That might well seem like a strange question for me to ask, especially as I work as a psychiatrist! It is actually from this 18 minute video by David Allen, who has spent many decades researching how the most productive people use their time in the least stressful way possible. I have been following David Allen’s work for approaching a decade and found his insights enormously helpful. I think you will too.
Here are three ways our brains can help or hinder us:
David Allen’s first main insight is that the incredibly complex and marvellous brains we have been blessed with are in fact very poor at organising the different priorities in our lives. If you need to consciously remember something, remind yourself about it, decide how important it is compared to everything else going on or manage your relationships, your brain is in fact very clumsy. Allen’s figure of our brains only holding 4 items in those categories at any one time is infinitesimally tiny compared to the billion bits of information our brain is processing internally and externally in the environment around us right now. At medical school over 30 years ago we were taught the conscious mind holds between 5 to 9 bits of information. With our increasingly complex world and all the distractions we have to deal with, as well as the overwhelm of information, it means our conscious attention is severely curtailed. If you don’t believe me just try getting through your day with a shopping list of 7 items in your head and not writing them down somewhere! Without an external up to date system in place to routinely store, retrieve and review what is most important to us at any one time, we are continually at risk of just reacting to whatever is the newest thing or most pressing demand (the latest and loudest).
Allen summarises this with a major principle of stress-free productivity:
“Your mind is for having ideas and not for holding them.”
Your mind has incredible potential and resources, but it is a very poor organising system or office! That is why you have to get out of your mind!
The second major insight is that we are the most productive and engaged when we are fully present in the moment with no other distractions pulling at our attention. The phrase ‘mind like water’ captures this with the metaphor of water being highly flexible, fluid, in balance and always completely appropriately engaged with the environment. If you imagine a calm pool of water perfectly still then the water will respond to whatever you throw into it in just the right way. Throw a small pebble and you get a small ripple. Throw a large rock and you make bigger waves. When I am fully present and a challenge or opportunity comes into my life I can respond cleanly without too much or too little emotion. I just respond with the right amount of engagement and activity that the challenge requires. I don’t react or under react. I just do what needs to be done and move on.
The third major insight is understanding our basic problem is not a lack of time. Allen challenges us with our tendency to say we don’t have enough time by provocatively asking, ‘How much time does it take to have a good idea? How much time does it take to be strategic? How much time to be present and loving with someone?’
The issue is not about having more time, but instead having enough space in your mind to be fully present in the here and now with what is most important to you. To be fully engaged in the present moment is a powerful place to be. It is relaxed focus and situational awareness of what is going on around you. Being in such a state also means you are in the best possible state to do deal with the unexpected.
These three insights are radical concepts that can take a lifetime to fully apply.
There is a lot more that can be said about this, but for now what questions or comments do you have about David Allen’s insights?