If your brain is a heaving mess of work and life to-dos, find some focus with these straightforward steps from Ryder Carroll, creator of the Bullet Journal.
This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community. To see all the posts, go here.
Do you ever feel like your mind is one big, infinitely scrolling, incredibly cluttered to-do list? And are you always struggling to keep it updated, remember what’s on it, readjust its priorities, and delete what no longer serves you?
Brooklyn-based product designer Ryder Carroll suggests his solution to this problem: keeping a journal. “We have to externalize our thoughts to declutter our mind,” he says. “Holding thoughts in your mind is like trying to grasp water — it’s nearly impossible. But by writing down our thoughts, we can capture them clearly so we can work with them later.”
Growing up, Carroll was easily distracted, tugged in every direction by anything and everything. He says, “As a kid, my biggest problem was focusing on way too many things at the same time … As an adult, that’s just known as being busy. But being busy doesn’t mean you’re being productive. A lot of times, being busy just means you’re in a state of being functionally overwhelmed.”
What ended up helping Carroll cope was writing in a paper journal. With it, he says, he can easily see his goals, aspirations and concerns; map out ways to tackle them; and understand how he’s spending his time and his energy. Carroll is the creator of the Bullet Journal — a hyper-organized note-taking system you may have seen on social media — but he says you don’t have to follow that particular method to achieve peace-of-mind via pen (or pencil) and paper.
To start decluttering your mind of its endless to-do lists, Carroll recommends grabbing a notebook and pen and following these steps:
1. Create a mental inventory. Carroll says, “Write down the things that you need to do, the things that you should be doing, and the things that you want to do.”
2. Consider why you’re doing each of these things. “You don’t have to dive down some existential rabbit hole,” he says — just be mindful of why you’re doing the things you do. “We burden ourselves with unnecessary responsibilities all the time,” says Carroll. “We’re so distracted by all the things we should be doing and could be doing, but we completely forget to ask ourselves … ‘‘Do I even want to be doing those things?’”
3. For every item on your list, ask two questions: “Is it vital?” and “Does it matter to me or someone I love?” Carroll says, “If your answer is no to both of those, you’ve just identified a distraction, and you can cross it off your list. For every item you cross off your list, you’re becoming less and less distracted.”
4. Take what’s left, and divvy it up. By now, your inventory will consist of vital things (such as paying bills and shopping for groceries) and things that matter. Of the latter, Carroll recommends taking anything that matters but you haven’t done yet (or you’ve made little headway with) and breaking it into small, actionable projects.
For example, “If you want to learn to cook, don’t start by tackling an incredibly complicated meal for six people,” he says. “Even if you don’t make a total mess, the experience will have been so unpleasant that you run the risk of ruining your curiosity about cooking altogether.” Small projects, according to Carroll, “allow us to cultivate our curiosities and help them grow, maybe even help some of them blossom into full-fledged passions.” With cooking, begin by mastering a few simple, tested recipes that use ingredients and techniques you’re familiar with.
Each small project should involve “a clearly defined list of actions and tasks,” says Carroll, and they should take you less than a month to complete. He says, “If you estimate your project will take more than a month, that’s fine. Just break it into smaller projects,” he says. Your projects do not have to be tied to passions or major interests — it can be anything you want to explore further.
5. Spend time every day — even if it’s just five minutes — revising your inventory. “We have to dedicate ourselves to a habit of keeping that map updated with all the new things that we discover,” says Carroll. “If we don’t, our map becomes inaccurate, and we start to go off course. We drift, and all of a sudden, distractions start leaking back into our lives.” And when it turns out that something that mattered to you no longer does, just cross it out and let it go.
“Unfortunately, time is not a renewable resource,” says Carroll, author of The Bullet Journal Method. “It’s our responsibility to take the time to identify the things that interest us and figure out ways to pursue them.” Use your journal to note down your new interests, and come up with small projects to try them out. “This practice will provide you with you a lot of personal data,” he adds, “and that data can provide profound insights into your life: what have you tried, what have you not tried, what should you do more of, what’s working, what’s not.”
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