Hold That Thought!: How to Unload Your Brain, Organize Your Life, and Take Action

Royal Typewriter, circa 1919

Sometimes I just wish I could plug an external hard drive into my brain to increase memory! As life has become ever more complicated, perversely my ability to mentally keep track of it all has diminished. I make list upon list, but then I have to be able to access the lists, which means I have to remember where I put them. And then, if I get that far, I have to have some way of turning the lists into action.

Step 1: Regularly do brain dumps.

I've found that I do best when I don't try to hold all the data in my finite mental storage, but unload  information onto paper or into other sites which are easy to access. When I can free up your brain from trying to hold on to all that information, I have more space for doing what brains do best – processing. And while I can't simply purchase extra memory, happily there are many excellent tools that can serve a similar function. Since January is a time of new beginnings, I thought it might be a good time to take a look at some organizational tools.

Step 2: Put everything you want to remember into useful and easily retrieved locations.
Keeping on top of a crazy life means storing all sorts of facts, dates, ideas, and miscellany, and if you can put it into convenient sources which you can find as you need it, you're halfway to winning the battle.

I use different kinds of organizers for different functions. Binders make a great place to collect information on a certain theme, so I have 3-ring notebooks for gardening, home-management, school planning, co-op planning, and more. Many of these tools I rely on daily. But today I want to talk about some other tools, specifically those that give me a place to collect all that other stray data I want to keep accessible, whether it is a note to purchase a poetry handbook for a daughter, a website with wonderful reviews of classic books, or a list of people I need to call and email.

Here are my favorite computer organizers:

  1. Pear Budget: Tim and I have been using this online budget program for a year now, and it has been extremely valuable to us to help us both track and control our spending. It costs about $50 a year, but we have saved far more than that because of the accountability Pear has provided. Now, as Dave Ramsey says, we're able to “put a name” to every dollar, see where we need to tighten further and celebrate the victories. (Yippee - we saved almost $1000 on our electric bill last year!) Correction: We saved over $1000 from our budgeted allotment, but only saved $500 from the previous year because our electric rates/ kwh were higher in 2012.

  2. Virtual Sticky Notes: If you like Post-it notes, you'll love Sticky Notes, a utility which is available for Windows 7 or Macs. I used to write little Post-it notes for myself and put them on the computer, but all too often the things would flutter away. These handy virtual notes won't disappear until you tell them too, and so they make a persistent jog to my memory. (They can be hidden very easily if they are too distracting.) I color code my notes, so a green sticky note means something I need to purchase, purple is a writing assignment, yellow is for emails, and so on. It's marvelously satisfying to click a finished note into oblivion! 

  3. Pinterest: I resisted this for a long time, thinking that it must be just another way to waste time on the internet. But after becoming frustrated with the difficulty of relocating bookmarked websites I'd tried to save at one time or another, I gave in and became a Pinner. Shazam! What a great way to organize and collect ideas and helpful links! With handy thumbnail visuals! And I can organize the pins on “boards” in any way that makes sense to me and will help me find them in the future! I found this terrifically useful in saving ideas for Christmas presents to make the past month, and it is also great for cataloging websites with homeschool ideas, sewing projects, home improvement, recipes, and so very much more.
  1. Evernote: As I said, I'm a big note maker. But the problem is, my notes might be in all sorts of locations. Is it in the home management binder? In my Planner Pad – (more on this in a jiff)? Or on some random piece of paper that might be buried on one of my two desks or file cabinet? A friend recently introduced me to Evernote, a cloud based storage system. Now I can make lists to my hearts content, and know exactly where they are. Most people like the fact that Evernote can be used across platforms (computer, smart phone, tablet, etc.) But my tech needs are simpler, so I only care that the notes are saved and easy to find on my computer. You can put tags on each note, and then group them by tag. Some of my tags are books (with lists of used books I want to buy, books I've loaned, and books I want to read), business (lists pertaining to Tim's business), finances, and organization. I've even started a list with ideas for Christmas 2013. Evernote has the capability to take screen captures and make clippings from websites, but so far I've just been using the notetaking ability.
  1. Mr. Pythagoras and Mr. Fibonacci finger puppets
    Ravelry: This won't be of interest to everyone, but every knitter and crocheter needs to be familiar with this very handy site. Not only can you search for patterns by using all sorts of parameters, you can store those that appeal to you, putting them into your personal queue. No more wondering where that groovy pattern for the Pythagorean theorem and Fibonacci finger puppets is! (Yes, that one is definitely in my queue!)
    I'm sure you will have your own personal favorite places to store great ideas. But whatever your needs, find places that can capture your thoughts,    and then use them. You'll be glad of the free space in your brain!

