Set up your mind’s workspace (Exercise #13)

May 12, 2006

Unfortunately, it isn't possible to have guests over in your mind. But wouldn't that be neat? At the very least, if it were possible, perhaps we would tidy our mind’s workspace as frequently as we tidied our home and office workspaces. As it is, the mind’s workspace is more like that basement closet that we stuff thing’s into in order to hide them from guests, investors, friends, family, etc. It is the black box of a productive environment, and as such one of the most neglected aspects of our daily maintenance, weekly reviews, self-evaluations, life hacking, and attempts to get things done. At the same time, the roots of most of our problem can be traced (like a bad smell) back to the mind’s workspace.

Some of the moving parts involved in your mind’s workspace include:

  1. Working memory
  2. Habits
  3. Visualization
  4. Bodily and mental stress

David Allen in Getting Things Done does a great job of addressing the mind’s workspace with a couple key phrases. The subtitle of the book is even “the art of stress-free productivity”, which encapsulates both the method and the result of setting up the proper workspace in your mind. Turn your mind into a beautiful room that you are comfortable sitting in. Another great phrase is “mind like water” which is about having an organized mental workspace that is able to react to every event in perfect proportion to the event’s weight. It doesn’t overreact or underreact. Both of these phrases emphasize the aesthetics of a well set-up mind. Perhaps they are a bit too zen wacky for some though, so I’ll try to come at it from a couple different angles.

What is your mind's workspace like?

How does it feel to sit in your mind's workspace? Try it. What do the walls look like? What kind of chair are you sitting in? How does the desk look? Do you have 12 monitors up… each blaring different scenarios, conversations, reminders, news reports, and soap operas? How much information is there lying around, and how organized is it? Is it sunny or dark? Warm or cold? Crazy or calm? All of this is simply an exercise in confabulation of course, as the real structure of working memory is mostly obscured from us. But hopefully what it can help reveal is how your mind feels. Most likely, unless you've already learned the art of mental clarity, this space feels a bit like a dark room full of wild yet familiar things. The cobwebbed attic of the brain metaphor is overused, but strangely appropriate for most of us.

As was mentioned in the post about setting up your physical workspace a couple days ago, there is some projection of your mind's workspace out onto your environments. If you need some help knowing exactly how your mind's workspace is, then, it doesn't hurt to look at your home and office workspaces. What does your desk look like, what does your wallet or purse look like, what does your garage look like?

What do you want your mind's workspace to be like?

What does a perfectly productive mind feel like to you? A good exercise for this is to imagine a virtual reality machine that you can design for yourself. This virtual reality machine will be replaced with your own mind when you are satisfied with it. You'll never need to set another alarm clock because your new mind will have an accurate clock in it that will let you know when to wake up, or when that next meeting is, or when the headlining band is really going on. You'll never need another PDA or pocket book because your new mind will be able to store grocery lists, email addresses, phone numbers, names and faces, and personal affirmations appropriate for every adversity or problem that might come your way. Your mind will have the ability to remember things it wants to remember, and forget things it wants to forget. It will be able to filter out all information that it doesn't need, and focus on tasks that are set when they are set. It will remind you to buy batteries for the dead flashlight when you are at the store passing the battery rack, not when the thunderstorm knocks the power out of your house. It will be an awesome mind, and it will never accidentally fall in the toilet or get left in the cab.

But that mind doesn't exist!

After you've designed the perfect mind, perhaps you're now saying that the exercise was futile because that kind of mind isn't possible. In Getting Things Done, for example, one of the primary goals of the system is to remove all of these distracting and stress-inducing things from your mind because it is not the right tool for the job. I don't actually think this is always the case. Getting your mind in order may allow your to reap wild benefits in productivity and focus in proportion to the level of disorganization it is currently in. The truth is that people are often failing at creating a good GTD system simply because they can't afford to take the productivity hit of writing each thing down when just remembering them seems to work so well. Only, it doesn't always work. And it causes stress. But how much of this is just because we don't know how to use our minds?

Memory is the best list-making tool

What's easier: keeping a grocery list on a piece of paper, or keeping a grocery list in your mind? Well, it depends. Factors include:

  • When you realize you need to buy something, is it easier to find the paper and write it down, or easier to remember it?
  • When you're at the store, do you have the piece of paper or can you recall the list.

There are two actions involved: saving the list and retrieving the list. Both tools have their pros and cons both for saving information and retrieving information.

To save something to a list, you need to make sure the list is with you. It might take physical energy to find the list if it's nearby, or otherwise you'll have to remember to put something on the list. If you can remember to put something on the list, how much easier is that than simply remembering the thing that you were going to put on the list? To save something to memory, on the other hand, you need to have memory tools at your disposal, which we'll talk about soon. This also takes energy to do, but it's mental energy.

To retrieve something from a list, you again need to make sure the list is with you when it's needed. This, again, will take physical energy, and, it might take additional mental energy to remember where the list is, as well as a mental reminder to get the list before it is needed (it's no good if you remember to get the list when you're already at the store, unless it's already with you). To retrieve something from memory requires mental energy as well as confidence that your list was properly saved into memory.

Another way of thinking about it is this: why does each method fail? Physical memory fails when they are incomplete (you didn't add something to the list when you were supposed to either because you didn't want to expend the physical energy or because you didn't successfully remember to add something to the list) or not present when you need them. Mental memory fails when an item isn't properly saved or is lost before it is retrieved.

How to improve your memory

Most people will say that they don't have a good memory and that's why they have to write things down. But how many of us have really worked on improving our memory? How many of us were taught to memorize things by repeating them over and over? That's actually one of the worst ways to memorize something, especially because our brain learns to ignore things that are repeated repeatedly… in the same way that it'll learn to filter out noise from a loud room. It's possible to remember something the first time you encounter it… if there's a vivid sensation attached to it. Particularly powerful sensations include:

  • A striking image
  • A powerful emotion
  • A new smell

All you have to do to remember something is associate it with a striking image, a powerful emotion, or a new smell. Using these techniques, people have recited the first 83,431 digits of pi, the entire Koran, the entire Guinness Book of World Records, the weather and day of the week for any date in a person's life, and many other ridiculous things. These people are labelled as having photographic, or eidetic, memory.

But, even more amazing and not as much of a scientific anomaly is the fact that each of us can remember an insane amount of information every day without any effort at all. You can remember scenes from movies, quotes from television shows, the lyrics to songs, the clothes people wear, people you've run into at a coffee shop or bar, and any number of details. What separates this information from your grocery list and what you had for lunch last Tuesday? The former are associated with striking images, powerful emotions, and (okay, maybe not that often) new smells. The later, are not.

Here's how you remember something after experiencing it once

Associate it with a striking image. Of the three options given above, this is the one that is most universally applicable. It's not that easy to evoke a powerful emotion or new smell on demand… but it is easy to think of a weird striking image on demand (after a little practice).

There are several well-established ways to do this. Here are a few pointers to great resources:

I'll be exploring some of these techniques more in future entries, as well as ways to continue to explore the possibility of using your brain instead of, and in addition to, technology and things that are expensive and which you are suspicious of.

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