Posted by: aphr | June 11, 2009

Silence the Clamor – write contextual lists

“I ought to book my flight soon” – “It will be Todd’s birthday on Friday.” – “Or should I go by train?” – “What should I get Todd?”

Shopping List (via Flickr)

Sometimes the many things that you keep in mind distract you from the task at hand. They are like little voices each wanting to be heard, causing a lot of noise and generating stress. Unprocessed questions add to the noise.

Participants in a conference sometimes behave similarly. That is when they feel that they are not heard. If you write down those facts-to-remember and those nagging questions, the participants inside your head will stop yelling at each other. They have been heard, they are satisfied for the moment. And you can concentrate and start actually doing all these things.

This only works if you know that you’ll look at the notes you have taken down later on. Writing stuff down and throwing the paper away does not appease the voice inside your head (nor is it any good for much else).

And if you write lists, write contextual lists. Put “butter” and “milk” on the shopping list and put “find out about phd program in London” on the “todo at my pc” list.

Downside: Firstly, many people are so obsessed with their system of todo-lists that they spend more time with the bureaucracy of lists instead of actually getting anything done. Secondly, there are complicated situations in which it is essential to have uncounted things and details in mind in order to make the right decision. If you habitually use lists and have a one-thing-at-a-time mindset you might not be ideally prepared for these situations.



  1. “Secondly, there are complicated situations in which it is essential to have uncounted things and details in mind in order to make the right decision.”

    I’m curious: What kind of situation can be solved better without the clarity of having captured everything?

    • Hi Hendrik,
      thank you for our first comment ever. 🙂

      1) It is not possible to capture ‘everything’. The human brain is a vast place.

      2) Innovation often comes from the connection of what had been unrelated things. Having “all you know” in your brain you can get lucky and make that cross-link. The human mind is capable of outstanding feats. Having it all in some folder that is not related to the problem at hand, you will not have that folder on your desk and not make that cross-link.

      I doubt that David Allen is as respected among university professors as he is among managers. It all depends on what you try to archieve, I guess.

      Although putting all your stuff down in lists can be part of a bottom up effectivity technique, I get the feeling that this way to address isues is a lot like having a top down design process in software engineering. It is a great tool, that everyone should know how to apply (that’s why I made an article about it…) — but, like all great tools, it is not universally applicable. (if you feel like it, go and google “A Rational Design Process: How and Why to Fake It.” – it’s a great paper)

  2. I resisted the urge to start with “FIRST!!!1!ONE”. 🙂

    But I believe you misunderstood ubiquitous capturing. It is supposed to help you organize your plans, structure your to-dos. It is not supposed to be a universal problem-solving mechanism (which probably can’t exist).

    So 1) I know it is possible to capture everything that you have to do or want to do at the moment, at least with some minimum level of commitment. You also have to take care of the granularity, of course.
    This does not mean you’re going to capture all of your thoughts, feelings or associations concerning these to-dos, or whatever goes through your mind just for fun.

    And 2) I don’t think David Allen applies less to professors than to managers (more than 50% of their time, professors are managers anyways). Creativity can only flow if you’re able to focus, and ubiquitous capturing helps a lot to get rid of distractions. You can get much deeper into your work – in any way you wish, top-down or bottom-up – if you know *this* is the time for this task and for nothing else. Most important: Many of these spontaneous connections of unrelated things don’t come to mind when you’re working, but in the supermarket or on the phone. Capturing them immediately gives you a lot of material to work with when the time for work has come. In this way, you could even say ubiquitous capturing promotes innovation in the way you described it.

  3. Oh, reply fail. Sorry

  4. […] put all your worries aside (maybe on contextual lists?) […]

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