A mind sweep corrals your thoughts about the tasks, projects and loose ends that drift across your attention and can pull you off course.
by Susan McCarthy
A few years back I worked with a woman who would rattle off everything she needed to do after work and “joke” that she hoped she wouldn’t forget to do any of the tasks. Not to be obvious or anything, but I suggested that she write down her list and then number the order she wanted to tackle the tasks.
She laughed and said that it was good for her mind if she kept repeating the list. I would have found trying to do that crazy-stressful.
Productivity expert David Allen, in his book Getting Things Done, recommends not relying on memory to keep track of all the tasks, projects, chores, errands, phone calls, etc. you have to do. He thinks we should use our minds for creativity and problem-solving instead of being a warehouse for to-do lists.
While I’ve never managed to incorporate the rather involved GTD (Getting Things Done) system into my life, I have adopted Allen’s Mind Sweep (aka Brain Dump) technique. I've found that getting all the jabbering "do this, no this, wait, maybe that" thoughts on paper helps with single tasking.
(If you've heard of multi-tasking but not single tasking, this is an essential practice to living a simpler, less hectic life. Basically, you do one thing at a time. If sitting still and meditating leaves you feeling antsy, focusing on the act of washing the dishes or sweeping the floor can help you feel calmer and less scattered.)
What is a mind sweep?
Whether you call it a Mind Sweep or a Brain Dump, the process is the same. You grab pen and paper (if you want to type it, you could) and list every (and I mean EVERY) tasks that you need and want to do (no matter how large or small or when you want it done by); any ideas you have for work, vacations, home projects, self-improvement, etc.; collect any thoughts that keep running through your mind.
A Mind Sweep corrals your thoughts about the tasks, projects, and loose ends that drift across your attention and can pull you off course.
You then group tasks that have something in common (say, people to contact or tasks that belong to different projects) onto smaller, focused lists.
How a mini mind sweep can simplify your thoughts
Of course, listing everything in your mind can get overwhelming. Maybe you just want to make a list of things you want to do today, over the weekend, or throughout the week. These more focused Mind Sweeps can still leave you feeling stressed because now you're faced with the reality of what was swirling around in your brain.
It's far too simple to look at a list and want to go for some quick wins and tackle the easiest tasks first. However, one easy win is like a cup of coffee, it gets you going; too many cups of coffee and you end up jittery and unable to accomplish anything meaningful.
The mind calming benefits of sweeping through your thoughts
The idea behind a Mind Sweep is that you ease your stress when you download your thoughts instead of allowing them to run on a loop through your mind. Putting all this stuff on paper means that you don’t need to repeatedly think though your list time and again while trying to remember what you need to do and prioritizing these tasks.
Knowing that you aren’t going to forget anything can help you feel less overwhelmed. However, creating this list and then not doing anything with it might make you feel more stressed! Below are two different, focused adaptations of the Mind Sweep that can help you to single-task and rein in your tendency toward distraction and multi-tasking.
One: "The Do It and Done" list
One of my favorite features of to-do lists is the opportunity to cross things off the list. (I love crossing things off lists.) But, when tasks would get carried over from one day to the next, I’d write a new list for each day. By the end of the week, I’d be looking at the latest incarnation of my list and realized that I’d lost sense of everything that I’d accomplished over the course of the week.
I tried keeping the original, long list but that was unwieldy after a few days. For as much as I liked seeing a list of crossed off stuff, after a day or two it would be distracting to look at this long list as I hunted for tasks I still needed to do from their hiding spots between completed items. So, I’d rewrite the list. But then my sense of fulfilment diminished.
To help me see what I was accomplishing, while keeping it clear as to what I still had to do, I started writing individual tasks on the sticky notes referred to as page markers – they’re a ½-inch by 1-½-inch.
Then I’d label a piece of paper as “Do” on one side and “Done” on the other. (You could also have two side-by-side pages in your journal or notebook.) I attached the sticky notes to the Do side. When I did a task, I’d move it from the Do list to the Done list.
I could see what I’d accomplished and what still had to be done.
The Do and Done list is great for days when you have a bunch of small chores or tasks to complete. Moving the sticky note from the Do to Done page was like a little celebration, Yay! One more thing done!
Since you can move the sticky notes several times, a Do and Done list is great for weekly household chores as you can reuse the notes.
Two: "The Now-Next-Now Now" list
For days or weeks filled with more complex tasks (which tended to mean more stress about what I needed to focus on without getting distracted), I created another type of list that still uses the sticky page markers. The benefit to writing the tasks on the sticky notes meant that I could rearrange their order so that I’d be clear on my priorities.
I put the top three tasks for the day at the top of the list, in a box labeled Now, and ignore the rest of the list until the top three tasks were done.
But I have the bad habit of bouncing from one task to the next and I couldn’t really work on three tasks in the now (no matter how hard I tried to). Enter the Next and Not Now categories.
This way, Now is one task, the one that I should be working on at the moment. Below that box is another labeled Next, a good reminder not to get caught up in perfectionism with the current task because there is something else waiting to be done.
At the bottom of the page (although taking up most of the page) is the Not Now tasks. Seeing the heading ‘Not Now’ is a good reminder that although these tasks need to get done, they aren’t the one that I’m working on at the moment.
If you struggle with distractions or setting priorities, this list guides your attention.
Avoid feeling scattered with focused lists
One of the problems with to-do lists is that they remind you of what you must do but with no indication as to which task is a priority or how long each task will take. Putting the tasks on sticky notes allows you to manipulate your list, keeping it fluid instead of rigid.
Give this technique a try for a day or weekend and then move onto a week. When you feel more confident with the technique, you could try doing a Mind Sweep with the sticky page markers, putting one item on each sheet, and then move them around to themed lists.
While this is a productivity technique that will help you get things done, it’s one that helps ease your thoughts, helping you to single-task when you have multiple tasks on your to-do list.
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