Decluttering your Extended Mind

Think about the last time you let a great idea slip away.
Do you remember the terrible moment just as it faded, when the only thing you’re left with is the feeling that it truly was a great idea?

If you live and thrive by the ideas you bring to life, you’ll quickly learn to capture all your ideas. You’ll always carry a pen and a small notebook, or some index cards in the back pocket (my approach). Or use apps like Google Keep or Siri, or any of the thousands of note-taking apps available to you.

You shouldn’t have to worry about ever losing an idea again.
But you now have a new, and more insidious problem:

If you can capture every idea, you still risk losing them among all your other ideas.

This problem is far worse, because it can go undetected until it feels hopeless. And when you realize it, idea capture will start to feel less like creative expression, and more like dropping a slip of paper into a giant rolling raffle barrel.

If these were your ideas, how would it feel to add yet another one to the pile?


Efficient Systems Make Things Worse

Having a great system in place, like Getting Things Done, does not solve this problem.
In fact, it could make things worse.

Here’s how:

  • You have an efficient system to capture and process everything.
  • Your capacity increases, leading to a greater volume of ideas generated.
  • Since you can’t act on the influx, most of your ideas go into an ever growing “Someday/Maybe” list.
  • Soon, you reach a tipping point, where adding ideas in the system feels pointless.
  • You get discouraged, and stop using the system.

In a sense, a great system like GTD (which I swear by), can be part of the problem. By being able to handle more ideas and small tasks, GTD increases your capacity.

Without also changing your mindset from one of scarcity to one of abundance, you’ll just end up hoarding more ideas.

You might think that having too many ideas is a great problem to have. But it’s really only useful in the brainstorming stage of any project with a well-defined outcome. Ideas on their own, orphaned from any goal, are simply mental flotsam that clog up your flow.

The Hoarder’s Mindset

We can understand the drawbacks of hoarding ideas via my favorite rhetorical device: the analogy. (this one inspired by my wife’s decluttering of 90% of her possessions.)

If your problem is an overflowing closet, you don’t solve it by getting more storage bins, clever stacking, or “closet hacks”. In other words, you don’t solve the problem by increasing your capacity.

You’re addressing the symptom (“I have too many clothes”) and not the root cause (“Why do I feel inclined to keep things I’m not excited about, and don’t wear?”). Hoarders keep everything because it might be useful “someday”, or because it represents a memory.

But the underlying fear is simple: “What if I can’t replace it when I need to?”

Our bodies and our brains have evolved over millions of years for a “feast or famine” lifestyle. It’s a deep-seated response, so being in a “famine” mindset is a pervasive feeling. The result?

Hoarding ideas makes you feel idea-poor.

The underlying message you’re sending yourself is “This might not be a great idea, but keep it. Just in case you can’t come up with a better ones later.

If keeping all your ideas, even the mediocre ones, leads to feeling idea-poor, the opposite is also true. Keeping only the best ideas, and trusting yourself to be able to come up with more when needed, leads to something much more important than a well-curated “idea file”.

It leads to sustainable creative confidence.

Achieving Sustainable Creative Confidence

In GTD, the entire process really begins by determining whether an idea or task you’ve captured is “actionable”. I believe this is an absolutely atrocious decision point. It’s true, much of what we think are “todos” aren’t really actionable, and the habit of determining the next action is invaluable. But you could have hundreds of actionable ideas, none of which are worth pursuing.

Add these filters to whatever productivity system you use, and focus on what truly matters to you.

The fix is quite simple, but it takes practice and discipline to follow through.
It breaks down into three steps, all designed to create a tougher filter to use while processing.

  1. Identify things you truly “Must Do” by asking “Can I live with the consequences?”
  2. Check in with your goals, for each idea or task.
  3. Check in with your desired identity, for each idea or task.

I’ll go through each of these in turn.

1. Focus on Consequences

It’s very easy, especially when overwhelmed, to treat everything as being important and urgent. To avoid this, we need a shortcut to understand whether something truly needs to be done or not.

“Is this important?” or “Do I have to do this?” are not helpful because they draw your attention to the task itself, and not the outcome. You can instead use a “What If?” question to trigger your imagination:

What would be the consequences if I didn’t do this?

If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be surprised at the sheer volume of supposedly urgent or critical tasks that simply do not need to be done. That doesn’t mean that you won’t do them, but having this question first allows you to skip the other filters if you must do the task

2. Check in with your Goals

The second filter is to ask:

Does this move me toward my goals?“.

Again, simple. But it’s so easy to trick ourselves into simply “being busy”, that it’s worth reflecting on your goals not just weekly, but every time you pick up an item or idea to process.

This not only ensures that you’re moving forward with every task, but it also makes thinking about your goals a frequent habit.

3. Check in with your Desired Identity

Think about this: any worthwhile goal you have would probably take a year or more to achieve. And, despite how sure you might be right now, accomplishing your goal might not actually make you much happier.

With goals, how you reach your goals is at least as important as reaching them. And so, you need a way of evaluating whether implementing a given idea would move you toward your goals in a way that feels right. Ask yourself this:

“Would the person I want to become, act on this?”

This question forces you to think about your values, and your desired identity. It also allows you to side-step your fears. If an idea scares you a little, without appealing to this “bold fearless” version of yourself, you’ll find some way to justify not pursuing it. But you’re more able to answer honestly whether your ideal self would pursue it or not.

And, as with checking in with your goals, checking in with your desired identity as part of this process forces you to think about the person you want to become several times a day. As I’ve mentioned before, this simple trick is a powerful way to change.


So much of productivity focuses on the organizing aspect of any system. What lists, what software, how do you prioritize your todos, how do you schedule them, and so on.

But a simple and powerful way to get the right things done is to stop the wrong things from getting into your lists in the first place. It’s not easy, but the reward is being able to focus on the ideas that give you chills, the tasks that truly move you forward, and the challenges that make you a better person in the process.

7 thoughts on “Decluttering your Extended Mind

  1. Great post, Adriano. I’m a huge fan of GTD and find that it’s made a huge difference in my life but it definitely has led to me capturing each and every idea/task that comes along which has been counterproductive on many occasions.

    As you say, it’s a bit ‘scary’ to let some things go for fear that you’re not making the right call and are letting something important slip through your fingers but I think applying a process to deciding will be very useful.


    1. Thanks James,

      Yes, it’s scary. One thing that helps me get over this fear is learning to trust my unconscious mind (that supplied the idea in the first place).
      If it truly is a good and worthwhile idea, it will come back. And it will have evolved into something better and stronger.

  2. Adriano, thanks for this post.
    Only a week back, a friend of mine recommende a TED talk about difficult decisions to me. And the advice of the speaker was to solve the dilemma of difficult decisions by checking which option is more in line with the person you want to be.

    I’ve been trying out the idea over the last week and so far, it helped me to take the actions that will make me a fitter and healthier.

    And thanks to you, I’ll also try it out to not only to make difficult decisions but also to decide if I should consider a task, idea or project at all.

    1. Thanks Jens.

      I need to constantly remind myself about “using desired identity” as a force for decision-making.
      I find that the hardest part is to find out what I truly want, not what others believe I should do.

      Reading parts of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” every day helps in that regard. It’s part of my morning ritual.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *