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The Paradox of Lists

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  • The Paradox of Lists

    I used to have a love-hate relationship with lists. Here's why.

    Scenario 1: I know that I am going to go grocery shopping tomorrow. I make a mental note to buy some plastic forks for my desk at work.

    Tomorrow comes. I go grocery shopping. I forget to buy forks.

    Lesson: Alway make a material note of things that I wish to remember, not merely a mental note. If I make merely a mental note, I will forget.

    Scenario 2: I know that I am gong to go grocery shopping tomorrow. I realize that I need some plastic forks so I add "plastic forks" to my written list of items to pick up at the grocery store.

    Tomorrow comes. I bring my list but never look at it until I reach the checkout line. I discover that I bought everything that was on my list.

    Lesson: Never make a material note of things that I wish to remember; make merely a mental note. Material notes are redundant and reduce my efficiency. The time spent making, carrying, and checking material notes, could better be spent doing some other productive activity.


    Scenarios like 1 and 2 above have been played out in my life many times. It always bothered me that if I didn't make a list I needed one but if I did make a list I didn't need one. It seemed almost as if there were some Cartesian malicious demon messing with my life preventing me from drawing useful generalizations from my list-making experiences.

    Obviously, I have been drawing the wrong lesson from scenario 2. The reason I remembered to buy the forks in scenario 2 was that I made the list. I didn't need the list once I got to the store but the list was not superfluous. There is something about materially externalizing mental events that makes them easier to remember. Saying them out loud, writing, drawing, using color, using motion: all of these sensual experiences make an event memorable in a way that mere cognition (thought) does not.

    The same lessons apply to GTD. Even when I am not reviewing my lists, I am more aware of what my commitments are and I am less likely to let commitments fall through the cracks by the very fact that I have put them on a list.

  • #2
    Very interesting! I recently got a voice recorder program set up on my Treo 600. Often, as I drive in to work, I'll think of something so I'll make myself a voice recording.

    When I sit down at my desk and start to process my emails and voice recordings, I invariably remember exactly what I recorded.

    I think you're right - the "action" of collecting serves as a strong mental peg that makes remembering easier. But even if it didn't, that's why you have a list.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: The Paradox of Lists

      Originally posted by moises
      Scenario 2: I know that I am gong to go grocery shopping tomorrow. I realize that I need some plastic forks so I add "plastic forks" to my written list of items to pick up at the grocery store.

      Tomorrow comes. I bring my list but never look at it until I reach the checkout line. I discover that I bought everything that was on my list.

      Lesson: Never make a material note of things that I wish to remember; make merely a mental note. Material notes are redundant and reduce my efficiency. The time spent making, carrying, and checking material notes, could better be spent doing some other productive activity.
      Wrong Lesson... Pat yourself on the back for a good memory, but that doesn't mean you wasted your time making the list on paper.

      If your computer doesn't crash this week. Was this week's backup a waste of time?

      If your house didn't burn down was paying your insurance a waste of money?

      Comment


      • #4
        From Peter Kump, Breakthrough Rapid Reading, Revised Edition, 1998, Prentice Hall, Paramus, NJ, page 188:

        Many studies have repeatedly shown that when an act of reading is followed by an attempt to recall the information, in writing or out loud, [emphasis mine] that the efficiency of the reading is greatly enhanced. One study randomly divided a group of people and gave them all the same passage to read in the same amount of time. One-half was instructed to divide the time between reading and recalling the information, the other half spent all of the time reading. When both groups were tested, the half which spent equal time reading and recalling did better on the test.

        This knowledge presents an interesting paradox for the student. Although you have perhaps twenty minutes to read a certain passage, you might feel that there is only enough time for reading, and not enough time for recalling as well. Probably with your experience in this course [he's talking about the course of exercises in this book] you've discovered that recalling can take even longer than reading.

        The wise student, however, would understand that what he would be able to remember well at a later time from spending the full 20 minutes just reading would be less than what he would be able to remember well if he had spent only ten minutes reading and ten minutes recalling--even though he might not be able to cover all of the material or to cover it as carefully. This is a very important thing to be aware of, so important that I suggest you re-read this paragraph and , yes, recall it.
        This study showed that mental rehearsal was less effective for recall than writing or speaking out loud. More confirmation that getting stuff out of your head is the best strategy for enhancing memory.

        Comment


        • #5
          Just a semi-random follow up corollary:

          Has anybody noticed that since using GTD and the context lists, your short-term memory (for rembering to buy forks, for example) is completely toast?

          Ever since I got to the state where I could rely on my lists, once I write "forks" down on my grocery store list, the thought is completely gone out of my head.

          Mostly this is good: no random 3am thoughts about forks.

          Sometimes, though, I leave my PDA at work or something, resulting in me being at the grocery store without my list. On those rare occasions, I find my self scratching my head, unable to recall a single item (save the old standby, diet coke) that I was supposed to purchase!

          Interesting to observe in practice. Brain says "I don't need to remember that anymore" so it doesn't! Even if I try really hard to make a mental note or a mental list of what to buy somewhere, I just can't remember it any more!

