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External Brain Vol. 2

This article will do a deeper dive on how i implement my own external brain system. I will explain some more of the nuanced concepts and use my own system as examples. In the previous article i broke the system down into three main pieces:

  1. Create a singular source of truth for your todos

  2. Put stuff away so you can find it

  3. Regularly review the items in your system


The first two i will cover again in greater detail by exlaining which applications i use and how i use them. The third piece is more about the Weekly Review habit, which i have covered in another article so i won’t spend much time on it here.


The Tools I Use

As a technologist, i really hoped that this could all be handled in one single application. Then i would have one app that would track and report on everything i do and want to do and what my next task should be. In practice it is actually a variety of different applications that help me organize my thoughts in different ways. If i were to select the very most important tools they would be as follows:

  • Todo list application. This tracks all of the todo items floating around in my head (and desk). For this i use an app called Todoist.

  • Calendar. This is used to organize your time and do normal calendar-y things. I use a mixture of Microsoft Outlook for work and Google Calendar for personal. Outlook lets me view both at the same time which is helpful to make sure nothing overlaps.

  • Notes application. Most projects require some additional information, resources, and contacts. Many also include some deep thinking, idea generation, and internal debate. All of these things are captured in a single note taking app. I use Evernote.

  • Digital file storage. I use Google Drive. This filing system is for anything project supporting documentation that isn’t notes. So like pictures, statements, receipts, presentations, etc.

    • Google Docs. I don’t use this too often, because i default more towards Evernote. However if i have something that needs to be shared with others, I find this more universally accepted than Evernote.

    • Google Sheets. I heart sheets. Especially if there are numbers involved. If you asked me to add 124+65+486, I would probably do it in a sheet instead of using calculator, just cause it makes me happy. I use sheets to help me budget every month, i use them to do some of my bookkeeping, I use them to analyze different investment opportunities, and more recently i have been using them to project plan. It is actually kind of a cheap easy way to layout all of your project’s tasks and then move the cells around to see timelines. I even used a sheet to layout how i want my morning to look from alarm clock ringing to first set of weights in the gym. I just like how easy it is to visualize things in sheets.

  • File Cabinet. Basically for anything that is too cumbersome to scan and store in Gdrive gets stuffed into semi-organized folders in a file cabinet. I would say this is the area where i am least disciplined. But it is also the information that i need least often, so i get away with it.


Note that these are the things i use for mainly my personal systems. There are plenty of tools that i use at work that are designed to be collaborative with other people (Trello, Asana, Jira, Google Docs/Sheeets/Slides). But everything i am writing about here are for things that are just for me and my family.


Todoist

OK so now a deeper dive on the todo list. This is where the bulk of the heavy lifting is done.


My Lists

Most or all todo list apps allow you to setup as many different lists as you want. They might be called projects, or lists, or categories (I will likely use all of these terms interchangeably). Basically a way to organize your todo’s into general sections. Todoist allows not only allows multiple lists, but also allows sub lists, or lists inside lists. I find this extremely helpful to organize my projects, let me explain.


My main projects (or top level lists) look like this:

  • Personal

  • Home

  • Work

  • Finance/Investing


If you read my article on successful planning for your goals, you will note the correlation between my high level projects and my high level areas of focus for my goals.


Then within each of those categories i will have many MANY sub projects:

For personal

  • Fitness

  • Habits

  • Learning

For Home

  • Husband/Parenting

  • Travel Plans

  • House Projects

  • Chores

For Work

  • I pretty much have a separate list for every Role I have or project i am working on

  • I also have a list that just holds projects i might want to start in the future

For Finances

  • A project for each investment (if it requires a lot of tasks), the hope is that eventually they require very little and then i can retire the project

  • Taxes (only used at tax season)

  • A list that holds future potential investments

  • Other “chores” like bookkeeping or quarterly reporting


Defining a Project

David Allen in the book Getting Things Done, defines a project as basically anything with multiple steps. So you might think getting the dog groomed is a task, but he would argue it is a multi step process. In order to get the dog groomed, you need to drive them to the groomer, but before that you need to book the appointment, before that you need to find the number. So its really at least three tasks. 1. Find number 2. Call and book 3. Take the dog. They can all be done at different times and when you have different levels of energy, time, and resources (being next to your phone or having your car). There is obviously a balance, since adding a new list to Todoist for 3 items is probably too much overhead, especially since they all kinda flow nicely one to the next. The lesson that i took from this is to be aware of tasks that keep growing or keep going. And to be ready and willing to turn those things into projects. My gut rule is when i feel there are multiple things that need to happen, that i need to write them down now so I don’t lose them, but i wanna keep them all together, i make a project.

