Get things out of your head and build an external brain

Marc Bilodeau/ Core Beliefs, Self Help, Subjectivity

One of the best things I’ve done for myself is build and refine my external brain. All too often in my personal and professional life have I seen people try to remember details and rely on their memory. However for most of us, we overestimate our capacity to memorize things.

An external brain takes advantage of tools to help keep track of daily life and important details. By writing things down, it frees the mind to think more critically when the time arises. Otherwise, the brain can become too distracted trying to balance everything on a daily and weekly basis.

Why Have an External Brain

Research shows that most adults can hold 5 to 9 items in mind for a short period of time. Therefore, if it isn’t written somewhere relatively quickly, the information can be lost. However, some of that information can move into long term memory. Unfortunately, not everything does.

It is extremely difficult to memorize all errands, appointments, shopping lists, and other to-dos. In truth, it’s only possible for a small group of people. For the rest of us, external brains can prevent us from missing appointments, forgetting important details, or failing to do our part in a bigger project.

The external brain manages the backlog of our lives. Backlog is all the things we need to do. When the backlog is managed, precious brain power is available when new and unknown things arise. Otherwise, it can feel overwhelming trying to deal with any new information.

Fortunately, most people can manage life with a notepad, email client, and calendar. The hard part is to incorporate an external brain in everyday life and form habits around using these tools. When it becomes a habit to use the external brain, there are less thoughts floating around. New and unexpected events don’t feel as overwhelming. Also with everything managed, a person is more aware of their surroundings. Furthermore, it can open the door for potential opportunities and new challenges.

The Calendar

Most people already use a calendar. Therefore, this tool is easy to adopt and utilize. However, it’s important to add events as soon as possible instead of adding them later. Many times people intend to put it on their calendar, instead they try to remember it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for most people to forget due to our limited working memory.

Recommendation: Google Calendar has the ability to share multiple calendars. This is especially important for families so everyone’s schedules can be in one place. This makes it much easier to add appointments without coordinating between other family members and schedules.

Call-to-action: Whenever there is an appointment or an event that has to be done at a certain time, add it to the calendar and set a reminder. Once it’s in the calendar, you’re free to use that extra brain power for other things until you receive the reminder.

The Notepad

A paper notepad, a small notebook, or an application are all great tools to organize to-do lists and thoughts. Some people use sticky notes or a notepad at their desk. However, it’s important to have one notepad and to keep it within reach. The challenge is to make sure that the information makes it to the notepad. Otherwise, those details are easily lost.

Recommendation: Evernote is designed for taking notes, organizing, tasks lists, and archiving. It’s available from a browser, an installable application, and smartphones so all the information is available for reference at anytime.

Call-to-action: Pick a primary source to keep to-dos, lists, and notes. As something comes up, write it down as soon as possible. Secondly, it’s important to be clear when taking notes. Write everything down as if giving instructions to someone else. For example, instead of writing groceries, write groceries: milk, eggs, tomatoes. Once the details are in the notepad, you’re free to use that brain power for other things. Each day reference your notes to take action on short term and long term items.


Most people already have one or more email address. Ideally, an email client must manage multiple email addresses. Otherwise, it takes more time and effort to check multiple sources. Furthermore, this increases the likelihood of missing important information.

Inbox zero is a discipline approach to managing emails. The goal is to achieve zero or almost zero messages in the inbox. An unmanaged inbox is hard to navigate. It’s cluttered and mentally overwhelming. Action items should either be put on the calendar, in the notepad, or moved to a special folder to follow up at a later time.

More importantly, avoid excessively checking email or reacting to any new mail notification. In truth, nothing received from email is urgent. Urgent matters come from direct contact either in person or over the phone. Unfortunately, email tends to give us a false sense of urgency. In reality, people check their email at different times. Also, it’s unrealistic to think someone checks their email every 5 minutes. Ideally, check email once or twice a day, but no more than once an hour if possible.

Recommendation: Gmail helps organize email communications for one or more email address.

Call-to-action: Find an email client that manages all your emails. Try to check email infrequently. When checking email, strive to empty the inbox. Move emails to other folders if they require follow up that takes more than a couple of minutes. Treat email as informative. If an email has an action item, then record it into your notepad or calendar.


My Digital External Brain - Calendar, Email, and Evernote

Our memories aren’t as good as we think. Therefore, an external brain becomes a critical everyday tool. Thankfully, an external brain is manageable with just a calendar, a notepad, and an email client. Everyone is different and our systems of organization will vary. However, investing a little time to take advantage of these tools, build an external brain, and get into the habit of using them throughout the day will pay huge dividends with your time and overall well-being.

This blog was narrated on May 25th, 2019 on the Optimal Living Daily Podcast. Subscribe to Optimal Living Daily where they hand-pick and read the best content on personal development, minimalism, finance, health, business, and more.