Step 3: Turn your ideas into action in your daily and weekly schedule.

The Granddaddy of planning tools: Planner Pad   

OK, so doing regular brain dumps is an essential starting place. But merely having tons of lists of organized things you want to do someday won't solve your problems if the lists remain hypothetical. Somehow we have to turn these ideas into action. I've used many different types of planners in the past, but none has been more helpful to me than the Planner Pad. If your life has responsibilities in a variety of spheres, this tool can be so useful in putting reality to your lists.

First, you might wonder why, after just telling you about those nifty computer based helps above, I love this pen and paper system instead of some more techy program. For one, I think there is something about actually having to sit down with a pen and compose that helps me organize my thoughts. Also, since the Planner Pad is a notebook, I keep it always opened on my desk, whereas if it were a computer program, I could all too easily have other tabs opened and ignore it.

Month-at-a-glace with note taking page

Some things about the Planner Pad are just like every other organizer you've used. Sure there are calendars of all sorts, and extra pages for note taking, brainstorming, and goal setting. 

Week-at-a-glance funnel system

But the beauty of the Planner Pad is in the two-page week-at-a-glance spread which works with a funnel structure. The week planner is divided into three sections. The top 1/3 is a “project warehouse” where you can list things you need to do in seven categories of your choosing. This section is the receptacle for your brain dumps, and the place for you to categorize your jobs. My current categories are: school, guidance counselor, house, writing, garden/crafts, finances, and miscellaneous. These flex from time to time, depending on the season or what is going on. Don't worry that you won't have time to get all of this done in a given week – just write it down anyway.

The middle portion of the week spread is for you to plan out what will happen on a given day. So, working from the lists in the top section, you can designate for yourself the day you will tackle those things. Here you have to prioritize and decide what most needs to happen.

Finally, the last 1/3 of the spread is a traditional appointment book with hours listed from 7 AM to 9 PM. I actually use this part the least since I don't need to write down my normal schedule. I know when I need to get out of bed, cook breakfast, start chores, begin school, and so on. Our school daily schedule is written in my homeschool planner in a different location. I use this appointment book not for the routine, but for the unusual – doctor's appointments, meetings, lessons that have moved, etc.

Planner Pads are designed for professional and business use, but they really work great for anyone who needs to accomplish tasks in a number of different spheres, for anyone who routinely has to keep a bunch of different balls in the air simultaneously. Hmmmm, sounds kind of like a mom. You can order a Planner Pad to begin in any quarter - – January, April, July, October. There are other nifty features as well, but that gives you the gist. The PP comes in different sizes. I use the For a much more thorough review, check out this one here.

Oh – one more thing. Having a planner and other tools isn't enough. You have to build time into your schedule to work with it. I sit down on Thursday nights when I make up my grocery lists and meal plans, and spend a few more minutes working through the plans for the upcoming week. And then I need to remember to glance at the planner each day. That's why I keep it open on my computer desk where it is hard to ignore.

Now a couple of negatives. The Planner Pad is not beautiful. I know. I like my planners to be pretty, too. Before moving to the PP 15 months ago, I always went for an attractive planner, and seeing bright colors when working on my plans makes me happy. Someday I will get around to decorating my PP cover, but for now, I'm content. Much as I love beauty, the funnel system has been so effective in helping me track my responsibilities and then hit them up in an orderly manner, that I'm willing to give up a bit of color. (I have seen some beautiful redos of PPs, though.) One other complaint I've read a time or two concerns PP customer service, though my experience with the company has been excellent.

Planner Pad fits my needs, but it may be that a different calendar/organizational system would be better for your life. Whatever tools you settle on, as you regularly unload information from your brain and put it into someplace you can find it and use it again easily, you'll find life to go a bit more smoothly.


Heidi Bayly said…
Let us know how you saved so much on electricity next!
Anne said…
OK, Heidi, I will. The short answer is that I became compulsive about monitoring our energy consumption. It kind of turned into a fun game. I'll try to say a little bit more about it soon.

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