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Time Management Worst Practice: Using Your Memory to Keep Track of Things

Many people use their memory to keep track of active projects, things they need to do, and commitments they’ve made.

They behave as if their brain is a computer capable of storing and recalling every detail of their work and personal life.

The reality is that our brain is not like a computer at all. When you rely on your memory to “remind” you of things you are working on, commitments you’ve made, things that still need to be done, or where you need to be at some future time, you are putting a tremendous strain on it.

This is increasingly true as our work shifts away from the predictable routine of manual work into the highly variable knowledge work.

Your memory is just not made for storing and recalling this type of information. Your brain has to work extra hard to try to remember all these things, and there is a point at which it cannot handle it any more.

This is where the common feelings of overwhelm and anxiety come from.

Relying on your memory to keep track of your projects and tasks is a worst practice for several reasons:

  • It leads to feelings of anxiety and overwhelm well before you reach your real limit. Most people are capable of working productively on several large projects and an assortment of smaller tasks and errands all at the same time. However, by keeping all this information in your head, your memory places an artificial limit how much you can handle. Having to remember a large number of small details can easily overwhelm most people.
  • You might forget important projects, tasks, or commitments. When you keep track of things using your memory, it is easy for them to fall through the cracks. Sometimes they are trivial things, but they can easily be important or even critical. The more stuff you need to remember, the more likely it is that you will forget something important, and the harder your brain has to work to make sure that doesn’t happen.
  • It is difficult to plan things solely in your head. It may be possible to do it for small projects, but for any reasonable sized project, it becomes increasingly difficult. Even if you could plan a complex project in your head, why would you want to? Could you remember all the details the next day? How about the next week?
  • You waste time recalling previous decisions and plans. People waste countless minutes trying to remember where they left off on a project, or what they need to work on next. Even more time is wasted rethinking decisions and plans that they’ve already made but can’t remember in detail. These lost minutes can add up to hours and weeks over the course of a year.
  • It creates distractions and preoccupation. Using your memory to keep track of details can make it difficult to get fully focused and absorbed in your work. It is difficult to concentrate when your brain keeps nagging you about something you need to do. This “nagging,” or general feeling of preoccupation, is your brain’s natural way of trying to make sure it doesn’t forget something important. When we are concentrating, we can only focus on a couple of things at most. When your brain is nagging you about something completely unrelated, it has the side‑effect of breaking your concentration and prevents you from being as productive as you could be.

Keeping track of things using your memory is a very common problem that traps you using several of the worst practice snares.

Path of Least Resistance

It is certainly the path of least resistance since you don’t have to do anything special to manage your information, you just keep it in your head.

It takes time, energy, and know‑how to develop and consistently use a good time management system to manage all your projects, tasks, commitments, and agreements. Many people simply don’t know how to set up such a system, and most don’t even realize the benefits of using one.

Keeping track of things using your memory is also a problem that builds up slowly over time.

At first, you may not have any problem remembering things. But as things start to pile up, you may find it increasingly difficult to keep up as the feelings of anxiety and overwhelm start to build. Just like the frog in the pot with the slowly raising temperature, next thing you know you’re getting boiled!

But what if I don’t keep everything in my head? What if I write down some things in my planner or calendar?

Writing some things down can relieve some of the pressure, but it doesn’t really solve the problem, it just delays it. The real solution is to get everything related to your projects, tasks, commitments, and agreements into a time management system.

As long as you keep track of any significant details using your memory, you’ll still feel the nagging preoccupation, you’ll still get distracted when you are trying to concentrate, you’ll still run the risk of forgetting something important, and you’ll still find it difficult to plan.

Ideal Time Management System

Efficiency expert Kerry Gleeson suggests using a time management system that helps you remember the low-level details of your work when you actually need them so that you can forget about them without worry when you don't.

Some people have been relying on their memory for so long, that they don’t event realize that things can be different. They don’t realize how much more productive they could be without the distractions from all the percolating thoughts bubbling in the back of their mind.

I know some people that use sticky notes on their monitors as reminders. In fact, one of the monitors was so full of notes that you couldn't even see the color of the monitor!

This is not a good time management system because the reminders are constantly in your face. They keep reminding you of other things you need to do, which just distracts you from your current work at hand.

What you need is a system to track and organize your work on a project-by-project basis so you can forget about the details and remember them only when you actually need them.

At the same time, you have to trust that your time management system will actually be able to help you remember the details when you need them, or you simply won't be able to let go of them.

That's why writing something down on a piece of paper and stuffing it in a drawer won't work. You need a system that will remind you about the information you wrote down at the right time and help you find it when you need it.

In Getting Things Done, David Allen calls this the "Internal Commitment Principle." Allen argues that much of the stress and anxiety we experience is caused by internal commitments (appointments, things we need to do, etc.) that we are not managing properly. A good time management system needs to help you manage your internal commitments effectively.

Surprisingly, the traditional to-do list used by most time management systems is also part of the problem because it simply cannot handle all the details you need to keep track of (see Using a More Effective To-Do List.)

Eliminating this worst practice requires you to start keeping track of everything related to your projects, tasks, and commitments using something other than your memory.


The Time Management  eBook contains much more information on how to build and use an effective to-do list. Get it now!

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If you'd like additional help, time management coaching and life coaching are both a great resource to implement these ideas and improve your time management skills. You can use personal coaching or group coaching depending on your needs.

In a corporate setting, executive coaching is also very valuable to help you be more productive and perform at your best.


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