Attention management for writers, part 1.1: Forget about remembering

Intuitively, we know there are two things that destroy our attention: the voice in our head, and the voices of our colleagues (I am not qualified to tell you how – or whether – to ignore your kids).

This blog series starts with the voice in our head. The one desperately trying to keep on top of everything, remember everything, organise everything. But my observation – and I am not a neuroscientist – is that our brains aren’t powerful enough to deal with all that remembering and organising and still focus on anything else. They’re either swirling in a vortex, trying to hold on to every task that flies by, or they’re sitting calmly to write. Never both.

So we’re going to give our brains a hand by outsourcing all of that messy movement onto external memories: todo lists, note taking, calendars. That’s the first principle of attention management: don’t invest your attention in anything that a tool can do for you (and do better than you, while it’s at it). Help that inner voice quiet down.

One thing you can do this week: get a to do list app

Why a to do list?

I have a terrible memory. So do you. We know this, so we get stressed just by trying to figure out whether we forgot anything. “Is this all I have for today? Oh, and that thing – need to remember to do that thing. And maybe talk to that person. What else? I know I’m forgetting something”. We can’t hold all that in our heads.

And that stress isn’t helping us focus, because it’s stress about all the things that aren’t what we’re currently doing. Or the little details of the thing we’re currently doing (“need to remember to go back to that diagram and update it when I finish this paragraph”).

Honestly, why do people even try? This is exactly why we invented to do lists, and they’re great.

Why an app?

For one thing, my handwriting sucks. There is little distinction between writing a note on paper and just not bothering to write it, except from the point of view of the paper. But that’s me.

However, traditional to do lists on notes or in notebooks have a few shortcomings. The main one is that they’re hard work. Apps let you maintain that list very flexibly. Move items to tomorrow, set them to happen every day, put them in projects with labels and tags, toss them to some other specific date. It’s so easy to stay organised. Trying to manage all this in a written form is messy, and a lot of work. We’re likely to let things drop. If it’s March 13th, where do we put the note to do something on the 26th? Where do we put the task that has to happen every Monday? Do we have a good way of managing sub-tasks, or they do go into the crawl space under the line on which the parent task is written? And is it searchable, or do we have to spend 20 minutes at a time finding that one task we jotted down three weeks ago in the middle of a sea or unrelated tasks?

Some people try to run their to do lists from combinations of their inbox, handwritten notes, Jira and tea leaf reading. The problem with running a multi-source to do list is that it’s even more chaotic than a notebook. Keeping the different sources synced in our mind so that we’re working on the most important things from all those sources is bloody hard work, and is very error prone. It’s so easy to forget that one email, or that one note three pages back, while focusing on Jira. It’s hard to break things done and monitor the status of every element when we’re working off an email, or when there are specific guidelines to how we can splinter a Jira ticket. We need a solution that unifies all those pipelines and at the same time is very flexible – it needs to let us keep track of our tasks in a way that makes sense to us, not to some tool that was not designed for this.

So we get a to do list app and let it do all that hard lifting for us.

Also, an app – one that can work on all of our devices – means we’re never far from our to do list. That’s great for when we remember something while out on a walk, or at three in the morning.One other thing I really love about to do list apps is when they have a universal keyboard shortcut that opens a simple text input box. It means we can toss something on our to do list without moving away from whatever we’re working on. Without even really moving our eyes. Putting any random idea that pops into our head on the list means we don’t have to stress about remembering it, and doing it from our working context means we’re not forcing our brains to switch context (where it suddenly sees all those other pending tasks) and then dragging it back to what we were working on.

Coming up…

Next week, we’ll look at some tips for making to do lists more useful. Later, we’ll look at other tools that help us dampen our internal chaos. But for now, just try a few apps and find the one you like best.

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