Our fast-paced society, fraught with constant changes, competing priorities, and mounting to-do lists, can prove too much for even the most organized minds.
The solution? An external brain.
Although it sounds like science fiction, an external brain isn’t something you jack into. A simple tool already in use by millions can act as your external brain without complex neuroscience.
What is an External Brain?
According to David Allen, a world-renowned expert on personal productivity, an external brain is any tool located outside of yourself used to track and store information. Allen, author of best-seller Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity and mastermind behind the Getting Things Done productivity methodology, discusses the idea of an external brain in episode 34 of the accompanying podcast, Getting Things Done.
Allen explains that our brains evolved for pattern recognition and action rather than information recollection. We rely heavily on environmental inputs to trigger actions but must work extremely hard to remember details, thoughts, and ideas. His theory on brain development helps us understand why we can immediately jump into action when we recognize something that needs to be completed but struggle to recall simple details from previous days or weeks.
Allen isn’t alone. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin wrote about the benefits of using an external brain in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. In the book, Levitin explains that our minds wander to incomplete tasks if they aren’t recorded somewhere and suggest using an external system to store these thoughts, freeing our minds from focusing on them.
Simple Tools for External Brains
External brains don’t have to be complicated. Allen says anything could be considered an external brain, from your calendar to your journal. He says there’s no right or wrong way to approach externalizing your thoughts, and simple pen and paper are powerful tools for beginners.
Many people already apply the concept of an external brain without knowing it. Standard journals are fantastic tools for writing things down, but Allen cautions that a simple brain dump isn’t enough. An effective external brain requires follow-through.
A bullet journal is an ideal solution. Bullet journals help you stay organized and keep track of important dates, tasks, and events. Many bullet journal spreads also include space for jotting down notes, ideas, and thoughts, which is critical as Allen stresses that one key to a successful external brain is a place to record ideas immediately.
Journal Sales Continue to Rise
Though they may not be aware of the cognitive science behind journaling, consumers continue to purchase journals, and the industry shows no signs of slowing. According to The NPD Group’s (NPD) Retail Tracking Service Data, personal journal unit sales are up 3% year to date through September 2022. NPD also reported that guided journal sales increased by 24%, reaching 358K in unit sales by mid-October.
These data show that the journaling trend isn’t stopping. However, the external mind is just one of the many benefits of journaling.
Benefits of Journaling
Allen says that journaling is beneficial because it helps you get your thoughts out of your mind, thus creating brain space to help you focus on what matters.
Journaling has numerous additional benefits as well. It can improve your mood, reduce stress, and even help you heal faster. Studies have found that journaling about traumatic events can help individuals work through the trauma and improve physical and psychological outcomes.
Bullet journaling has additional benefits in that it helps users stay organized and focus on their goals. An added benefit of bullet journaling is the customization. Users can design their bullet journals to meet their specific needs.
Tips for Using a Bullet Journal as an External Mind
Leave space for free thought to get the most out of your bullet journal as an external brain. Allen reminds us that free-form writing is one of the best methods of getting stuff off your mind.
Allen also cautions that bullet journals are more work than traditional journals. You don’t necessarily need all the charts, lists, and trackers common to bullet journals for it to function as an external brain. Simplify your journal to capture essential items you need to remember.
A final tip for using a bullet journal as an external mind is to follow up with what you write. A significant key to an external brain is that you refer to it. You must trust yourself to go back, review what you’ve written, and act on it. If you don’t trust yourself to check your external brain, your internal brain may not be willing to let go.
Reap the Benefits of Journaling and the External Brain
Journaling and external brains have numerous benefits. Combine them to get organized, reduce stress, and clear up valuable brain space. Use this new-found brain energy to be present in your life, enhance your creativity, and focus on the things that matter to you; no matrix required.
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.