From Many Inboxes, to One, to Zero

There are so many other inboxes in our lives. Email, texts, voicemails, other messaging apps. Piles of physical mail. We discussed in the last article how these different inboxes all fill up and weigh down our brain’s capacity for thought and creativity. Keeping a single source of truth for all of your todo items is the first pillar of the external system. So, what i try to do is consolidate all of these inboxes down into a single inbox in Todoist. If you create any todo in Todoist and don’t specify a list for it, then by default, it goes a list called Inbox.


Todoist tasks can be entered in a number of ways. My Mac has a hotkey, so no matter what app i have open, i can use the keyboard hotkey and quickly enter a todo. Siri and Alexa both allow you to add tasks to Todoist, which is super helpful when you think of random crap while roaming around the house or driving. And of course items can be added from the phone app. Because all of these items land in my inbox to start, i have reduced the number of inboxes in my world down to one. But it doesn’t stop there.


Now that everything is in the Todoist inbox, it is equally important that i clean out that inbox regularly as well. The purpose of the inbox is just what the name suggests, it’s a box for that incoming items. It is not long term storage. As often as possible, usually a few times a day, I remove everything from the Todoist inbox by moving each item to it’s appropriate project and giving it necessary due dates and tags (more on this below).


And now i have reached todo list Nirvana!!! Ok not really, not i have a ton of crap, all separated into different lists but i need to be able “transcendently” look across all of them to see what tasks are most important. That is what i will cover next, but before i do, a quick note about the elusive “empty” email inbox.


Empty Email Inbox? Really?

Come on, really? Zero emails in the inbox? Actually yeah, i often have nothing in my email inbox. Let me explain why. We try to use email as a todo list. That is why we don‘t archive, we don’t delete, and everything just sits in there until we get it done, or until we pile enough on top of it that our brain forgets about it. By leveraging a true todo list, emails become more like reference material. They contain the information i need to complete a task, but they no longer represent the task itself. This is freeIng. In my experience something like 80% of emails that have little reference content anyways, so they can all be archived or deleted. Then 15% of emails hold one single piece of reference material, usually a link to some other document or webpage. That link can be dropped into the comments of the todo item and boom, there goes 95% of your email inbox. The last 5% of emails with long form content inside it can be filed into different email folders In the same way that we file notes and supporting materials (see also, Tickler File section below). So that they can be simply referenced back up when the associated task needs to be actioned upon. Now do I always have zero emails? No. No i often still fall into using email as a todo list, or i just leave the reference emails in my box if i know i will be taking action soon. But i would say i rarely have more than 5-10 emails in there, and i probably get to zero a few times per week. It is always my goal to get to zero and it is a good gauge of how much i am currently trusting and utilizing my system.



Tickler File

There are plenty of times when something comes into your inbox that requires action but the action is not ready until a future date. In this case you need this item to be put away but then resurface on the date that you can actually do something with it. In GTD, Allen calls this a tickler file. A file where you can store items to be resurfaced at the right time. Email snooze is great way to implement this. Most email clients these days let you snooze an email and pick a date and time for it to resurface. Most todo apps also allow you to set due dates far into the future. These are all forms of just pushing off important things til there is actually something for you to do. Which declutters the now.



Visualizing my Priorities

Ok, so I’ve emptied out every digital, physical, and psychological drawer in my life. Now i have all these tasks, and no idea what i should be working on…When I first started this journey I remember the thing that was the hardest for me to understand. If I have so many different lists, how will I prioritize my tasks across all of the everything? Here are the different views that i use to see all of my tasks in Todoist.


The first high level view is a time-based categorization for all of my actions:


  1. Today. This is for the items did i deemed so important that i marked them as due today. I try to be overly protective of this category. For this i use the due date feature in Todoist. This is the view that stays open all day on computer.

  2. On Deck. These are the items that don’t have to be today, but probably this week. For this i use a tag @thisweek. I review these items whenever my today view is low or empty (usually at the beginning of each day).

