The most striking revelation I gained from reading Getting Things Done, is that our brains work a bit like computers, in that we have limited memory and everything on our mind takes up a little space, reducing the memory available to carry out our main process—the task we are trying to accomplish.

As stuff pops into your head it reduces your ability to focus on the job at hand. You lack the ability to shelve it in the back of your mind without it adding to the overhead of what’s already on your mind. The same goes for new tasks arriving from others by email, phone, and in person.

It turns out there is a very simple way to trick your mind into letting go, to keep the maximum amount of space available for you to be productive.

Write things down.

You need two lists to do this properly. The first list is your to-do list, and it probably needs more granularity than you already give it, but I’ll explain that in another post.

this is where you dump all new tasks that come your way, no matter how big or small, simple or complex

The other list is called your inbox. Not to be confused with your email inbox, this is where you dump all new tasks that come your way, no matter how big or small, simple or complex. By way of an example, as I sit writing this article several ideas for other blog posts have come into my mind, and I received a phone call asking me to complete my monthly expenses form. With a minimum of fuss I make a note of them in my inbox and return to my writing.

Because my mind knows these requests for my time and attention are in a safe place that I will review soon, it can let go of them to provide my full focus for the task at hand.

This technique only works if you genuinely do not process the new task and simply document it in your inbox. Giving the new task more consideration will break your focus and destroy your productivity.

some of the items are no longer relevant, as someone else has taken care of them or they can now been seen as not important enough to warrant my attention. It’s satisfying to delete these

A few times a day, I work through the accumulation of items in my inbox, using a batch processing approach that makes the job efficient to complete. Inevitably, some of the items are no longer relevant, as someone else has taken care of them or they can now been seen as not important enough to warrant my attention. It’s satisfying to delete these.

Assuming an item in my inbox does need my attention, I now estimate how long it would take to complete. If I reckon it can be sorted within 2 minutes I do it there and then. If an item is going to take longer than 2 minutes then the only thing I do about it is allocate it to a project on my to do list and perhaps set a deadline for it’s completion.

Personally speaking, I have found that delaying the processing of new tasks has resulted in a bigger increase in productivity than any other technique I’ve tried. With the benefit of hindsight I can see that I used to be very reactive, interrupting whatever I was working on to reply to email, take phone calls, and generally wander off distracted.

people struggle to accept that I close my email client for 2 or 3 hours at a time

Now, whenever something new demands my attention I only go as far as writing it down and adding it to my inbox for later processing. This can infuriate work colleagues, as I refuse to allow myself to be distracted from the task I’m working on—I’ve found that some people find it hard to accept that I won’t suddenly interrupt the really important thing I’m doing in order to attend a knee-jerk meeting. Other people struggle to accept that I close my email client for 2 or 3 hours at a time to further reduce interruptions.

Try this for a day. At first it’s difficult to resist the temptation to be reactive, but if you can follow the guidelines set out above you’ll have the most productive day you’ve had in ages.