Author: Mike Scaletti
Brains are strange things. Sometimes they can end up feeling like you have a dozen lists endlessly scrolling through your mind and are incapable of focussing on any individual aspect. Rest assured that you are not alone, and that is not unusual.
A product designer in Brooklyn, Ryder Carroll, has suggested returning to one of the earliest ways to organize your thoughts in human existence: keeping a journal. “We have to externalize our thoughts to declutter our mind,” he says. “Holding thoughts in your mind is like trying to grasp water — it’s nearly impossible. But by writing down our thoughts, we can capture them clearly so we can work with them later.”
Carroll had problems staying focussed and avoiding distraction as a child, a problem all too familiar with parents and children everywhere. “As a kid, my biggest problem was focusing on way too many things at the same time… As an adult, that’s just known as being busy. But being busy doesn’t mean you’re being productive. A lot of times, being busy just means you’re in a state of being functionally overwhelmed.”
It took writing in a paper journal to turn things around for Carroll. According to him, when he writes in a journal it helps him to easily see his goals, aspirations, and concerns, as well as understand his time management and map out productive ways of achieving his goals. To help him with this, Carroll created the Bullet Journal, which is a hyper-organized note-taking style that has been all over social media in recent years.
You don't have to use the Bullet Journal to make use of Carroll's advice though. All you need is a notebook and a pen and you can achieve peace of mind and eliminate the endless mental "to-do" lists. Here are some tips from Carroll on how to begin.
1. Start With A Mental Inventory of your to-do list, and then write it down. “Write down the things that you need to do, the things that you should be doing, and the things that you want to do.”
2. Analyze the motivations and purpose behind each item. “You don’t have to dive down some existential rabbit hole. We burden ourselves with unnecessary responsibilities all the time,” says Carroll. “We’re so distracted by all the things we should be doing and could be doing, but we completely forget to ask ourselves, ‘‘Do I even want to be doing those things?'”
3. Ask the questions "Is it vital" and "Does it really matter to me or someone I love" for each item on your list. “If your answer is no to both of those, you’ve just identified a distraction, and you can cross it off your list. For every item you cross off your list, you’re becoming less and less distracted.”
4. Split up the remainder into achievable chunks. By now, your inventory will consist of vital things (such as paying bills and shopping for groceries) and things that matter. Of the latter, Carroll recommends taking anything that matters but you haven’t done yet (or you’ve made little headway with) and breaking it into small, actionable projects.
“If you want to learn to cook, don’t start by tackling an incredibly complicated meal for six people,” he says. “Even if you don’t make a total mess, the experience will have been so unpleasant that you run the risk of ruining your curiosity about cooking altogether.”
Instead focus on small, achievable targets which, according to Carroll, “allow us to cultivate our curiosities and help them grow, maybe even help some of them blossom into full-fledged passions.”
To return to the example of cooking, pick a recipe or two with techniques and ingredients you are familiar with. Practice with those until you are comfortable with them, then move on to something more challenging. Don't try to jump straight to the master level.
Each step you take should provide “a clearly defined list of actions and tasks,” says Carroll, and you should be able to complete them in a month or less. He says, “If you estimate your project will take more than a month, that’s fine. Just break it into smaller projects,” he says.
5. Look over that mental inventory, and take the time to revise it. “We have to dedicate ourselves to a habit of keeping that map updated with all the new things that we discover,” says Carroll. “If we don’t, our map becomes inaccurate, and we start to go off course. We drift, and all of a sudden, distractions start leaking back into our lives.” Sometimes that means that something that once mattered to you no longer does. That's okay, just cross it out and move on!
“Unfortunately, time is not a renewable resource,” says Carroll, author of The Bullet Journal Method. “It’s our responsibility to take the time to identify the things that interest us and figure out ways to pursue them.”
That's where your journal really excels. Keep track of those interests, and of small ways in which you can explore them. “This practice will provide you with you a lot of personal data,” he adds, “and that data can provide profound insights into your life: what have you tried, what have you not tried, what should you do more of, what’s working, what’s not.”