As David Allen wisely quips, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

We’ve all experienced that drive to the grocery store with the repeating verse in our head, “Bread, eggs, milk, and butter. Bread, eggs, milk, and butter. Bread, eggs, milk, and butter. Bread, eggs, milk, and butter…”

Cognitive psychologists call it a rehearsal loop--and while your brain is engaged in one--it literally can’t do much of anything else.  Certainly not any higher level critical thinking, planning, or imagining.

But most of us have even more lists in our heads than just a simple grocery list: a list of other errands for the day, a list of things that need to get done at home, a list of worries at work, a list of trips you’d like to take someday...

Ironically, every one of those lists bouncing around your head impairs your ability to get anything done about any of them.  Instead of thinking intelligently about what you could or should be doing about them, your brain is putting a disproportionate amount of its mental horsepower into simply keeping track of them.

Here are 5 simple ways to get those things out of your head and free up some space for new and creative conversation with yourself—not rehashing the same old repeating tracks:


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1. Always have something with you for capturing new ideas or things that are causing you anxiety.  A simple stack of index cards, a binder clip, and pen are often better than the smartest of phones.

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2. Add a carabiner to your keys. This one even doubles as bottle opener. Next time you’re worried about leaving the house without a critical piece of equipment or a bag, clip your keys to the critical item the night before.  You literally won’t be able to leave without it. My keys have spent a number of evenings clipped to frozen steaks in my dad’s freezer.  (He loves to give away good meat.)

3. In a pinch, call yourself at the office and leave yourself a voicemail.  If you set up a Google Voice number for yourself, google will even transcribe the message and email it to you for free!

4. Next time you make a packing list for a trip, don’t throw it away when you’re done.  Leave it in your suitcase and you’ll have a prepared packing list already to go for your next trip.

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5. Finally—and you can feel free to mock me for this one—set a bowl full of safety pins on your dresser or in your bathroom, wherever you take off your socks at the end of the day.  Next time you take off your socks at the end of the day, pin them together before throwing them in the laundry.  Imagine never having to waste mental energy on searching for matching socks AGAIN EVER?!  (I can tell you, it’s a life-changer.)

Changing how you use your brain--from a storage room for storing and managing mundane information into a laboratory used for playing with and combining new ideas is the surest path to do your greatest, most creative, and most productive work.

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© Andy Zimney and Leading Off the Cuff, 2015.

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Andy Zimney is an organizational leader, coach, improviser, speaker, and facilitator. Andy is founder and principal at Leading Off the Cuff: Where exploration meets execution.