How lists can alleviate mental load

More than once, in previous posts I’ve mentioned that I’d be lost without my lists. I’ve had a few people ask about how I use them to organise myself, so I thought I’d give you a quick rundown on my system.

If lists aren’t your thing, skip this one and we can chat more next month.

For me, lists serve two purposes. They alleviate mental load and they track progress.

Your brain can get overwhelmed a lot quicker than you might think. Did you know, your conscious brain can only process around 40 bits of information per second while your subconscious mind can process a whopping 11 million! When your conscious brain is trying to remember even a few extra things, it loses the ability to critically process additional information and you have less capacity for good decision making and creativity.

In a study by Stanford University professor Bav Shiv two groups of participants were asked to remember a number while deciding if they were going to have chocolate cake or fruit salad. One group was asked to remember a two-digit number and the other a seven-digit number. Two digits is easy to remember but in previous studies seven digits had been shown to be the upper limit of working memory. The participants with the two-digit number were more likely to make the healthier more rational choice of fruit salad, while the group remembering the longer number fell back on their subconscious impulse for the chocolate cake.

That’s only a small choice to make but it was a measurable difference when remembering just a few extra numbers. So why would you want to use up any of your precious conscious ‘bits’ trying to remember every last thing you’ve got to do.

Especially now that a lot of us have children at home full time, we fill so many different roles. These all have a set of jobs that need to be done, phone calls to make, deadlines to meet and things to remember. So many things.

My list is where I keep everything I need to do and remember so that I don’t have to remember. It frees up my brain and lets me concentrate on the task at hand.  It helps me to prioritise and make sure I’m making progress on the tasks that are the most urgent. On days when I feel like I’ve struggled through, it gives me a sense of achievement, because it’s a visible reminder of what I have managed to get done.

The first thing to do is to make a list of everything. I mean EVERYTHING, for every aspect of your life. Don’t worry about categorising them or thinking them through too much just get it all out of your head.  Try not to gloss over big overview tasks with one item. Break them down into steps so you can tackle one step at a time. I like to keep tasks small enough that I could get them finished in a day.

Now group tasks together. This could be into categories – projects, business, personal tasks, family tasks, things that need doing around the house. You might rather group them by the type of task they are – phone calls, deskwork, errands. Whatever suits the types of items you have and the way you like to allocate or block your time. If you notice that you have any large overview tasks, now’s the time to break them down into smaller components.

I have a few different places where I keep this information. For my general tasks I prefer to do this on paper and I have my list in my paper diary. In Asana I have my project process overview, yearly goals and ideas for personal creative projects, because they are less of a day to day focus. I also have some reusable lists for things like: everything I need to pack for the kids if we go away for the night or what I need to bring with me to a site measure.

At the start of every week I take some time to sit down with a coffee and review and update my list. I actually re-write it each week in my diary. I’m well aware this seems like overkill. But it removes all the finished tasks and helps clarify what I’d like to achieve in the coming week, I flag tasks that have a deadline or I need to prioritise. I enjoy the ritual or starting my week with a clear idea of what I want to achieve for the week.

To stay focussed I use a strategy of the Daily Three / Weekly One, which I first heard of through the BizChix podcast. Each day I select three tasks I will get done. Even if everything goes wrong in the day and I only get those three things done, that is enough and I’ve made progress. The Weekly One is a way to take on larger tasks. I’ve chosen to use this as one business development task each week. It helps me to make progress every week on business related jobs that are too easy to sideline for more urgent tasks.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, there’s never much time to celebrate small goals and achievements.

When you’ve finished something, get a big fat texta and cross it off your list. Take a moment to feel good about getting something done.