Before you engage in any focused or creative work, you need to prepare yourself both physically and mentally. Trying to think big and think well is nearly impossible if you're exhausted or distracted.
One of the leading sources of distraction is the act of trying to remember all the little tasks and commitments in your life, which can lead to cognitive overload. By getting these tasks and assignments out of your head and onto paper, you can free up space in your mind to focus and think more clearly.
This technique comes from David Allen and the Getting Things Done system I learned years ago, and still use today. It's called a mind sweep, and it improves your ability to engage in critical thinking and decision making by freeing up your mind from the burden of trying to remember.
Here is the process I use.
I start by getting myself into a calm and quiet space, breathing deeply for a minute or two. Once I'm relaxed, I use the following list of topics as prompts to ask myself what tasks or commitments are on my mind. I reflect for a minute or two after going through each category to allow things to bubble to the surface.
Then I simply write my thoughts on a sheet a paper as they come up. I don't process anything then, but rather set them aside to review later. By getting them out of my head and onto the sheet, my mind is free from the work of trying to remember and is now ready to engage in new tasks with better focus.
The goal of a mind sweep is to get things that are burdening your thinking out of your head and onto paper. You don't need to come up with new ideas and you may not have thoughts for every category. And it's OK if you miss things. Clearing up even a little space will make you more productive for your next task.
Category 1: Core needs and personal wellness
Stress -- sleep, rest, meditation, relaxation, mental focus Diet -- eating, drinking, nutrition, hydration
Fitness -- exercise, strength, stretching, aches and pains, personal care
Health -- medical, dental, eyes, hearing, skin, mental health, exams, tests
Fun -- travel, hobbies, sports, learning, personal development, reading, entertainment, socializing
Category 2: Family and friends
Significant Other -- anniversaries, birthdays, gratitude and appreciation, open items, planning, family events
Kids -- education/school, quality time, birthdays, events, activities, appointments, friends
Relatives -- parents, grandparents, grandkids, extended family, in-laws, upcoming events
Friends -- events, activities, support, planning
Social -- organizations, religion, community, events
Calendar -- birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, school breaks, religious events, reunions, festivals
Category 3: Personal environment and belongings
Home -- cleaning, organizing, improvements, maintenance, protection, supplies
Personal -- clothing, electronics, personal belongings, sentimental items
Property -- real estate, cars, boats, sports equipment, tools, storage spaces/units
Category 4: Career and professional development
Education -- training, certifications, conferences, workshops, online courses
Planning -- goals, mentoring, coaching, resume, bio, online profile
Networking -- targets, follow-ups, events, social, lunches/coffees, social media
Category 5: Work projects and commitments
Management -- status reports, risk management, open decisions, systems, communications, budgets/forecasts
People -- meetings, performance reviews, coaching, compensation, hiring
HR -- compensation, payroll, benefits, enrollments, reimbursements, reviews
Category 6: Finances and long-term planning
Payables -- mortgage, rent, maintenance, insurance, credit cards, loans, utilities, subscriptions, services, taxes
Assets -- real estate, bank accounts, commodities, safety deposit boxes, loans
Investments -- IRA, 401(k), diversification/allocations, tax planning, inheritance, charitable giving
Long-Term Planning -- college/education, retirement, insurance, health care directive, will, documentation
Category 7: Community and social responsibility
Local Community -- neighbors, civic groups, schools, community groups
Elections/Politics -- local, state, federal, school board, judges, law enforcement
Organizations -- religion, social services, food banks, volunteering, charities, education, alma mater
These prompts are based on my life and the world I live in. I'm sure you'll have others you'll need to add and some you'll want to delete. I revise my list as things change and I find items to add or delete. I put this list in a repeating calendar event, which I set up to get emailed to me once a week, so I can remember to go through the process again and stay fresh and focused.
Having this list handy will make your mind sweep easier, faster, and more effective. And once you get into the habit of doing this regularly, you'll find you're more productive and less stressed knowing that you have things organized and under control. This will free you up to think bigger and more clearly.