It’s the end of January, a time when many well-intentioned New Year’s Resolutions seem to slip further and further away as the work load piles up. We all want to be more productive, whether at work or in our personal lives and hobbies, but often our efforts to bring more focus into our routines and optimize success are sidetracked by the frustrations of daily life and the seemingly endless to do lists.
Despite our best intentions, many of us are low on productivity and high on caffeine at this time of year, and it can seem impossible to break the cycle.
The result? Our brains become overwhelmed by the pressures, demands and goals we face, and if we don’t call it out, this state of chronic brain overwhelm can sabotage our productivity in a big way.
The Brain Thinking Error
The brain thinking error that is causing this is actually surprisingly simple. It is trying to ‘keep it all in your head’ instead of unloading your cluttered thoughts by writing them down.
Ruminating on all your daily worries, to-dos and should-dos makes you mentally fatigued and clogs up your thinking, even though you may feel like you are being ‘productive’ by trying to keep all these top priority tasks at the forefront of your mind. The more we think about something in this way, the less it is getting done, and we inevitably start to associate it with stress, pressure and worry.
Keeping all your worries, tasks and ideas inside is bad for you because it creates hypervigilance in the older ‘reptilian’ part of the brain that manages threat alerts — the limbic system and amygdala. This creates a background of ‘brain anxiety’ that can cloud thinking and prevent the higher functioning brain areas in the frontal lobe and the PFC from making good decisions.
Although it can sound like common sense, most people rarely take the time to ‘unload’ their brain and channel their thoughts. This is one of the biggest errors that I see in my clients, many of whom work in high-pressure corporate environments. By failing to confront this simple error they have ended up stressed and overwhelmed, and risk becoming burnt out.
The good news?
This simple brain thinking error is surprisingly easy to resolve no matter how busy you are, and it can be the start of a radical change in your productivity every single day.
Many of my clients have seen huge increases in their productivity from adopting surprisingly simple hacks, such as using paper-based journals to unload their thoughts and organise their goals into a condensed and manageable format.
Here’s how you can do it to.
Unclogging your brain: A How To Guide
Start by writing down all the ‘stuff’ that is constantly at the forefront of your mind or that you have been worrying about for some time. This could include important tasks, goals that you haven’t got round to starting, or even areas of your personal life that are causing you stress. By doing this, you are unclogging your ‘mental inbox’.
You can use either a digitalised notepad or organizing app, or a paper-based journal for this. I personally prefer a paper-based journal, and have found changing to a paper journal planner to be the single most profound way to improve my own focus and stick to my goals. This is backed up by science, as some studies are discovering that the brain may actually learn and remember tasks better when they are handwritten compared to digital planners. This process can also be surprisingly cathartic.
Once you have all of this written down in one place, you can start to order it and set action steps to deal with each task or ‘thing’ you need to do, attend, write or achieve. This can help to decrease the constant ‘mental chatter’ and thinking overload that zaps your mental and emotional resources.
Being able to visualise all of this information and have it documented in an orderly fashion and in one physical place can do wonders for decluttering your thinking process.
No paper journal? If you need to unload on the go my favourite app is ‘Google Keep’, a note-taking service which allows you to neatly organise your thoughts with keys, labels and colour coding.
In order to optimize the positive impacts on your thinking and ultimately your productivity, it is important to do this every day. If you do this, your ‘mental inbox’ will be clear, leading to more positive and ordered thinking, more free space in your mind, more creative solutions to problems and less reactionary stress-based decisions.