Is Your Brain Getting the "Memory Full" Message? 5 Ways to Free Up Room on Your Brain's Hard Drive


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Lynn was tapped to head up the project team for a major company restructuring. She began her first team meeting by delegating steps and due dates to the various department heads. That's when she noticed that one member, Bob, wasn't writing anything down. Lynn knew Bob was a competent guy. Yet given the importance of this project his casual approach concerned her.

So, after the meeting she pulled Bob aside. “I don't want to tell you how to do your job, " Lynn began, “but I noticed you're weren't writing down any of your assignments. " “Oh, don't worry, " Bob replied pointing to his head “it's all right up here. " Lynn was hardly reassured. “That's great Bob. But what happens if you lose your mind?"

You may not lose your mind, but are you getting the mental “memory full" message a bit more often these days? With a computer there is always the option to add memory or get a bigger hard drive. Even if we could rely on memory, besides not being fool proof, there's the problem of brain clutter, a concern that led Albert Einstein to conclude that one should, “Never bother to memorize anything that is easily accessible. " So, what can you do?

Since the closest analogy to the human brain is the computer it makes sense to look to it for solutions to the problem of brain overload. But first it's important to fully understand the problem.

Here are some of the unwelcome things that can happen when a computer's hard drive gets too full. As you can see, when people try handling more information and performing more functions than we're “programmed" to handle similar things can happen:

A too-full computer versus a too-full brain:
Computers give you error messages. We make mistakes, forget to do something, things start “slipping through the cracks". Computers run slower. We take longer to process tasks and information, slow down, become mentally or physically sluggish, become uncreative, become unproductive. Computers freeze. We procrastinate, become indecisive. Computers crash. We get stressed out, experience a total mental break down (extreme cases).

The problem of a too full hard drive lends itself to a variety of solutions. These same solutions can apply to the problem of a too full mind. Here are five overwhelm-busting techniques human's can borrow from the computer:

1. Reboot:
If you're getting lots of error messages or your computer is running slow sometimes simply restarting or “rebooting" can help. This same technique works well for people. Sometimes the best thing you can do when you feel overloaded is to take a break. Go for a walk. Find a quieter or just different space to work. If you're experiencing major “brain strain" it may be time for a vacation.

2. Delete unnecessary files:
With a computer you can free up space by sending unnecessary files to the trash. How about all those “junk files" on your mental hard drive? Do you keep reminding yourself to do things that you think you “should do" but don't really need or want to do - like arranging your vacation photos into a photo album, alphabetizing your bookshelf, sending out holiday cards? When you “should on yourself" you're not only piling guilt onto the overload but all this extraneous stuff is taking up valuable mental real estate. Do yourself a favor and delete them.

3. Call the help desk:
When you experience a major computer glitch you can always call some kind of help desk. The same is true with mental overload. Delegate whenever you can. Don't manage anyone at work? If you live with anyone over the age of five, you can almost always delegate more at home.

4. Download:
Many “must keep" files that don't need to reside on your hard drive can be downloaded onto a disk. You may not be able to download your mental To-Do list onto a disk (at least not yet!) but you can achieve the same effect by getting it out of your head and onto paper. The way to keep your mind from getting overloaded in the first place is to immediately download things as they pop up. Or in other words as we say at Time/Design: If you think it, ink it.

If your mental hard drive is exceptionally full you'll want to start with a complete Brain Download. The Brain Download is an exercise in which you fully and completely empty your mind of all the things you need or want to do both in your work and personal life. Big stuff, little stuff. Things you have to do now, things you don't have time to get to right now but are none-the-less taking up precious mind space.

To do a thorough download you should allow at least 30 minutes. At some point in the process you might hit the “overwhelm wall. " Seeing how much you have to do can make you want to throw down your pencil in despair. But if you push through this wall and continue writing, ultimately you'll experience the benefits of a well-functioning computer: Faster processing of information, fewer errors, less need to call the help desk, and a greatly diminished risk of that your system will crash.

But here's where humans have a definite edge on computers. Downloading our brain allows us to enjoy additional benefits like less likely to procrastinate, greater creativity, and the peace of mind of knowing that nothing will slip through the cracks.

5. Defragment:
The defragmenting function on a computer rearranges files so your programs run faster. Right now the “files" on your Download list are a jumbled list of To-Dos. You'll want to “defragment" your list by first organizing them into their proper category, for example, work projects vs. home projects, things you need to do on a certain day verses those that are due by a certain day and so on.

Next, put things into perspective by prioritizing your list. After all, on the same list you probably have things like buy new collar for Fluffy next to develop strategic plan. The simple process of sorting through your list and putting each item into its proper priority “file" can be tremendously freeing.

Finally, just as the defragmenting process on a computer checks the drive for errors, taking the time to organize your activities helps ensure that nothing will slip through the cracks!

In today's world, mental overwhelm is a fact of life. Fortunately, by applying some simple techniques from the computer world, you can avoid some of the costly consequences of a too full brain!

You are welcome to reprint this or any of our productivity-enhancing articles in your organization's newsletter or on your web site providing the following attribution and hyperlink appear with each article.

2002/4 Time/Design. To learn more about Time/Design's Focus Management™ tools, training, and coaching call 800-637-9942 or visit .

Time/Design is a leading provider of time management training and tools offering practical and realistic strategies for managing commitments, communications and information.


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