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To Free Your Mind, Capture Your Responsibilities

Strategies and goals

One of the current books I’m reading is David Allen’s excellent guide to task management, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I’ll certainly have more to say about this book in future posts, but Allen makes one particular point that’s immediately useful: if you want to be relaxed and focused, it makes all the difference in the world if you capture the things you’re concerned about and get them out of your head–that is, if you type them out or write them down.

One use of this principle is in dealing with a thought that’s nagging at you or upsetting you. To use this idea, you write out everything that’s in your mind about the problem: your concerns, possible solutions, fears, and so on. Doing all of this stops these thoughts from swirling around in an incomplete state within your head, leaving a more peaceful, constructive and resolved state of mind.

Allen himself doesn’t really go into why this process works, at least not in what I’ve read so far, and he isn’t really concerned with how it can be applied in areas other than task management. It’s enough for him to say that to handle tasks, it’s important to have a system for collecting all tasks needing to be done as they arrive and getting them on paper or onto the computer so that you can prioritize and deal with them instead of fretting about them. But some of the reasons capturing your responsibilities in writing can work so well are clear from other things we know about motivation and mood. For instance, we know that the human brain is designed to focus on only one thing at a time, so having multiple responsibilities or concerns knocking around mentally is stressful and not very constructive.

Similarly, we know that mindfulness–conscious consideration of what’s going on in our own brains–helps nourish constructive behaviors and opens up the possibility of detecting and repairing broken ideas. Broken ideas can’t really be tackled unless they are laid out explicitly, and writing is often the easiest and most effective way to do this. As long as a broken idea is floating around inside a mind without being fully detected and named, it can cause damage while the person is having it may not even realize it’s there.

For task management, of course, there are more steps to go through after writing things down. But for some of the other useful applications of this idea, writing down can sometimes be all that’s needed. And even when there’s more work to be done after, writing down stray thoughts instead of letting them roam is the first step in many complete solutions.

Photo by tnarik



  1. Meg Selig  •  Jan 8, 2010 @12:59 pm

    Luc, I was also struck by David Allen’s simple yet powerful suggestion to “capture” all those stray to-dos and inner commitments that are knocking around in our heads. Making a list does provide such mental relief!

    I also blog on willpower, habit change, and related topics. Check out my blog, “Motivated,” at Thanks for your excellent blog!

  2. Luc  •  Jan 8, 2010 @1:51 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Meg. I’ve been checking in at your blog and will be interested to see your thoughts there over time.

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