Don’t keep your intelligence inside your head

by Jack on February 2010

My intelligence does not stop at my skin. (Howard Gardner)

I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s. (William Blake)

When I was in grade school, I had a serious problem remembering things. I would forget to bring home various papers for my parents to sign, neglect to mention that we were supposed to bring a dessert to my Boy Scouts meeting, forget homework and school projects until the last minute. In general, I would act like a completely normal eight year old who was far more interested in soccer, World War II tanks, and dinosaurs, than any of these boring things that the adults in my world happened to be organizing at any given time.

One thing I have remembered from that time, however, is the helpful suggestion that teachers and parents all provided: write it down. Why would I need to do that, I thought? I already remember it right now, I would say to myself. It’s in my head, how could I possibly ever forget? I would focus intensely on remembering what I needed to remember. And, of course, five minutes later, my eight-year old mind was off in a completely direction, and I had already forgotten.

Years later, with more responsibilities and a much more complex life than I had back in third grade, I have changed from a grudging list-maker to an enthusiastic one. Still, writing things down, on paper or in a text document on your computer, is really only a tiny window into a much greater concept.

I consider this to be part of the broader concept of distributing your intelligence. By capturing and externalizing intelligent decisions that you have already made, and consciously subordinating yourself to those decisions (“the system” to which William Blake refers), you can act on autopilot, with a clear mind, ready to handle whatever the world brings you. This principle extends well beyond time management, and into the strategic realms of motivation, goal setting, and even the big picture vision of your life purpose.

There are three main ways of distributing your intelligence: in space; in time; and in the social realm, or community [1].

In space

Checklists and reminder notes are king. For sequences of tasks that don’t vary much, such as your morning routine, checklists are a great idea. Yes, at 7:30 you’ll probably remember that you have to brush your teeth, but why tax your brain thinking about it? Just look at the list. Another benefit of checklists and physical reminders is that they drastically reduce that feeling of “did I forget something?” They enable you to focus your attention on the exceptions and special cases, while putting all routine matters on autopilot.

Always carry tools to record ideas. When I have a cool thought or insight, the last thing I want to do is fumble around or ask someone to lend me a pen so I can write it down on a napkin before I forget it. For several years, I’ve used the hipster PDA concept popularized by Merlin Mann, but I use old business cards instead of index cards because they fit in the back pocket of my tight jeans. Combined with a mini-Sharpie pen, you have a compact and simple system for writing down a quick note before you forget it. This is the concept that David Allen calls “ubiquitous capture” – the idea that you create the capability to record any though or idea, anywhere, and then aggregate these diverse notes and fragments of information into a stream that flows into a single, trusted system

Automate everything. We have a cornucopia of technologies available to us nowadays that can help keep our schedule, send us reminders, organize the information that we want to access in the future, and so forth. Even “low tech” solutions like pen and paper, and file folders, are much better than trying to keep your intelligence inside your head. Online calendars and to do lists, email reminders, handheld devices and other electronic gadgets are also invaluable. More important than the specific tools you use are how they fit into your lifestyle and workflow. Use tools that you love, and you will feel drawn to outsource your intelligence. Use tools because you feel forced or obligated, and you will be very unlikely to make them part of your trusted system.

Purge your mind regularly. When you’re thinking about anything, whether creatively or systematically, or decision making, get your ideas out of your head and onto paper or on screen. – mindmap, write, sketch, diagram, and so forth. I have found that with a journal, over a period of weeks or months you will often notice recurring themes. Many times, I have come up with a great and apparently “original” insight about something in my life, looked back over journal entries a few weeks old, and realized that I wrote down almost exactly the same thing long before. Ideas that keep turning up like this tend to do so for a good reason, and are worth extra attention. When you write your best ideas down, your mind tends to come up with new ones – it’s like a form of psychic release, because you know, subconsciously, that those ideas are now “safe” and recorded, and aren’t able to overwrite them in your mind. When you don’t write things down, you tend to turn the same ideas over and over again in your mind. David Allen uses the phrase “mind like water” to denote the state of flow that you enter when you externalize your to do list, idea capture, and schedule to a trusted external system. Make sure that that your “mind like water” is more like a flowing river than a churning washing machine by purging your mind regularly.

In time

Give yourself a leg up at challenging times. Right after you wake up, you aren’t nearly as smart, motivated or good looking as you will be later in the day. Therefore, you need to make tasks to be done at this time so easy that a drunk monkey could do them. For example, by doing tasks that require more intelligence in the late evening like laying out your clothing, arranging breakfast items, and packing your bag, you can run through the morning on autopilot. (This probably doesn’t require much commentary – nearly all of us have experienced this, if not directly, then through well-intentioned parents and teachers.)

