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GTD: A tool for *forgetting*?

I once had a drum teacher (Afro-Cuban style, using drums like the djembe and ashiko) who, along with being a great player and drum builder, prided himself on his memory. I remember a time when he criticized people for writing down things like phone numbers, with the implication being people were lazy if they didn't work to memorize things like that. I felt bad about it for a while (I wasn't practicing GTD at the time, but I did have an address book), then forgot it.

However, he recently came to mind after reading the following passage from Kerry Gleeson's book The Personal Efficiency Program: How to Get Organized to Do More Work in Less Time [1]: Under Forget Remembering he says:
Most people I speak with take a certain degree of pride in their ability to remember "everything" that needs to be done. It is a mental game they play. While that may have been okay at one time, the pace of today's work and home life has accelerated and the volume of activities we could or should keep up with has grown so much that it is impractical to expect to keep on top of 1,000 things to do. No doubt you do remember these things to do, but it may not be at the time it's most convenient or effective, such as three o'clock in the morning, when you sit up in bed and think, "Oh, I have to take care of ..." This constant thinking about, planning out, tracking everything you need to do - remembering everything you need to follow up on - simply overwhelms people.
He goes on to say
What people need is the right system in place, to allow them to remember this myriad of details when, and only when, it's necessary for them to remember.
...which will make any GTD-er feel warm and fuzzy. Why? Because one of David Allen's central insights is that our minds work best when unfettered by daily minutiae like phone numbers, things to do, checklists, etc. "Write it down" is a classic time management concept, and Allen has taken it further by observing that getting it all out of our heads frees up tremendously our natural creative potential. I've experienced it [2], as have my clients, and apparently many other practitioners.

I researched the idea a bit further and came across some great related quotes attributed to Albert Einstein [3], [4]. From How to Gain (or Lose) 30 IQ Points - Instantly! [5]:
Einstein himself was fond of saying that his pencil was smarter than he was.
I also loved this passage from Time Management for System Administrators (sample chapter here):
In Chapter 1, I mentioned the story about Albert Einstein trying to reserve as much of his brain as possible for physics by eliminating other brainwork, like deciding what to wear each day. Legend also has it that Einstein didn't memorize addresses or phone numbers, even his own. The important ones were written on a slip of paper in his wallet so as not to use up precious brain capacity. When someone would ask him for his own phone number he would tell them that it’s in the phone book and politely ask them to look it up. Be like Einstein; reserve your brain for system administration.

A final piece of evidence comes from the field of memorization tricks, such as The Memory Book and (ironically) The Einstein Memory Trainer. If it takes methods like these to get our minds to reliably store and recall such bits of information, isn't that evidence that they're not meant to be used in this way? This is the essence of why such tricks are so impressive.

To wrap up, consider the post GTD means never forgetting by user flexiblefine:
My biggest general success with GTD is adopting the collection habit. Collecting things as they come to me means not having to worry about remembering anything until "later" when I can do something about it.
So give yourself a break, forget (smartly) some things, and let your brain do what it's great at.

More Einstein Quotes

OK, the man was not just brilliant, but wise and had a sense of humor. Here are a few more quotes I really liked:
  • Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.
  • He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.
  • I do not know with what weapons World War 3 will be fought, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones.
  • I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
  • The important thing is not to stop questioning.

  • [1] From the second edition. Note: I found a lot of useful ideas in his book, with much GTD overlap (though there are points of conflict). More at Institute for Business Technology (via their international listing).
  • [2] In my thank you email to Allen I mentioned some of the big changes his book enabled in my life, including loosing 15 pounds, curing my insomnia, making great strides in a back problem I've had all my life, and switching careers after 20 years. Pretty neat!
  • [3] I couldn't find any authoritative versions online, unfortunately. I'd love to know some sources if you have any.
  • [4] Interestingly, my neighbor has apparently met him - see My Half Hour with Einstein.
  • [5] From the same article: "Einstein himself was fond of saying that his pencil was smarter than he was."

