We continue the series on reducing mental effort.

Distracting thoughts are a major source of wasted mental energy, so in this part we’ll cover a few ways to reduce internal distractions.

Empty your head

One reason we dwell on certain thoughts is that we’re trying to remember certain to-dos, ideas, and items that require deeper consideration. Refreshing these items in our minds sucks up extra neural energy and doesn’t necessarily move much towards completion.

If your brain is using its working memory to continually bring up distracting thoughts, you can often free up extra processing power by allowing your brain to forgot. This helps you feel less mentally and emotionally fatigued as well.

A simple practice for when your mind feels cluttered and distracted is to do a brain dump. Write down every distracting thought you can think of, either on paper or one of your devices. Get the info out of your head, and externalize it somewhere.

Write down incomplete projects and unfinished items. Write down ideas that keep popping into your mind. Write down any worries or concerns. Write down anything you’ve been trying not to forget. Whatever your brain has been nagging you about, dump it onto paper or a screen.

Really squeeze your brain to get this info out, even if you have to do a few sessions over a few days.

This practice allows your brain to relax more, knowing that it can reference those details somewhere else instead of having to refresh the info internally. Even if your brain dump list is in random order and looks chaotic, it’s still a big step forward. Your brain can let go of having to refresh the info as often, which means less neural energy wasted and more neural energy available for you to use productively.

You may find this experience a bit overwhelming at first, especially if you see that you’ve been stuffing way too much into your working memory. When it all drains onto the page or the screen, you may see that it’s a lot, perhaps more than you can realistically deal with. But you may also discover that your mind feels more peaceful and relaxed afterwards. It’s more restful for the mind when it knows that it doesn’t have to keep refreshing all of this info internally.

Organize your tasks and projects

Another step is to process and prioritize some of that info you’ve just dumped from your brain. Turn those to-dos into tasks and projects, and organize them into a list or a system, so you can track them more intelligently.

There are many tools to choose from that can help you do this. I recommend testing several of them before you choose.

My current favorite tool for keeping track of tasks and projects is Nozbe. Nozbe comes with a free 30-day trial if you want to check it out. I’ve been using it since June 2019 and appreciate the clean, straightforward interface. It’s easy to learn and fast to use, especially for individuals and small teams. I especially like that I can create reusable templates with it. It’s good at hiding complexity, so the screen layout feels restful to me.

Here’s a screen shot of my current Nozbe templates. Each template is a basically a saved to-do list that I can reuse to spawn a new project whenever I want.

Since I have some of trips coming up this year, I could use the “Plan & book next trip” template to add a few projects with these names: Plan Portland trip, Plan Northern Ireland trip, Plan Milwaukee/Chicago trip, and Plan Costa Rica trip. Each project will be pre-filled with the to-do items from the template. And then I can individually customize each project with trip-specific actions.

Using project templates frees up mental energy because I don’t have to remember common action steps for the types of projects I do repeatedly. A new course launch, for instance, has hundreds of action steps, and it’s more restful for my brain if I capture all of those steps into a system. Then I can focus on doing the action steps in the proper order when I’m in the midst of the launch, trusting that the whole plan is solid and that I haven’t forgotten anything important. My brain doesn’t have to waste energy trying not to forget something. All of the details are captured in the system.

I’ve also used Asana for about a year (mid-2018 to mid-2019), but I didn’t like their web-based interface as much, and to be honest, Asana simply annoyed me into looking for a competing option. I started with their free version and soon upgraded to their premium version. I liked the premium version, which provided everything I could want and more. But after a while, their interface started pestering me to upgrade again to a business account, which had features that were overkill and unnecessary for the size of my team. I found this distracting and counter-productive, so when someone told me about Nozbe, I gave it a try, liked it better (especially the distraction-free interface), and quickly switched.

I probably would have stuck with Asana for years if they’d been satisfied to simply let me enjoy the benefits of the premium version instead of pushing for more. I absolutely don’t want a productivity app injecting extra distractions into their interface. That just seems like a ridiculous design choice. What sense does it make to use a productivity tool that increases mental load with extra annoyances?

Your choice of tools is your choice. The best system for you is the one you’ll actually use. Take the time to find something you like, and don’t just go with what’s popular or trendy. I often find that the most popular tools that I hear people buzzing about aren’t a good fit for me – I’m often disappointed when I actually test them. In general I tend to find that the popularity of a tool tends to have more to do with its marketing than with its actual utility. So don’t beat yourself up if you’ve fallen into the trap of acquiring tools that you don’t actually use. Keep looking to find the ones you will use.

A good system should be quick and efficient to use. It should feel peaceful and relaxing. If you feel stressed when using it or if you feel you must push and discipline yourself to use it regularly, dump it. If simple pen and paper would feel better to you, go with that. Don’t overburden your mind with even more complexity when you’re trying to simplify and reduce mental clutter.

I hope you’re enjoying this series so far. We’ll continue with Part 3 tomorrow.