I’m Chanpory, and this is my site on how to live and work better as a designer.

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MindThe inestimable Merlin Mann runs a series of posts on 43 Folders called Inbox Zero, intended to impart “the skills, tools, and attitude needed to empty your email inbox”and then keep it that way.” It’s been a great series so far (my own inbox is nearly empty at this minute, for instance).

In a similar vein, I now bring you Memory Zero, a series of articles to help you prepare for the fact that, despite its billions of interconnected neurons, the brain is a fickle gray beast.

Example: It’s a rainy day. You catch a bus and rest your wet umbrella on the floor, trusting your brain”there are more synapses in the brain than stars in the galaxy!”to remind you to grab it when it’s time to get off.

Unfortunately, a block before your stop, you’re busy thinking about this really cool CSS hack you’re going to try when you get home, and then, hey, why are all the people getting off, this place looks familiar, oh no, it’s my stop, RUN!

Time to buy a new umbrella.

Contexts for things, not just tasks

One of David Allen’s smartest innovation in Getting Things Done is context. For knowledge workers who frequently juggle a dozen projects with hundreds of tasks, an easy, fast, and logical way to slice up those tasks into manageable chunks is incredibly valuable

Sure, you can also separate tasks by project or due date, but neither method is very helpful when it’s time to actually work. Why remind myself that my highest priority task is to fix the closet door when I’m stuck at the office? Don’t I feel guilty enough as it is?

Context is great for tasks. But it can also be a useful way to organize and prepare your physical tools. Some New York law firms and other large corporations give each employee (or, sometimes, each high-level employee) a “go bag” containing a first aid kit, bottled water, a flashlight, and so on, in case of an emergency. Should the worst happen, basic survival tools are at hand and ready to go. In the chaos of a fire or other disaster, no one will have the time or focus to remember and collect even the most basic necessities.

But as we learned in the bus example above, it doesn’t take a rain of frogs to cause the brain to drop everything and go into fight-or-flight mode. A phone call from the boss, suddenly realizing you’re late for an appointment, someone showing up at your office unexpectedly”we’re constantly being interrupted and called to action and, more often than not, we race off to the next thing without the appropriate tools.

Make a List, and Check it Twice

I’ve been surprisingly (to me) successful nipping this behavior in the bud by sitting down and figuring out my mobile contexts. For instance, I’m often suddenly called away from my desk for a quick, impromptu meeting. Unfortunately, those impromptu meetings sometimes drag on for an hour or more, and suddenly I have to race off to my next meeting without going back to my desk.

So I bought myself a portfolio with a notepad, pen loop, and space for documents. In the morning, I load it up with the materials I’ll need for every meeting and other mobile tasks around the office. When I leave my desk, the portfolio comes with me, so I’m always prepared no matter where I end up.

Make a list of your mobile contexts. Then, create a checklist of your essential tools. Things like pens and index cards can be prepared in advance in each bag or portfolio. The checklist reminds you what you need to move around before you go.

For instance, “writing blog entries at a cafe” might call for:

  • laptop or alphasmart neo (my preference)
  • power cable
  • cell phone
  • car and apartment keys
  • Starbucks [Insert name of independent coffee shop here] card
  • idea notebook moleskine
  • gum, kleenex
Listing even the obvious stuff, like your cell phone and your keys, is important. Remember: Memory Zero. Sometimes we walk out the door without even this basic stuff. I keep separate bags at home for when I want to go work in a cafe and when I’m going out with friends, and each one is pre-loaded with the stuff I’ll need for that context. Never underestimate your own power to distract yourself. That guy in Memento had it right and, if my wife didn’t object, I’d probably tattoo “Don’t forget your cell phone charger” on my chest.

13 Comments

  • Len Edgerly

    gravatarNov 30, 2007
    8:47 am

    Good suggestion, David! I travel between homes in Denver and Cambridge, Mass., so I’ve got checklists for going in either direction, down to where the toothbrush charger is. I’m a huge fan of GTD and have attended 3 of David Allen’s workshops. He’s the Guru of Detail, right?

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarNov 30, 2007
    9:42 am

    Thanks, Len. Yes, David Allen is the man.

