I’ve written about the benefits of a trusted system before. It can be anything you like, really: index cards in your pocket, project management software, a notepad, audio recorder, whatever. The crucial thing is that your brain knows: 1.) You’ll enter information into it reliably; 2.) You’ll check on it regularly, and 3.) Nothing entered into the system will get lost through the cracks. Some people use Getting Things Done, while some use a home-grown solution. When you trust your system in your bones, your brain will stop nagging you about what needs to be done.
That nagging happens to me when I carry around excessive “mental clutter.” As I’ve said before, I use David Allen’s definition of clutter (I’m paraphrasing here): Anything that isn’t where it’s supposed to be for all time. For example, sneakers lying under the coffee table are clutter until they’re placed in the shoe basket in the mudroom. Likewise, “Dentist appointment on the 14th at 9:00 AM” is clutter while it’s in my mind until I write it on a calendar that I know I’ll check.
Mental clutter is detrimental to me in several ways. When I my mind is cluttered I remember obligations when it’s impossible to do anything about them (“Finish William’s Pinewood Derby car” is useless to me while doing 60 mph on the highway), and the subsequent distraction causes me to miss other, more important things.
Now, about the snowman.
A year ago, I was in the checkout line with my then-4-year-old son. He clanked his Keds against the steel shopping cart as I moved bottled water, bagels, and potato chips onto the conveyor belt. While my hands worked I thought about which items would go into the freezer, which ones I’d cook right away, what we’d eat later that night….
“Daddy, look at the snowman.”
“Look at the snowman.”
“Honey, it’s summer time. There’s no snowman.”
“I see a snowman.”
I looked up, my arms moving items from cart to belt, my eyes scanning the store. “Where’s your snowman, honey?”
He pointed. I looked. I saw it.
A snowman. In the floral department, there was a balloon shaped like a snowman, about 18 inches tall.
I hadn’t noticed it. I never would have if he hadn’t pointed it out. What’s more, he was right. Why would there be a snowman balloon for sale in July? What an odd thing that I missed. What else had I missed? I wanted to know.
That’s when I vowed to notice what I was missing. The first step, I figured, was to identify how I was missing things. Once I found it, I could change it and then cease missing things. I began to monitor my habits. Initially I didn’t change them, I just observed. I was stunned at how frequently I invited distraction upon myself. Here’s what I was doing:
Waking up in the morning, and switching on the news. Dressing while barely glancing at my clothing. Heck, I was watching the news while barely glancing at the TV. Between buttons and sound bites, my eyes were scanning emails while my brain was running its own acrobatics. What will happen today? What will happen this weekend? I need to do laundry. Why are the kids moving so slowly, don’t they know it’s a school day?
There were constant distractions and a mentally consuming dialogue like this throughout the entire day.
Eventually, I realized something significant — I never did what I was doing. For example, when I got dressed in the morning, I didn’t get dressed. Instead, I spent that time filtering much incoming stimuli: The TV, email, my children’s progress toward getting ready for school and so on. My mind wasn’t on what was happening, which was selecting clothing, buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe, tightening a belt.
With the problem identified, I worked on eliminating it. In the morning, I turned off the TV and the computer and just got dressed. I even told myself, “I’m getting dressed.” It was nice! I kept doing it. I found that I appreciate that I have the motor skills required to dress myself. I found that I have nice clothes. I found that my backyard looks nice in the morning through the bedroom window, and I can look down on the berry patch and rhubarb plants. When I was done, I felt, well, happy.
I also realize that there’s so much good in the ordinary. Kurt Vonnegut expressed this more eloquently that I can:
“[When Kurt Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying an envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, I don’t know. The moral of the story is, we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, with the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”
Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do two things at once. Nor am I suggesting that we eschew productivity or fail to pack the kids’ lunches because it’s time to examine every detail of every moment. I still occasionally write and listen to music at the same time, or breeze through my Twitter stream like a humming bird, or review the day’s schedule in my head. But now I know that’s what I’m doing, if that makes sense. And I’m missing a lot less.