Get it out of your head

The other day I went to a restaurant to get dinner. The meal was decent and when I gave my credit card to pay, I left a 20% tip. Afterwards, I had a conversation with my dad about tipping. I explained that I generally gave a 20% tip not because I consistently liked my waiter but because it was easier to calculate over 18% and how at times I gave 18% so that I could use 20% to thank a waiter if they treated me really well. My dad then said something that made me feel really stupid. “Why don’t you just use the calculator in your phone?”

This is not an uncommon phenomena with geeks. When you are a geek you tend be a bit brighter than average and as a result you have a larger working memory. You get in the habit of being overdependent on your mind to manage everything. To-do lists, calendars, important notes, math calculations, etc. all get tracked inside your head instead of on solid paper. In most cases using your head works, it saves time and paper, but there are times when relying on something outside of your head is going to be more effective. So, this week we’re going to look at the benefits of writing things out and some shiny exercises you can try.

Stress Management

We’ve all had cases where you felt like you had a billion things to do at once and no idea how to manage it all. When you are tracking everything you need to do in your head this amplifies that stress. Instead of worrying about everything you have on your plate, try writing out a to-do list. Often, the act of writing a to-do list can seem very silly and trivial, especially when you can clearly manage it all in your head, but, trust me, it can seriously reduce your stress. You can also cross off each item on your to-do list as it gets done. This will visually allow you to see how much stuff you have already done and can often make you feel a little more on top of the chaos in your life.

More Thinking Power

I was told by somebody once that your working memory can hold up to seven things at once at any given time (somebody is totally welcome to correct me on this if it is false). Once you start trying to actively remember more than seven things your brain starts dropping balls. This means that if you have four things in your head that y

ou are worried about forgetting, only half of your thinking power is available to do things like create plans or solve problems.  This means the more information you can write out in front of you, the more thinking power you have to do important things.

Uses Other Parts of Your Brain

One of my common approaches to coaching is that I will often have clients write, draw, or even possibly sing for me. The reason for this is that when you try to work through a problem while doing those activities you engage other parts of the brain. This often results in my clients getting answers to problems they would not find normally. I’ve found this particularly useful for people who are either really good at something like music or drawing or are actually terrible at it. The people who are skilled in the craft find themselves using the stronger part of their brain, while the the inexperienced people wind up tapping into a resource they have probably never touched and as a result gain a lot more new and unique perspective.


Allows You to See the Bigger Picture

Often times when you are looking at a problem or a plan you can only see two or three pieces of the situation at the same time. If you write or draw things out you can actually see everything all at once. When dealing with particularly big plans or problems this is not just helpful, but actually necessary. Often times you can only see how everything works when you have that whole picture in front of you.

Gets You Organized

I have met many people who dread the “o-word”. Organization is something many geeks often dread and hate dealing with, but it’s unfortunately a necessary part of life. I won’t discuss the topic here (that probably should be its own article), but organization is often a big issue for many geeks. If you struggle with organization this is a very simple way to make your life a tiny bit saner. If you want, you don’t even need to get a pen and paper. Just open a blank word document on your computer or phone and write the things you need to get done. I do this pretty frequently, and often I don’t even bother saving them. For me, just writing it out is enough to feel a little more on top of things.

(sorry, the pun was too easy)

Gets Others on the Same Page

Generally, it’s a lot easier to work with somebody if you have a written out plan. When people only tell you their plans verbally, you might mishear parts or they may accidentally leave a lot of details out. Writing out a plan gives something more concrete to follow and hopefully filled with less miscommunication.




To do list: Pretty self explanatory. For a week try to write down anything you have to get done or remember. When ever a task is complete or you no longer need to remember something remove it from your list. Try to keep your list somewhere where you will see it regularly and use it. If you use technology a lot, like I do, I recommend leaving a word document open on your computer or using your phone.

There’s a very good chance you heard about these in some form of writing class. I know when I first discovered them I thought they were actually pretty useless, but when used properly they can be actually really useful. I often use mindmaps with my clients to help identify patterns and connections when tackling a problem.

Take a piece of paper and in the middle of it write in one or two words a problem you are struggling with and then draw a circle around it. For example, you might write the word “job” if you are struggling to find one. Then draw another circle with something else related to your initial problem and draw a line connecting it. So for example, you might write “introvert”, because some of the reason you think you can’t find a job is because you don’t like talking to a lot of people to find one. After that you might connect to “introvert” the reason why you don’t like talking to people and write a circle saying “people suck”.

The idea of this is that if you draw out several connections you might be able to identify a common point that most of your issues connect to. In the above example, you might keep drawing out connection and find everything connects to an issue of associating work with bad experiences or that you don’t know how to comfortably converse people.

As mentioned before, this may also cause you to think in a different way by using other parts of your brain. There’s a good chance that you may figure something out this way that you wouldn’t normally.

Self portrait:
The first step of this exercise is to throw out any feelings you have about your ability to draw, because the goal of this exercise is not to draw something well or pretty (I’ve even done this exercise with people who struggle even with stick figures). The goal of this exercise is to simply draw and see what you learn about yourself. That being said, draw a picture of yourself in a situation you want to make sense of, include any emotions you feel about the situation. Draw as much or as little detail as you want, but usually more detail is better. When you are finished, take some time to think about the picture you drew.

Some good questions are:
How would you explain your picture to somebody else?
What jumps out at you about your picture?
What do you wish was different in your picture?
What do you wish could stay the same?
What are some big themes in the picture?
What is your picture telling you?
If you could draw a new picture that changed your situation what would it look like?

Streaming consciousness:
This is an exercise I use for myself quite often. The concept is pretty simple, just open up a random word document or grab a piece of paper and just start writing out everything you are feeling and thinking. Don’t worry about anything related to punctuation, spelling, or grammar. The goal is to just pour out everything going on in your head.

I find this pretty effective, because I will will write a handul of thoughts, then write my thoughts on those thoughts, and then my thoughts on those, and keeping doing until it really has snowballed. I particularly like just opening notepad up, writing a ton of stuff out and then closing it without saving. I find this helps because I don’t censor any of my writing and can just dump my heart out.

This exercise is good for a few things. One is catharsis. Often times we bottle up our emotions and don’t deal with them until they go full on Vesuvius. The other is problem solving. Through writing everything out, I often recognize emotions I didn’t realize I had about a subject. This can shed more light on an issue I’m trying to make sense of. It also forces me to actively brainstorm about how to deal with me feelings in healthy ways, often causing me to cope better during those more dramatic moments.

Anyway, hopefully this article was helpful to you. I think it’s important to make sure you get out of your own head sometimes and deal with problems in a more pen and paper fashion. Many geeks I meet are very self reliant on their own minds to manage everything going on in their life and at times I think it can really hamper you in the long run. The mind is a powerful tool, but it’s one of many. People tend to function best when they use every tool at their disposal instead of just one or two.

notebook image provided by Thirteen of Clubs

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