Why do we use calendars and to do lists? Why do people like me say you should always carry a notebook? Why do we use planners, organizers, and tools like Trello, Evernote, and Basecamp? The answer to all of these questions is one basic idea:
The brain is a terrible place to store information.
When the founders of Evernote created the company, they understood this. It’s completely aligned with their mission to help us remember everything.
Just imagine if you had to keep track of every item on your to-do list, appointment on your calendar, and idea you’ve ever had using nothing but your brain. It would be a shit show. You’d forget things, never get anything done, and be stressed out and anxiety-ridden.
By externalizing all of this information, what we do is free the brain up to do what it does best, process and analyze information for creative breakthroughs.
Humans were born to create, not remember and regurgitate.
Externalization in Practice
Planning your days the night before, and automating our decisions to reduce decision fatigue is a form of externalization. If you write down everything you need to do tomorrow morning, you don’t end up utilizing your cognitive bandwidth for something as low-value as making a list of tasks. When you automate decisions with habits rituals and routines, you don’t have to think about you’ll spend the first 3 hours of your day. You build a system that enables you to externalize your behavior. That same bandwidth that was being used to once store information can be allocated to deep and meaningful work.
Capturing our ideas is another form of externalization. I capture ideas in my notebook and I keep a running list of ideas on an editorial calendar in trello. The idea for this post actually came to me during my morning writing session when I saw this quote by David Allen “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Steven Johnson’s spark file is another excellent method of externalization.
If you’re working on a major project, like a book, there are multiple deadlines for various elements of the book: submission of the manuscript, revisions, cover designs, sending out galleys, etc, etc. Having a deadline and putting it on a calendar is another method of externalization. This is where tools like Basecamp become incredibly valuable.
A couple of years ago I had a conversation with Navy Seal Chris Fussel about the challenges that our US Military was having with Al Qaeda. The biggest issue was the speed at which information traveled. The informal networks terrorists had built were more effective than the US Military’s way of communicating. In response, they developed what became known as a shared consciousness. After my conversation with Chris, I realized that our own team didn’t have a shared consciousness and we immediately started using Slack. Slack is a shared consciousness, and externalized brain for an organization, and if you want to expand the organizational consciousness that’s where tools like Claire Lew’s Know your company come in.
If you’ve ever had the experience of not remembering one of the 100 logins and passwords you have for various services you’re not alone. Think about how much time you’ve wasted resetting your password and login information. There are two ways to externalize your passwords. I have an Evernote with all my account information and most important passwords. Another way to externalize this information is to utilize a service like LastPass that stores all of your passwords.
Let’s say you remember and take action on what you read. You can utilize Ryan Holiday’s notecard system, or you can use Tiago Forte’s building a second brain approach. Both are forms of externalization that enable you to process and analyze what you’ve read because you’re not utilizing all your bandwidth just to remember it.
If you haven’t noticed, there’s one pattern to all of the information above. It’s all task oriented. It’s not strategic or creative. Your brain may be able to do it. But that’s a bit like having a Ferrari and driving in the suburbs at less than 10 miles an hour. It defeats the purpose of having such an amazing car.
Externalization reduces ambiguity, clears the mind and allows you to focus on what matters most. It allows you to tap your brain’s full potential and spend as much time as possible in your zone of genius.