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What is an External Brain, and Why do You Need One?

What is an external brain

An external brain refers to a system that you can implement to help you store data, appointments, todo lists, project plans, ect. This concept is something that i first learned from the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. Most of the things in this article are stolen directly from that book. As a person who loves organization, it really resonated with me to have this all encompassing system to hold anything and everything that i want to accomplish.

The word “system” might sound a bit fancy or complicated. Really i am just talking about leveraging technology (usually phone apps and computer programs). At it’s very simplest, the system includes information for the following:

  • What things do I need/want to do (stored in a todo list app)

  • When do I need/want to do them (calendar)

  • Additional information needed to do them (note taking app)

It is worth noting that Getting Things Done(GTD) was written in an analog world long before smart phones, so all of these concepts could be done with pen and paper. I know lots of folks who gravitate towards that. I have found technology very helpful to integrate my system into my life. I will try to give examples for both.

Why is it so important

There are two main selling points for me, for the external brain. The first is simple, Our brains actually kinda suck at this stuff. What i mean is that our brains do a poor job of memory recall at the appropriate time. Sure you might be able to recall all of the supporting actor’s favorite foods on the set of the Lord of the Rings, but did you remember to buy batteries for the TV remote when you were at the store? Or were you only reminded of that task when you sat down at the couch with a dead remote? This is something that is easily solved with a notepad where you write down everything you need from the store. And then take that note with you when you go. This is a low-tech external system. Your brain is no longer responsible for remembering everything on the list. It only needs to remember two things, write stuff on the list when you remember you need it, and take the list with you when you go to the store. This is far easier for our brains to do, especially when both become habits.

“Our brains are for having thoughts, not for holding them” - David Allen

The second selling point for an external brain is summed up nicely in this quote from David Allen. By writing down that shopping list, you are actually freeing up space and capacity for your brain to use on other things. Because it is not trying to memorize all of the things you need at the store, it is free to be creative, to problem solve, and to spend more energy on higher level thinking.

Every todo item that is in your brain is a small weight on your subconscious. Whenever you’re reminded of that task, your brain gravitates towards finishing it so that you can be free of it. It will spend energy remembering what needs to be done and think about how to do it. You know how you walk into the kitchen to get a glass of water but you end up unloading the dishwasher? That happens because your brain is reminded of the task when it sees the full dishwasher and immediately tries to complete it so that it can be removed from your subconscious checklist.

I like to use the analogy of a calendar, because even folks who don’t use todo lists likely still use calendars. Can you imagine if you tried to not use your calendar for a month? And instead, just tried to remember every important date and time for everything in your life? Your doctor’s appointment, your work schedule, your friend’s birthday party. Most people would find it crazy to try and hold all of those things in your memory. But that is exactly what we do with our todo lists. We try to remember what we need at the grocery store, and that we need to call the plumber, and that we have to respond to an email and that we ….. on and on. It’s ridiculous and stressful to hold all of those things in your head all day. It is even more ridiculous to try and hold all of those things in your head while you are trying to be creative or solve a difficult problem. There is just no room left.

In order to tap into your creativity you have to be able to make a mess. Think of a wood shop with a master craftsman at work. Sawdust everywhere, pieces of wood on the floor, the table, leaned against the wall. Tools spread out across the shop. In order to create, our environment gets messy. But if we leave it that way it starts to hinder our project. The craftsman can’t use the workbench because it is covered with tools and scraps. He can’t use the saw efficiently because it is coated in sawdust. I could go on, but i don’t know anything else about woodworking. The point is that for our brains to be creative we gotta let it loose and free. But we also need to periodically clean up the mess, reign in thought and decisions. Write down ideas and tasks. And in this way we free up our brain for the creative and the problem solving, and it is not bogged down by the “administration” of planning and execution or memory.

This is why we need an external storage system to hold all of these ideas and todos for us. It gives us a sort of clean workshop so to speak. We can set the mind at ease, if we tell it that the dishwasher, the appointments, the plumber, and the grocery list are all the system. They will all get taken care of at the proper time. This allows your brain to stay present, and focused and creative. This requires a lot of trust in your system, which we will discuss later.

Practical Application

So how do you begin to create your own system? Here are the main steps to get your going.

  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

1. Create a single source of truth

We actually all already have external systems to help us remember our todos. They are just unorganized and unhelpful. For example, that dishwasher’s green light indicating that it is clean, is a todo item. That stack of mail on your counter is a todo list full of stuff that needs to be taken care of. Your email inbox is most likely full because you want to remember to do something. Your text messages, your other messaging apps. I could go on and on. These are all external lists, but the problem is that your brain cannot remember all of those lists. So it resorts to a more squeaky wheel approach. You end up doing the tasks off of those lists because you see them in front of you, not because they are your most important thing to be doing. Your brain fears that if it does not get done now, you will forget about it and it will never get done. This is a life by reaction, not design.

Instead gather all of those tasks into one place. I happen to use a todo list application called Todoist. It syncs across all my devices and i can use Siri and Alexa to enter items. Some folks use pen and paper for this, but to me this is something modern technology excels at. Every piece of mail, every email, every text. If i can’t respond or finish the task in a very short amount of time, i just write down a todo that i need to come back to it later.

Your mind is full of these things too, sometimes ideas for cool stuff, sometimes you remember something really important that needs to get done. Release your brain from holding that thought. Just write it down in your todo list and let your mind be free of it.

2. File it where you can find it

Ok so now all of those external items are now tracked in the todo list. Let’s get them off the counter and put away so you don’t have to see them again until you need it to accomplish your action item. For physical documents i either scan them and put them into a google drive folder, or put them into a filing cabinet. I will go into more detail in another article on my filing system, but for now lets just say that these items are ‘cleaned up’ and that i know where to find them if and when i get actioning on that to that todo list item.

3. Review your list

Remember when we talked about trust? If your brain knows the todo item is in the system and will be addressed at the right time, then it will be free of that item. If your brain does not trust that your system will surface that item at the proper time, then it will worry about it getting completed and hold onto it until it gets done. For this reason the external system requires periodic maintenance. The cadence can vary depending on your level of trust. But the simplest way to keep these things in order is with a weekly review. I have another couple of articles that talk about how to do a weekly review. But as it pertains to the system it is pretty simple. Go through each item in your todo list and schedule priority for them. The things that need to get taken care of in the next week should be at the top and if necessary should be in your calendar as well. The things less important should be at the bottom. It’s that simple. Reviewing your list weekly will give you peace of mind that all of your projects are moving along and that you are working on the most important things every day.


There is so much more to discuss here and i bet you have a ton of questions, but hopefully this is a good overview to at least get you excited about creating this kind of system for yourself. I decided to write a follow up article in which i will expand on a lot of the detail that this article left out. I will also deep dive into how i organize my lists, and all of the other details in my personal system.

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