Struggling to Find Time for New Ideas? Get Yourself a Second Brain.

Coffee cop with a plain beige background

Neuroscience has taught us a lot about our minds since productivity maestro David Allen published his classic book, “Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”

The biggest thing we’ve learned from Allen? That our brains are for having ideas, not holding them.

We now know that for the average human, the part of the brain dedicated to manipulating and paying attention to information—working memory—holds a maximum of four items at once. No wonder we’re having a hard time finding our keys, remembering what to pick up at the grocery store, or recalling what the boss told us to do after yesterday’s meeting.

“Our brains are for having ideas, not holding them.”

Crowding your internal brain with to-do lists and items to remember is like trying to run a computer without enough RAM – your working memory gets slower, you forget what you were supposed to do, and you don’t concentrate fully when people talk to you. Allen recently released an updated version of “Getting Things Done,” and his advice is more prescient today than ever before.

It boils down to this – if you want to become more productive, you’ll need an external brain.

Meet Your New Mind

A second brain isn’t a pinkish greyish quivering mass of synapses, which you’ve stolen from a lab like Young Frankenstein’s assistant. It’s a series of receptacles in which you store your thoughts. These receptacles might be a loose network consisting of a many papers and electronic artifacts – a calendar, an address book, a smartphone, some sticky notes.

The way you set up your second brain is your business—as long as it covers the following three important areas.

1. Triage

Triage takes thoughts from your mind and collects them so you can decide what to do with them later. These thoughts aren’t just items on your to-do list. They can include:

  • Events that belong on a calendar
  • Task lists or reminders of any kind
  • Titles of anything you’d like to look up later
  • Questions you can’t answer on the spot
  • Contact information and notes about new people you meet
  • Possible solutions to problems
  • Images or words that inspire you
  • Ideas for writing, social media, or work
  • Big projects you want to think about later

You can triage your thoughts in a small notebook, save each thought as a note in Evernote, or write them on sticky notes and tuck them in your wallet.

You can also send simple thoughts to an immediate receptacle without keeping them in triage; for example, transfer events to a calendar, jot down reminders in a smartphone app, or store inspiring images in a folder. Chad Dickerson, CEO of Etsy, uses his address book to immediately jot down notes about important people he’s met. If the person calls later, or if he needs to call the person, he refers to his address book before picking up the phone.

2. Processing

Quick and simple thoughts are easy to send to a receptacle. But complex and open-ended thoughts require some analysis. Your second external brain component, the processing center, breaks down complicated thoughts into small, definite action steps.

You can collect complex ideas in triage and review them later, or you can immediately translate ideas into specific action steps. The point is to take nebulous, open-ended ideas and make them concrete and ready to execute. For instance:

  • A question you can’t immediately answer. Tackling your question might require brainstorming, doing research, or emailing someone who knows more than you do.
  • An idea for a writing project. Your action steps might include creating an outline, searching for sources, pitching the idea to a publisher, writing the first draft, and revising your writing.
  • A complicated task. Let’s say you’ve decided to set up a mentoring program at work. You’d need to develop a sign-up process, recruit mentors, outline your expectations, and track the program’s effectiveness.

Whether you write your processed thoughts in a notebook, on a sticky note, or in a smartphone app doesn’t matter as long as you know where to find them. Once you’ve processed your more complicated thoughts, it’s time to put them into action.

3. Action Center

Your action center is where you prioritize tasks, decide what to delegate, and schedule a time to execute what’s left. Decide which tasks are most important, and then mark off what you can delegate to someone else.

All that remains are tasks you choose to do yourself, and these should land on your calendar. Highly productive people have many ways of organizing their days and weeks. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  • Give each day a specific focus. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square and chairman of Twitter, does a different type of work every day. He performs management-related tasks on Monday, deals with product issues on Tuesday, and uses Wednesday for communication and marketing.
  • Focus on fewer themes. Kevin O’Connor, the founder of DoubleClick, focuses on three to five themes every week. If tasks fit the week’s theme, they make it onto the calendar; if they don’t, they can wait until later.
  • Create a time map. If you have a predictable routine—you work on client tasks in the morning, focus on communications in the afternoon, and go to yoga at 5 p.m.—productivity expert Julie Morgenstern recommends creating a time map. Your client-related task goes into a block of time reserved for clients; the email you need to send goes into the communications time slot.

You can use the calendar in your smartphone, on your desktop, or in a notebook—it really doesn’t matter. In addition to scheduling your chosen takes, schedule follow-ups to check up on the tasks you delegated.

Behold, Your New Brain

Your second mind, like the one in your noggin’, is always a work in progress. You’ll have to experiment to find a rhythm and the right tools for setting it up. Additionally, not every thought you triage or process deserves to make it into your action center. You can even add a storage center called “Someday” for certain processed thoughts which aren’t priorities but which you’d like to address later.

Even as you work out the kinks, it won’t take long to see the enormous advantages of your second brain. By moving your thoughts from working memory into your external brain, you’ll free up your mind to generate new ideas.

You’ll become someone who’s fully present in every conversation. You’ll accomplish so much more because you’ve translated wishes into action. Most importantly, your internal mind will have the computing power to focus on what matters most.

Jacqueline Lee is a freelancer writer, helping others express big ideas. Her work has appeared in Forbes and Huffington Post.

If you’re looking for more on how to priorities tasks, read this post by Ryan Robinson on how saying “no” can save you from getting overwhelmed.

October 6, 2015