Brain Expansion

I have a terrible memory. It’s not because I don’t pay attention; there is just too much on my mind. The barrage of incoming texts, work emails, news alerts, and ideas creates chaos. Disconnecting is not an option all of the time, especially for those in the technology field, so what can you do?

It used to be when a computer was running slow or crashing the best solution was to add more RAM, expand its memory. You can’t just open someone’s head and add more memory. Nor do I believe that “brain exercises” can help. Instead, what I have found is the only way to handle the title wave of distraction is to create a map, establish boundaries, and think out loud.

Create a Map - Kanban

Project managers employ the use of Kanban boards to visualize work. You may not realize it but you have a ton of work in progress and in the backlog. Sure, you may attend standup each day and move your little pieces of paper across a board for your team to see, but do you know all the work you have to do? What about things outside of work? What about larger tasks that need broken down?

I have found that using a personal Kanban board can be extremely helpful. There are websites out there where you can create and manage your work. I may be a little more old school because I have a whiteboard and sticky notes next to my desk. My process is simple: anything that I need to do goes on the board. I have currently three main categories that this falls into: work, blog posts, and personal; each have their own individual color. Typically I only allow one ticket per category in progress which prevents me from being overwhelmed and confused about what I’m working on.

I will add and subtract categories depending on what’s going on in my life. Any personal projects that I may be working typically get a new category, otherwise it will normally fall under “personal”. For the personal category I’ll have things like: “make credit card payment”, “call doctor”, “research blah”, etc. These are all things that I don’t want to lose track of but constitute work in my life.

For tickets at work I’ll typically break down the individual tasks that are needed to complete my work ticket. My work ticket may say “Create API Endpoint” but I’ll break it down on my end into smaller chunks that make sense to me. This way I can keep track of where I am exactly in my work and see what else needs to get done.

All of this creates a map so you can see what all in your life needs to get done and where you are at currently. It’s important to make sure you are planning things out so that you aren’t spreading yourself too thin or can tell others what sort of timeline they should expect. At one point I had my “Personal” category just so overloaded with things that I realized that I wouldn’t get all of them done. So I put a little sheet of paper off to the side and call it the “Backlog”. Over time I’ll pull things out of the backlog to work on, but other times I’ll just take the sticker off and throw it away.

The biggest benefit can be when someone interrupts you to work on something else, hop on a call, or just ask you a question. When it’s time to go back to what you were doing you can just look at your Kanban board instead of trying to remember where you were. This may all seem excessive but in the end I find that it clears my head because there are less things for me to remember.

Establish Boundaries - Notepad

Two years ago I made a career defining move. Not to a new company. Not to a new role. I didn’t do anything worthy of recognition. I started carrying around a notebook.

This sounds stupid, I know. The result of this minor change in personal policy altered my career and personal life in more ways than I can express. Granted, at work, I always carried around a notebook and took notes during meetings and would reference them throughout the day. Yet this did nothing for me. I spent too much time taking notes and not actually listening that it was a detriment to my career. Worse than that, at the end of the day I would leave my notebook at my desk and go home.

Then I learned about Leonardo Da Vinci’s habit of carrying a notebook everywhere he went and how he used it to capture observations, thoughts, and questions. He didn’t sit in a room and listen to someone talk and take notes, instead the notebooks were an extension of his brain, capturing his thoughts in that moment.

I began to realize that my notebook was worthless sitting at my desk and that I was using it wrong. This was around the time that I had a talk with my manager about my performance. I explained that I was having a hard time understanding things and showed him my notebook to say that I was paying attention. His response was, “why aren’t you asking questions if you are confused?” The statement was a little jarring. How can I write and ask questions at the same time? The answer was that, you don’t.

My job was not to be a stenographer, writing down every little detail to review later. Instead my notebook and I were to jot down thoughts, follow up questions, and things I couldn’t discern on my own. By brain had expanded to the notepad in my hand.

Working from home posed it’s own challenges when I first started because there was an ill-defined line between work and my personal life. A thought would suddenly strike me when I was playing with my kids and I would run upstairs so I wouldn’t forget. Alternatively I would try to remember it later and forget. Many nights I would lie awake thinking of something I had just read or something I wanted to look up tomorrow. Then one morning I looked at my desk and saw freedom.

My notebook and I go everywhere together now. It goes with me up to my office, down stairs after work or at lunch, and finally by my bed as I sleep. All in case a thought strikes me and I want to write a quick note, freeing my brain from the burden of remembering. I find times then to review what I wanted to lookup, research, or work on. This freedom helped me with separating work and personal life and helped me become more productive. This productivity helped me in my career, all thanks to a little notepad.

Think Out Loud - Writing

“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

Aristotle

Often times I feel like I just need to get something out of my head. Something that starts as a seed of an idea and then grows. As the idea grows it eventually takes on a full shape. If left unattended it either crowds out all other thought or becomes stagnant and dies. The best way to bring this idea to life is not to just act on it but to also write about it.

Recently I’ve been trying to document anything that I have researched and am trying to understand. By doing this I find that there may be gaps in my knowledge or things that I may be missing. If I can involve a project I’ve been working on it helps me do a thorough walkthrough of the idea. All of this was the inspiration for this blog and for other writings I’m doing.

Unfortunately, all of this is not for you, the reader, but for me to help understand and to eventually be critiqued by others. I used to fear any sort of public writing or public projects because I feared the ridicule of my superiors or worse, my peers. This was often a very vain thought and I am trying to get over it. In the end we all wish to learn and grow and it is incumbent upon us to try to teach, even though no one may be listening, for the sole reason of helping ourselves understand.

However, there are times where you have thoughts and ideas that are just for you. I don’t have many friends and so I have a journal which I treat as a confidant for all of my thoughts, ideas, and ambitions. This may seem childish but in the end it’s a great sounding board for any sort of things that are stuck in my head which often just becomes an echo chamber. By writing down my thoughts, ideas, and dreams and revisiting them I can see that they may be dumb, overly ambitious, or ludicrous. But some still stand out over time and can provide insight into patterns in my life.

The journal for me is an escape. It provides a private place for me to go and talk to myself. The thoughts on the page capture times in my life and a mental location of my well being. I sometimes go back and flip through and visit times that I knew I was struggling with something to see how they worked out. Or in times of questioning what I should be doing I can often find that I have been in a similar situation. I feel that often we do not take enough time to be with ourselves and instead are always trying to interact with others. By finding who we are and how we think we can move in a direction of improving ourselves and then take care of others.

Just a start

In the end you’ll find that there is a central theme in all of this: getting things out of your head. Writing can be an extension of your brain. Whether it’s a little sticky note or an entire thesis the origins are the same. If the thoughts were trapped in your mind then they may never escape or worse, they could be lost forever. Take the time and write. Carry around a pen and some paper and jot things down. Be quiet and capture your thoughts. Talk to others by publishing pieces even if no one will listen. Take a quick note to make sure you don’t get lost.

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Joel Holmes
Software Developer