot) that I have read recently is Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. His primary thesis is that your brain is designed for thinking, not remembering. While the human brain is remarkably adept at generating ideas, we have very limited RAM. This means that our short-term memory pales in comparison to our ability to create, philosophize, analyze. The brain of the average person is so overstuffed with the need to remember random tasks—grade essays, sign up for pickleball, empty the dishwasher, email feedback to boss, get haircut—that there is very limited bandwidth for actual thinking. So, what is Allen’s solution? Write things down.
The very first exercise he recommends is something he calls a “mind sweep.” It’s as simple as it sounds. Essentially, you sit down with pen and paper and write down literally everything that you are thinking about from the most mundane—cat food is getting low—to the sublime —must help my son fall in love with the Quran. It takes a while the very first time, often six to eight hours, but you emerge happier and lighter.
What is the secret to this system? Once we write an idea down, we give our brains permission to forget it. This frees up our working memory and makes us less distracted, which exponentially increases our ability to focus. Once you have spilled the contents of your mind into a notebook, the next step is to clarify, organize, reflect on, and then simply get things done. Before long, tasks that had long been caught in the back eddies of our subconscious are getting checked off with satisfying regularity.
My dad used to discuss his “morning miracle” with anyone unfortunate enough to converse with him about his pre-work toilet routine. But I would argue that the practice of the “morning mind dump” is nearly as cathartic and relieving (and far more acceptable to discuss with strangers). But I do recommend that you tread carefully. When I first got started with the GTD program, my mind started to overheat. I took six of those 50 cent journals and gave them catchy titles to represent different aspects of my life: Family of Hearts, ANA Book of Deeds, Leather Sock Diaries, Deep Thoughts with Hamzah Henshaw, and the like. I would carry these books with me everywhere and frantically jot down thoughts as soon as they popped into mind. I have always had a weakness for taking things too literally and going too hard too fast.
But eventually I fell into a rhythm. I dropped down to one notebook in which I record thoughts on the left and action items on the right. It has been life changing. Suddenly, ideas that had long been percolating on the back burner of my mind have made it on to long-term to-do lists. Slowly, I have begun to wrest order from the chaos of my overstuffed mind.
Other than its sheer simplicity, I believe this method works because it is analog instead of digital. While computers and technology are incredible tools, they are infinitely distracting. Handwritten notes are entirely customizable. You can draw ideas that are difficult to verbalize, use special symbols to categorize your thoughts, and just generally capture the inner recesses of your mind in whatever way works best for you.
Life is actually a whole lot simpler than we give it credit for. So much of our time is sucked up by tree-level busy work that we never take time to see the big-picture forest. We tell ourselves that we are too busy to pursue our dreams, but really, we are just trapped in a Sisyphean rat race filled with tasks that seem urgent but are ultimately unimportant. I don’t know if my students believe me, and, based on the many blank pages of their journals at the end of the year, many seem to have their doubts, but I will never stop preaching that we can change the world one notebook at a time.