Work hardest at your most creative times. This is a tip from Brian Tracy, who encourages you to “work at your energy peaks”. By profiling your most creative and energetic times, you can see patterns emerge. Perhaps you’re a night owl and work best between 11 pm and 3 am before sleeping in late. Perhaps you’re an early riser and do your best work between 5 and 9 am before doing more routine things later on. You can use a diary to profile how you’re feeling every hour in terms of energy and creativity over a period of a week. By looking back over each hour that you worked and rating your energy level and creativity level on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), you can determine whether there are patterns in how these levels change throughout the day. The goal is not to operate at a level 5 all the time, but instead to create an honest assessment of what work best fits which situation at any given time. At your most creative times, you can work on challenging projects that engage all your brain power, while at your least creative times you can schedule more routine work such as recurring meetings, paperwork, and reading and writing informational emails.

Create an intelligent schedule. We work best in short, focused bursts, spaced out by reasonable breaks. It’s hard to stay focused for long work sessions, and when we try to do this, then the quality of our attention and our work invariably suffers. Even when our schedule is packed, and we have a large amount to complete in a short time, it’s still important to take brief breaks to renew our energy and rest our minds in between intense sessions of work. On the other hand, don’t make your work periods too short. Distraction and task switching are highly detrimental to your focus. When you are interrupted in the middle of a challenging cognitive task such as problem solving or writing, it can take you fifteen minutes to get back into a state of “flow”. The best work schedule for thinking-based tasks such as complex writing or problem solving would involve thirty minutes of focused attention and action, followed by a five minute break. The ideal break would involve a brief walk and perform some deep breathing, but you would remain ready to jump back into your work. If more work remains to be done, rinse and repeat. 🙂

In society / community

Join or create support groups. Don’t depend only on yourself to motivate yourself in the direction of your dreams. When you deliberately choose to connect to others with intelligent goals and positive outlooks on life, and who are supportive of the direction that you want to head, then you will have effectively outsourced some of your intelligence and motivation. The accountability and support that others bring to the table is a powerful force that can help individuals reach goals and break through barriers that they would not be able to do on their own. When you set goals in collaboration with a group in a state of high energy and motivation, the group can help reflect back that state to you at times when you are uncertain and unmotivated. Finally, if you analyze your goals 10 times harder on your own, you may sharpen your own perspective and understanding a bit; however, if you ask 10 friends to give you feedback on your goals and your life, you’ll receive 10 totally different perspectives [2]. The power of the distributed intelligence in a community is immense. Use it.

Give back to the community. A community is of course a two-way street. Just as your group can help you stay on target and aiming at your own goals and desired habits, you are yourself part of that group and can act as a source of external intelligence for others who need support. This can benefit you in ways over and above the good feeling of helping others solve their problems and challenges. During the process of supporting others you are likely to learn a lot – by thinking through the challenges that others face, you practice analyzing a far broader range of scenarios than you are ever likely to encounter in your own life. As such, you give your proactive problem solving muscles a more diverse workout. A positive minded, focused group aimed at a specific goal or set of goals is far more effective for the individuals involved, than the individuals could be if they worked on their own.

Have more fun. Facing challenges and pursuing goals can be tough. It’s simply more fun to face your toughest goals and challenges in a group of others facing in the same direction, rather than on your own. Realizing that you’re not alone in the difficulties that you face creates a common bond and connection with other people and vastly improves your experience of life.

The bottom line is that if you depend on your mind to remember too much and do too much, you simply won’t be able to use it to its full potential. You’ll be lost in a sea of detail and distraction and won’t be able to see the big picture. Your mind is a great tool for specific tasks, but it can only work so well on its own. By offloading as many routine tasks as possible into external systems, and distributing your intelligence in space, time and in your communities, you use the power of leverage to amplify the power of your mind manyfold, and to complete your work, and to define and reach your biggest goals much more quickly and easily.

[1] You could argue that externalizing your intelligence to the community is just a special case of space and time, but this process is unique and powerful enough to deserve its own category.

[2] Choose positive thinking, supportive, and helpful friends whom you trust. While honest and frank criticism and consideration of alternatives is highly worthwhile, an excessive focus on fear and uncertainty and “what could go wrong” is destructive and unlikely to be helpful.


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