How To Lighten Your Mental Load

The first step is gaining control of your "open loops."

Unless you’ve managed to pare your life down to monk-like simplicity, chances are you’ve got a lot going on. There’s all the demands of work, of course, and your car needs to be inspected. Your pants aren’t going to walk themselves over to the tailor, and you vaguely remember mentioning to your neighbors that they should come over for dinner. You hate being the kind of person who says stuff like that and then never follows through.

Is there any way to lighten your mental load?

One of my favorite insights from David Allen (Getting Things Done) is that when your various to-dos are bouncing around your head, they keep you from doing anything else. As he writes, "Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once." You may be trying to write the great American novel, but if your brain keeps reminding you that you haven’t been to the dentist in a year, that may impact your productivity.

Allen suggests making a list of all "open loops" (incomplete projects) in your life so that they’re out of your head and on paper. I find that I’m pretty good at keeping on top of work-related items, but it’s the personal ones that drive me batty. After all, I have 45 hours a week that are set up specifically for tackling work projects. But during personal time, I want to relax. Feeling like there’s a lot to be done can ruin an otherwise leisurely weekend afternoon.

So I’ve started keeping a running list of personal open loops: buying plane tickets, getting my hair cut, getting a chair for the guest room, buying new sunglasses.

I then assign myself one big project, and two smaller projects per week. Three projects is doable, so I don’t feel like I’m mentally overloaded. On the other hand, three projects is enough to make progress. This week I ordered new stationery and finally got the pants I bought three months ago hemmed. And best of all? I can see that next week is the week to register my kid for preschool, so if I find myself thinking about it now, I can remind myself that there’s a time for that—and now is not that time. So I’m free to go back to novel writing, or whatever it is I was planning to do.

How do you lighten your mental load?

[Image: Flickr user Jenny Downing]

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  • I list it all, yes, using, but could be in any advanced task manager.

    One thing I have been trying for a few months: 1-3-5 techniques. Each day I try to accomplish 1 large (≥ 2 or more hours) thing, 3 medium (45± minutes) things, and 5 small (<30 minutes) things. If I have more than that I don't pretend I can do them all, and I schedule some for another day.

    At the end of the week and month I look over everything to make sure important but non-urgent things are getting some headway, and I reassess priorities for the week/month ahead.

  • Jennifer Martin

    Love love love this idea. We have a lot of unfinished projects and ideas around our house but limited time to accomplish them with a toddler boy and another baby boy on the way. This feels so manageable!

  • Paula Lozar

    I strongly agree with the idea of making a list of everything you need to get done (or stay on top of), prioritizing a few urgent projects per week, and rechecking the list periodically to make sure you're not overlooking anything. Some tasks schedule themselves -- e.g., getting the oil changed in your car, or taking the cat in for his annual shots -- but, to ensure that all the "optional" projects aren't continually pushed into some indefinite future, listing them and prioritizing them is hugely helpful.