  • Chanpory

    gravatarNov 30, 2007
    12:21 pm

    I’m totally one of those absent-minded people that forgets everything. I’ve even gone into work leaving my laptop at home and have had to cab back to pick it up. It’s happened more than once.

    The notion of creating different “go bags” for different contexts is great. I can imagine creating go-bags for non-work related contexts as well. Like making one for when you go out shopping, picnicking, strolling. A good friend of mine even had a go-bag ready for camping or backpacking trips. Whenever an impromptu trip comes up, she’s always packed and ready to go.

  • Jason White

    gravatarNov 30, 2007
    4:41 pm

    For me this is about simplification. “Simplify thy life” I just made that up, but I never forget anything because everything is always in the same place. Keys, metrocard, lip balm in the right pocket, money (only folded bills)and my 2 cards in the right. No matter what pants I wear.

    The same is true for just about everything I do. Always in the same place. After I added the inbox zero philosophy to my life it made it even better. Now I am working on using my cell phone tasks list to make sure I don’t forget things and zero that out every day.

    Great post.

  • Scott

    gravatarDec 1, 2007
    4:06 pm

    Might want to change “your late for an appointment” to “you’re late for an appointment”.

    The problem I’d have with a system like this is that, being a bit short on money, I’d always be scavenging things from one bag or the other for home use or use in a different context.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 1, 2007
    4:12 pm

    Scott–thanks for the correction. Can you believe I’m a professional editor? Sad…

  • Script Editor

    gravatarDec 1, 2007
    7:25 pm

    Is it only an excellent post because I do it too? (!)

    This also works for me with my overnight bag (my beau and I travel together for work), and those hotel toiletries are perfect. Keep the mini dryer, the Shout wipes, the dobb kit, a change of unders, etc. — all you’ll need besides the outfit(s) you take in a hanging bag (shoes at the bottom of that zipped garment bag.)

    I also have a “day bag” for when I teach (4 – 6 hour workshops), or will be out all day in meetings: a nice wide-mouthed professional tote that holds my laptop (or alphasmart, which I love too), notebook, tape, mini-stapler, dry-erase markers+eraser (good on windows in meetings), extra pens for clients, clips, mints, mirror, balm, even a mini-make-up bag w/toothbrush for breaks. My “real purse” slips inside with the vitals (phone, wallet, brush, keys, etc.)

    I also do it with laundry: at the bottom of the hamper is my Tide, Downey balls, roll of quarters, a kitchen timer, etc. All ready to go when I am.

    I also procrastinate my work with reading/commenting on “productivity”!

  • Don Marti

    gravatarDec 1, 2007
    11:14 pm

    I keep a Tom Bihn “Brain Cell” packed with everything needed to record a podcast interview: recorder, mic, power supply, batteries in the main compartment, USB cable and mic cable in the side pocket.

  • jaymart

    gravatarDec 2, 2007
    9:49 am

    Good habits die hard, the only problem is creating good habits. We all crave consistency and planning out what you will need in the common situations and creating a separate “gig” bag for each is pure genius!

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 2, 2007
    11:43 am

    Thanks, Jay! I should have called them gig bags. That’s a much better name.

  • Julie Poland

    gravatarDec 5, 2007
    4:15 am

    My husband and I have always agreed that the main difference between men and women is that women carry handbags. Mine is the “go-bag” for our family, with tissues, keys, ibuprofen, and crayons for the 4-year-old.

    Truth be told, I use the concept at work all the time when I facilitate meetings with clients. The group has its notebook which contains all the necessary material for the whole engagement, and it goes into my facilitation bag, which has markers, masking tape, sticky notes and index cards always on hand.

    I must admit that it’s saved my professional appearance a few times, even when I had to scoop it up while flying out the door!

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 5, 2007
    5:18 pm

    Yeah, I wish men could wear purses. It’s absurd to think we should be able to fit everything we need in our pockets. I actually had a small bag that was perfect to hold a paperback and a cellphone, but everyone called it a man-purse and I was humiliated out of wearing it. LABELS!

  • Gwen

    gravatarApr 16, 2008
    12:04 pm

    Don’t you mean “European Carry Wallets” ;-) I think there was a Seinfeld about that.