Reducing Mental Clutter

“Warren is sitting on top of an empire now, and you look at his schedule sometimes, and there’s a haircut. ‘Tuesday: Haircut Day’ “ – Charlie Munger on Buffett’s schedule

John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in 1930 that the working week would be drastically cut, to perhaps 15 hours a week, with people choosing to have far more leisure as their material needs were satisfied. Yet despite the remarkable gains in productivity that technology has enabled, we are working harder than ever

Most of the jobs that involve higher pay in today’s society involve some form of knowledge work, presumably involving an output that requires genuine cognitive skill. It also follows that this sort of cognitive task requires concentration and what Carl Newport calls  in his identically titled book: “Deep Work“.

However, as most office workers would attest to, we spend a remarkable amount of time in “busywork”, administrative time-wasters like e-mail and meetings that are of questionable usefulness, often serving only as a refuge for the incompetent to pretend to work and feel important. A survey by McKinsey in 2012 showed that an incredible 28% of employee work hours were frittered away in reading or writing e-mail.

Unfortunately not everyone has the liberty of structuring his or her day to avoid such time consuming activities, and what’s worse is the byproduct of busyness: the amount of tasks and activities that may need to be juggled in a daily schedule cluttering up the brain’s working memory and reducing a person’s ability to think deeply and creatively. In order to understand why mental clutter is harmful to deep thought, we must consider two related concepts in psychology

  • Zeigarnik effect: the tendency for the brain to remember unfinished tasks more easily than completed ones
  • Ovsiankina effect: the compulsion to pick up and finish unfinished tasks

These two items make it difficult for a person to focus deeply on one single task, instead trying to bounce between tasks, each time taking a cognitive penalty due to attention residue, where the mind still hasn’t disengaged fully from the previous task.

A possible solution

This Ted talk by productivity coach David Allen offers a simple solution: write things down. I think whether you use pen and paper or digital tools doesn’t matter, but personally I prefer the latter, mostly because of features such as cloud storage and reminders. I personally use two tools for this purpose:

(1) Wunderlist for to-do lists and scheduling tasks in an efficient manner.

(2) Evernote to take notes on books, flesh out ideas and collate information in a structured manner.

Both have free versions, are intuitive to use, and can be taken out and put away at a moment’s notice if you have the app version on your smartphone. Of course, there are innumerable others as well, so use what you feel comfortable with.

Productivity tip aside, I  think there is a lot of value in the simple act of writing itself. At the very least, you will know what you think and meant to say when the words crystallize on paper, something that is often difficult when thoughts float around half-formed in your head. It also helps you appreciate great writing even more, much like any musician or artist appreciates the subtleties of masterful craft in his or her field, making you a better, more discerning reader.

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2 thoughts on “Reducing Mental Clutter

  1. True! I use Wunderlist to list down the task. I even have a repetitive list to remind me every year, month and every day.

    I could really improve on managing things.

    But sometimes i feel that is like a long ending list , even you complete the task out , New ones keep coming.(But that s how life has to move on)

    Good video! Shared to some of my friends.

    Keep Writing!

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