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Applying GTD to aging gracefully - Improved memory!

Something I had noticed in the last year or so was a decrease in my memory's functioning, something that scared the bejesus out of me. The kinds of issues I noticed were smaller things like trouble remembering a name, recalling when I did an activity, etc. Apparently this is typical (in Silver Threads: Aging, Memory it's called "tip-of-the-tongue" memory loss), and it bothered the hell out of me. Both that article and Memory in the aging brain point out that there are significant reversible environmental and psychological factors that can impact memory, and that's where David Allen's Getting Things Done comes into play.

The gist is this: Since I started practicing GTD, I've seen a (perceived) significant improvement in this area. Specifically, I no longer worry about my memory, which, interestingly, in itself seems to help. From the Silver Threads article above:
"Research has identified three areas of importance," Warren said. These are:
  • [...]
  • Memory self-efficacy - an individual's sense of mastery and his or her beliefs about memory; and
  • Memory-related affect - how states of mind such as anxiety, fatigue or depression affect memory.
This research has found "that a person's confidence does affect performance," Warren reported. Negative beliefs about memory - "old timer's disease" - and emotional states do impact how a person's memory functions, she added.

And this leads to Allen's contribution: by collecting everything into a trusted system that's reviewed regularly, we can offload from our minds the activities that are better done by our artifacts (lists). This in turn frees up the mind to do what it's best at - make and retrieve associations, find patterns, be creative, etc. Additionally, this increased mental efficiency leads to increased confidence and trust, and decreased stress, which in turn creates a positive feedback loop.

At this point people unfamiliar with Allen's work might ask if this isn't just writing things down on lists. However, Allen's approach differs from other systems' uses of lists in some fundamental ways. Briefly:
  • Items on lists should be achievable concrete actions, not vague and general ones.
  • If there are many items, they should be grouped according to physical context (e.g., At Home, Errand, etc.)
  • The weekly review catches items that aren't getting done.
  • For items that represent progress in a multi-step project, the project should be listed in a separate master index.

There's one other aspect of memory that's under our control that GTD can (tangentially) help with: continued mental stimulation. From Lifestyle May Be Key to Slowing Brain's Aging:
Among the most tantalizing evidence are studies that have given rise to the use-it-or-lose-it theory. Several large projects have found that people who are more educated, have more intellectually challenging jobs and engage in more mentally stimulating activities, such as attending lectures and plays, reading, playing chess and other hobbies, are much less likely to develop Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

The connection? Simply that I can apply GTD to create and manage my Increase Mental Stimulation project! Because the system is airtight and self-correcting, I'm guaranteed to make progress.

Finally, I want to leave you with this quote from Marc's blog:
As you can see, I never find myself in a situation where I have to rely on memory to capture and store an idea or action. This is the essence of the Collection phase of GTD.


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