My Digital Brain

When I first entered the workforce, my brain was fried. I had spent the last couple of years intensely studying and hoping to make good grades. Even after all of that, I did not feel like I had deep-seated knowledge. I was walking away from classes going “What did I just do?”. Fortunately, I was able to apply a lot of that knowledge straight-away at my first job out of college, but there was still a lot I could not apply. And without this application, I found my recall was struggling. In college, I studied business, mathematics, marketing, and audio engineering on top of trying to have a social life. After college, I had to manage my own lessons schedule, manage a small studio, help run the front end of a shop, and do the other things in life like pay bills and buy groceries. What I found was that I was constantly over-taxing my brain. It couldn’t handle all of that. Not that I ever pushed myself to a nervous breakdown, but things would certainly slip. I found it harder to remember important conversations, dates, and ideas. (True Story: I once called a former private student of mine to convert them to my new studio for guitar lessons. When he showed up to my new studio, I asked him how he found me, to which he reminded me that I had called him just a week ago. D’oh!).

Then I learned this really amazing concept: Your brain is an amazing processor, but not so much a great memory bank. Yes, we can remember things. (I recommend the book “Moonwalking With Einstein” by Joshua Foer for those interested in remembering just about anything). However, our brain is set up for moderately good short-term and poor long-term memory. You might be able to remember everything you had for lunch yesterday, the day before, and maybe even a couple of days last week, but what did you have for lunch on May 9th, 2015? If you can remember, you’re a better person than I.

Getting Bionic

To make up for our not-so-great memory, we’ve invented something that does have a great memory: computers. Computers can store information for as long as they are maintained from a hardware/software perspective, and the data is easily transferable from one computer to the next. If I had to send an idea to you, I would have to talk to you about it for a while (or write a blog post about it), and even then, it might be misinterpreted. With machines, it’s 1’s and 0’s all day. Send the data to your mom or to your friend halfway across the world in the blink of an eye, and it is all the same data! Based on that data, the machine can even do other amazing things like business process automation. If I told you to remind me in a month about a video I need to watch, I would doubt that you could do that for me (nor would I want to burden you with such an important task). However, I can write that thought down in a reminder, set a day/time alert, and voilà! – reminder is set.

Pseudo-Cognitive Psychology

My digital brain has three main features:

  • To be processed
  • To be staged
  • To be archived
(People familiar with Getting Things Done will have a similar system).

To be processed: These are the things to be done today. I have set aside time to work on them, and it is only a matter of cranking through a task list. Mow the lawn? Done. File taxes? Done. Send your cousin’s roommate a thank you for recommending that book to you? Double-done, with a follow-up thank you to your cousin.

To be staged: These are things that cannot be right now. You have a thought about changes to a dashboard, but you’re travelling, cooking, or in the shower? You are for-sure not handling that right now. It’s best to mark a time and place when you can handle this later.

To be archived: Completed tasks, old receipts, or just important concepts to remember should go in here. This is your Trinity College Library of information. You can take pictures of whiteboards, scan documents, write notes, or do whatever you need to put things into this bucket.
So knowing the three main features, what kind of support do I use for each?

Now, with an understanding of its features, let’s talk about the anatomy of my brain:

Processing Apps:

  • Reminders (iOS App)
    • Just like I mentioned before, write down things you need to do. Schedule them for a certain due date.
  • Habitica
    • One of my favorite apps in existence. You can put your habits, recurring tasks, and even one-off to-do’s in this app. What’s more is when you complete them, you build up your little avatar, complete quests, and can buy neat little accessories for your digital self. This is a great app for the gamer in me.

Staging Apps:

  • Calendar (Apple, Gmail, Outlook, doesn’t matter)
    • I constantly block time for myself to process tasks. Personal tasks are handled in the morning, at lunch, and in the evenings after my kid goes to bed. During the work week, whatever free time I may have, I try to block off time to get work done (and it keeps me from being interrupted).
  • Mail
    • Bonus points if you can transfer this to another app like Reminders, Habitica, or Evernote/OneNote. Most of us corporate folk tasks come from an email or a meeting invite. Use the tasks function within these apps to stay on top of things and process when you have time.

Archiving Apps:

  • Evernote/OneNote
    • I have used both of these apps for years. It just has so happened to work out that Evernote is my personal go-to while OneNote is my professional go-to. Both have the capability to send e-mails to their platforms for archiving and adding notes. You can collect media in them (videos, scans, pictures, etc.) and even add tags for quick look ups. My favorite part: both have the capability to create notebooks for specific topics. For instance, I have mine set up to capture Personal notes, Project notes, and I even have a Kudos notebook for congratulatory comments or emails (thank you to Danielle Goldkamp for this idea!).
  • File Folders (okay, not an app, but still important!)
    • While this post is all about my digital brain, I do have an analog component. I still put things in file folders for storage, staging, and processing. Using the digital platforms, though, has greatly decreased the overall number of file folders I need to have. Taxes, important documents, and even some memorabilia should be stored for safe-keeping.

Some other tips:

  • I found a cheap little shower pad to capture ideas. I use this to jot down a quick note and then transfer it to my digital brain afterwards.
  • Siri/Google/Alexa are your friends. I sound like a crazy person with the amount of times I say “Hey…. set a reminder to ____”.
  • For staging, set different buckets of staging. I use terms like “Next, Soon, Someday” to capture things I need to do that don’t have a hard due date.
  • Also, for staging/processing, you can set priorities for each task, but I would recommend using an Eisenhower Matrix before you start. You will find a lot of things are not truly important, which can help free up your list(s). Apps exist for this, but I made a simple one in Excel/Google Sheets.
  • Finally, for processing, USE A TIMER! Forest, Pomodoro timer, iOS timer, doesn’t matter what you use. Especially for personal projects, you should always put a timer on for less than an hour. That way you don’t burn up all of your time on one task!
  • Last, but certainly not least, your digital brain might be able to store a lot, but it still needs maintenance and care. Be sure to set up a weekly, monthly, or quarterly time to review and purge what is no longer needed. That email you saved about a conference that already happened doesn’t have much value anymore. It does not spark joy.

I could go on and on with this subject, but I find it’s best to see it in practice. In fact, one of my next topics will be my Data Science Cookbook in Evernote which will demonstrate my digital brain in action!

I hope you found this post helpful! If you already have a digital brain in action, what are some methods or apps that you use?

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