why you should remember nothing

In the opening pages of his book “Getting Things Done”, David Allen proposes that one of the keys to mind, task and stress management is to aim to remember nothing. 

I read it, several years ago now, and was pleased to be given a goal I could attain. Yes! I can do that. I do that already. I constantly forgot events, what I had to buy at the shops, the tasks I needed to achieve at work, that thing I promised to take to my friend – pretty much everything. 

“The goal is to not remember anything.”

Of course, he wasn’t advocating complete absent-mindedness or forgetfulness so much as an intentional way to remove from one’s mind the requirement to remember. 

Your mind doesn’t have a mind of its own. 

You know this because it’s often the case that we remember things at the wrong times. We remember that we need to buy milk while we’re sitting in the car but not while we’re standing in the middle of the supermarket wondering why we came in there (and filling a shopping basket with everything but milk). In the middle of the night we remember that we need to take cash for the parking meter but not when we’re walking out the door. 

Our brains don’t have their own filing systems and so if we do need to remember something our mind has to actively hold that data – making our brains more busy and increasing the chances of being overwhelmed by the quantity of information and, ultimately, the risk of forgetting a lot of things. 

The solution is reliable systems of information storage and reminders. 

Our brains will release the need to hold information if it knows that it has gone somewhere predictable and useful. That’s why writing things down in the middle of the night often allows you to go back to sleep. 

If you write something on a napkin at a restaurant and shove it in your pocket – your brain knows you may well forget that it’s there and send it through the wash. But if you enter it into a diary that you reference consistently, set an alarm on your phone, or add it to a list you actively engage with, your brain knows the information will be recalled and can then let go of it.

I credit this one idea as being nothing short of life changing. No jokes! It massively reduced the number of double-bookings or return trips to the shops but, more importantly, it also lifted the busyness from my mind. It made me feel less pressured. It shifted that feeling of “I think I’m meant to be doing something right now” and the frustration of poor time management leading to unnecessary pressure. 

You should try it. Try not to remember anything. 

Practically speaking for me it means I have everything in my calendar (synced to my phone) – I mean EVERYTHING. I have the same meeting every Monday morning at work but it’s in my calendar. If someone asks to meet with me or invites me to something I check my calendar and if it says I’m free, I’m free. I can trust it. 

I use my phone to remind me of all manner of things. My morning alarms have a notation that tells me what my first activity for the day is or what I need to take with me. Every event has reminders set before them (factoring in travel time) which means I can stay present where I am without fear of losing track of time. I have an active shopping list on my phone that I reference every time I’m at the shops (“extra” things like birthday presents as well as basics like groceries). 

There are all manner of apps and programs, and paper and digital aids that can help achieve the goal of not remembering anything. 

If it can free your brain – even just the slightest bit – surely it’s worth a go?

change what busy feels like

One particularly hectic day/week at work I was feeling the pressure and my emotions were fraying. 

My colleague noted my frenetic state and copped the list in response. You know the list. When you start rattling off *everything* that needs to be done and it becomes more overwhelming the longer you talk.

Psychologists would call it “catastrophising”. Making everything dire and disastrous in our minds. Speaking a “worst case scenario” narrative using negative and defeatist language. We do it for sympathy. We do it to try and make sense of why we feel so out of control. 

But my colleague totally pulled me up with his response. He waited until I got to the end of my list and said “yeah, but you love all those things!”

You love all those things. 

He was right. I did. I do! Everything on that list was part of a job I love, for a cause I believe in, for people I care for, using my skills and passions, for the joy and benefit of others. 

Something shifted for me in that moment. I didn’t get any less busy – but my posture to the busyness changed. The heightened emotion was deducted from the equation which freed some brain and heart space to more effectively apply myself to the tasks at hand. 

I love all those things! I love what I do and what I do it for. 

That was a few years ago now and I can honestly say I haven’t been overwhelmed by my workload since. That’s not to say I haven’t had patches of being crazy busy. But each time I feel the pressure building and the tension rising, I hear that statement again – “but you love those things!”

The brain is a powerful muscle. Our thoughts and internal dialogue are significant in determining our emotional well-being, stamina and capacity. 

Give it a try. Next time you feel that familiar rise in tension remind yourself “I love these things!” Sometimes you’ll need to dig deep to find the love – to move beyond the task itself to its bigger purpose. But once you find it, you might just find the space to take a deeper breath and power on more effectively.