  3. Backlog. If ya ain’t in the first two, then you’re in the backlog by default. These are all the items with no due dates and no @thisweek tag. All of these items are reviewed in the weekly review in order to promote the appropriate tasks into the on deck circle.


This approach is kinda loosely based on the AGILE methodology of Kanban.


Within the Today timeframe and the On Deck timeframe. i further split tasks into views for my high level project areas.

  • Personal

  • Home

  • Work

  • Investing


I pretty much have different times throughout the day scheduled to handle each of these lists. So by segregating them I can just look at the appropriate tasks at the appropriate times. For example, early in the morning I do all of my personal items, then home items. Work items are done during work hours. For Investing tasks i set aside special times during the day like on a lunch break to complete these based on volume and or urgency.


Lastly within these views, i set the priority for each task. In Todoist there are four levels, Red - 1, Orange - 2, Blue - 3, no color - 4. Level four is lowest and the default priority for all tasks. This helps me to sort items within projects.


  1. Red - I only use this for the most urgent items. Things that must be at the top of the list and must be done right away. I setup my views in Todoist to always show all Red items from all lists regardless of high level project area.

  2. Orange - these are the main focus of my day/week. There is some urgency and importance to these tasks.

  3. Blue - these need to stand above the noise because they are important, but usually don’t have urgency.

  4. No color - everything else.



Calendar

I don’t think I have too much to say about how I use the calendar. It’s pretty self explanatory. The one special practice that I do with the calendar is something called “Time Blocking”. When I need special time to focus on a particular project, I book time for it on the calendar so that nobody else can book it. And i try to keep this commitment as if another person had booked that time with me. This is a very important and very effective productivity tool that helps me tackle the harder problems that require deep thinking.


Notes and Files

Organization takes discipline and discipline brings freedom.

I try to organize both my notes and my file systems in parity with my todo projects. They may not line up 100% but in general they at least follow the top level categorization. This does require some discipline. Ok a lot of discipline. It takes a lot of discipline to put all the files in the right place and to try to keep a good organization of categories and folders. But it is so worth it. It is so worth it to know exactly where you can find all of the relevant information for a project that you worked on two years ago. It’s all right where you expect it to be. Your notes outline all of your other reference material and all of your deliverables. This discipline pays off big time in the long run. For a while it is probably good for you to review your file system in your weekly reviews to reflect on whether it is working well for you requires attention.


Weekly Review

The final pillar of the external brain is to regularly review the items in your system. Trust is a must. If you aren’t reviewing your tasks with enough frequency, then your brain will lose trust that your system is tracking important tasks. It will start loading all of those things back up into your brain space and cluttering everything up again. I have a few detailed articles explaining how and why i do my weekly reviews. But here are the pieces that i find to be essential for managing my external brain.

  1. Finish all of today’s tasks. At the end of everyday, i review my todo list and ensure that i finished everything in my Today view. Any items left in the list need to be renegotiated. That either means i need to keep working to finish them, or they need to be moved to tomorrow. This creates trust that everything i said i would do today i either completed, or intentionally moved to another day.

  2. Project Review. I look at the list of projects that i am actively working on and i ask myself, what is the very next action i need to take to move this forward. If it isn’t already in Todoist then i add it and give it the appropriate dates and priority.

  3. The 2 Minute Rule. In GTD Allen states that while you are cleaning out your inbox, if any action can be done in under 2 minutes, just do it now rather than paying the overhead to get it properly filed into your system. For me i find this rule powerful because gives me flexibility to be a little bit reactive and unfocused. It also helps me to mentally see when i have gone too far down a rabbit hole. If i start to notice that i have taken significantly more time than i thought and i feel more time is needed then the tasks gets filed away properly and i go back to what i was supposed to be doing.

  4. Backlog Review. Every week i look at all of the tasks in Todoist that are not marked for today or this week. It sounds daunting, but actually it takes less than 10 minutes. It is a quick scan across all lists to see if anything should be done in the upcoming week.


Conclusion

This is by far the longest artcile i have written so far, i had no idea i had so much to say on this topic. But I am so excited to share it all with you because it has been so crucial to my daily operations and effectiveness. I hope that you all benefit from trying out aspects of this system and implementing them in a way that works well for you and your goals. Be disciplined, be diligent, do the work, it will pay off big time, you’ll see.

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