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Work Smart

How To Lighten Your Mental Load

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

[Image: Flickr user Jenny Downing]

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?

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