Reader Comments (9)


I really enjoyed this. Especially the Einstein quotes. The story about the drum teacher was also interesting. In that I think we have all, at some point, prided ourselves on our ability to remember, right up to that critical situation, when it let's us down. As a final note, I think alot of my problem has been trust. Could I, did I, trust the system, at that critcal moment. Perhaps that is way GTD stresses the "context". Here again, application knowledge applied to implementation is so improtant. Keep up the good work.

May 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDavey

Thanks for the insights, Davey. Trust is crucial, as is the point at which we decided we need something better.

May 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Ok, but is the brain's capacity really as limited/small as this? That we have to "reserve" as much of our brain as possible for "important" stuff? (This is an honest question.) Also, I've read that memorizing poems, numbers, whatever, actually EXERCISES the memory, thus making it stronger and more efficient. Thoughts?

May 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRainier

Fabulous question, Rainier. Exercise vs. daily/regular use... My current thinking is yes, we really should preserve the brain for the 'heavy lifting' (even when it's light and free-flowing). I like the idea of exercise, though. Note to self: Give much thought to Rainier's question. Thanks!

May 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


I recently found your site via del.icio.us and have really enjoyed flicking through the advice.

I would suggest however you should move to your own domain with wordpress. It`s really easy. I recently did the same moving from blogger and never looked back.

It is far more powerful than bloger and the categories function at least would be of great importance to a site like this.

At least you could put it in your someday/maybe list :)

Take it easy,


May 7, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersimon

Thanks for the suggestion, Simon. I'd love to hear more about how you made the switch - I've been putting it off, partly due to the perceived complexity...

Thank you for reading!

May 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hmmm, Matt, I've given this "scarcity of brain" concept more thought over the past day and a half and I find myself still questioning it. I already shared some ideas why. Most of us humans don't use, aren't even interested in using, nearly their brain's capacity, even when they are concentrating on a particular field. Furthermore, keeping your argument in mind in conjunction with GED, I can see that it would be useful for YOU, as that's your preferred area of focus, the area for which you're "reserving your brain". But for someone like me, GED offers a whole new system with all sorts of "rules", etc. to memorize. It's much more complex than just jotting down a few telephone numbers on a piece of paper. Moreover, as to that guy who DID carry around telephone numbers in his pocket, well, aren't we just speculating as to his reasoning? One of my professors at Rutgers had been friendly with him and used to tell us similar stories as those you quoted. Wise, brilliant, fabulously eccentric. However, we can't really KNOW. Some postulate that he had Asperger's Syndrome, others believe his brain worked in other "dysfunctional" ways (so insane, isn't that? as long as you're like the majority, you're considered "functional"?). Maybe he actually COULDN'T memorize things well, and that was, consciously or unconsciously, one of the reasons he wrote them down. (Maybe due to the whole "use-it-or-lose-it" phenomenon which I already mentioned.) We can't really KNOW. Anyway, some more thoughts...

May 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRainier

Oops, I meant "GTD", not "GED". See, my memory is already going just thinking about all this! (haha.)

May 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRainier

I've given this "scarcity of brain" concept more thought over the past day and a half and I find myself still questioning it. - Good! Thank you for thinking, and taking the time to share your thoughts, Rainier.

Most of us humans don't use nearly their brain's capacity I'd actually disagree; I think this is a myth. You can read more [ here | http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/10percnt.htm ].

GTD offers a whole new system with all sorts of "rules", etc. to memorize. Thanks for bringing this up. It's a great question, and one that I've been asked by clients as well. My perspective is a) the system is actually fairly simple, but requires discipline to stay with, and b) it's worth it to unload the mind. I believe that being more organized actually encourages the creative and spontaneous parts of ourselves (but I have no proof).

It's much more complex than just jotting down a few telephone numbers on a piece of paper. I understand your point; thanks for sharing your professor's thoughts.

Rainier - One way to test this would be to actually try it for yourself. I'd be glad to help you take it on, if you had the interest.

Thanks again for reading!

May 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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