          Has anybody else experienced this, or do you think I should perhaps go in for an MRI or something?

          Taxgeek

          Comment


          • #6
            REPLY TO TAXGEEK ABOUT SHORT TERM MEMORY

            I hear you and agree with you Taxgeek....

            I have done the exact same thing as you have re: the grocery store.

            I keep telling myself that this is a GOOD THANG! That GTD is working the way it should; but it is still embarrassing!



            Bridgette

            Comment


            • #7
              Yes and No - I did have that terrible feeling for a while with GtD - now there are 3 categories:

              1. Discarded and forgotten (70%)
              2. Written and forgotten (20%)
              3. Important and remembered, whether written or not (10%)

              Andrew

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              • #8
                Brain's calculation capabilities.

                The same happens with our brain's calculation capabilities - because of pocket calculators, computerized POS terminals etc. So I often perform "fast calculation training" sessions in shop or in other places.
                TesTeq

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                • #9
                  I have Write Only Memory (WOM) for psychic RAM

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Ha ha, kglade!

                    It's fine that our minds do this. The fact that they DO do it is a testament to the fact that GTD really does free your mind from having to remember all that stupid little stuff that it had to remember before!

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      I have the same thing happen. The really important things still stick in my head but I'm not as worried about forgetting them, so that's a good thing. Most items are quickly dropped from my brain's RAM and I know it's captured.

                      This is especially good for me because if I get too focused on too many things at one time, I'll start to worry about them and snowball some bad situations that might never happen. The brain dump helps keep me focused.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        I think that there are some important distinctions to be made when we say we are "getting something out of our head."

                        1. There is the act of externalization. By speaking, singing, writing, drawing, coloring, moving, etc. we are expressing externally what was formerly internal only.

                        2. There is the elimination of worry. I think that this is what DA is getting out when he speaks of the art of stress-free productivity. DA says that I am distracted when reminders are not parked where I can see them at the appropriate time. To be precise, there is an implicit stronger claim that I am distracted only when external reminders are not parked where I can seem them at the appropriate time. Thus, when I have externalized reminders I am not distracted, hence, not worried.

                        3. There is the elimination of memory. Some here claim that once they put something on an external list they forget about it. So they figuratively take an item that is internal and they get it out of their head by making it external on a list. Once it's externalized it is no longer in their head. It was previously only internal and now it is only external.

                        My claim is that my experience supports 1 and 2 and denies 3. My second post suggests that there is some research (of which I am familiar with only indirectly) supporting my denial of 3. My claim is that the act of externalizing items into organized lists, mindmaps, etc. aids in the retention of that item in memory.

                        So, I find that when I get things out of my head I experience less stress and those items that I externalized are more available to me in memory when I need them even when the externalized artifact is not immediately at hand.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Lists and Memory

                          Originally posted by moises
                          ...3. There is the elimination of memory.
                          ...
                          My claim is that my experience supports 1 and 2 and denies 3. My second post suggests that there is some research (of which I am familiar with only indirectly) supporting my denial of 3. My claim is that the act of externalizing items into organized lists, mindmaps, etc. aids in the retention of that item in memory.

                          So, I find that when I get things out of my head I experience less stress and those items that I externalized are more available to me in memory when I need them even when the externalized artifact is not immediately at hand.
                          moises,

                          My experience agrees with yours. I find myself remembering things much more easily when I have put them on action lists. Interestingly enough, the more I put things on lists, the more I remember things that I haven't put on lists.

                          Coz's post above does indicate that he just flat doesn't remember many of the things he writes down after he has written them. However, his post seems to me to reflect a value decision on his part to not even try. He uses written notes to supplement his memory because he has better things to do with his brain. I, on the other hand, don't have to try to remember things. They just show up. I suspect you are the same.

                          However, in a general sense I think you are misinterpreting what most people mean when they say that they "forget about" a next action that has been captured in the system. I don't believe that they mean that they have created a state of amnesia. I believe that they mean that the item no longer keeps intruding on their attention. It doesn't keep coming to mind when they are trying to do something else, or at times and in places when they can't do anything about it anyway. It is this unburdening of the attention that is described as "forgetting about."

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Re: Lists and Memory

                            [quote="CosmoGTD"]On the other hand, I am also a singer/musician. And once I learn a song melody, I literally do not forget it, almost forever. It just gets written in there. But I forget the words like crazy, and need all my zillions of lyric sheets.

                            Interesting......Do you read music? Do you have the musical scores?

                            Andrew

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Oh well, then I need to change my response. I don't read music, so I have to remember the music I play and write. I don't have to remember the words, because I know where to find them. My response was going to be that necessity is the mother of invention - at least it is in my case.

                              Of course, when I was young, and didn't have such a large GtD inventory, I was able to remember the words as well. I guess that my brain may have become overloaded over time, and while it defrags quite efficiently during sleep, the recycle bin doesn't get emptied often enough.

                              Andrew

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