Listener Question: How do I Tame the Squirrel Brain? – DBR 014

In this episode, I answer a question from my buddy and listener, Joel. He feels like he has “Squirrel Brain” and wonders how to get rid of it. So, I define “Squirrel Brain” and talk about tactics for Taming the Squirrel.
I love your questions. Reach me at [email protected] or connect on LinkedIn I’ll try to answer and let you know when I publish ‘your’ episode.
Joel’s question – what about taming the ‘squirrel brain’
  • What is the squirrel brain – uncertainty about what to do
  • There is no ABSOLUTE priority list
  • Backlog management is the key to managing the squirrel
  • Back to the priority list – one, three, or more things in a day
  • If you typically don’t get through your list, that’s a different problem
What about this squirrel?
  • A big list is from the squirrel
  • What gets on my task list today? Let’s tame that squirrel
  • The to-do list invites the squirrel
    • First thing, it engages our brain’s creativity, brainstorming
    • Second – it engages our brain’s sense of urgency
    • Be careful about asking your brain this question
    • It leads to acting like Scrat from Ice Age
OK, what’s the suggestion – no to-do list, but a running backlog
  • Emphasis on ‘running’ backlog
  • Backlog – organized list of Everything – it’s a big list
  • Organized list – organization is a key, cause it’s a lot of stuff
  • Organization is the difference between a backlog and a pile
    • Pile – you can only deal with individual units or the whole set
    • Organize so that there are intermediate levels/groups
  • Emergent – emergence and refinement
  • Backlog is the state of the art for managing large lists
Reasons for a backlog
  • Reason one for a backlog – You have more to do than anybody could get done
  • Reason two – track the things you don’t want to do now
    • Decision to postpone
    • Backlog stores information that you don’t want to deal with now – parking lot
  • Reason three – you can’t trust your brain
Properties of a backlog
  • One – easy to get things on it
  • Two – highly visible and accessible from everywhere
  • Three – no ability to capture your attention
  • Four – it hides things you don’t want to see now
  • Five – easy, powerful search
  • Six – categorization, ‘durable’ areas of similarity – contexts
  • Seven – items can Live in more than one context at the same time
  • Eight – Velcro holds everything
  • Nine – Needs an inbox
  • Ten – Backlog cannot be publicly accessible – your email client is right out
Bonus properties
  • Bonus property – a way to link items to each other
  • Bonus property – holding or pointing to work items
  • Bonus property – reminders
Using a backlog – Workflows
  • A backlog is fluid, adaptable
  • A backlog is defined by interactions and organizational mechanisms
  • I live in my backlog
    • My backlog is front and center in my work
    • Multiple Contexts – some about ‘Now’
  • Constantly Updating with new information – capture
  • Refining the backlog
    • Why refine – capture more information
    • Primary purpose of a backlog is for items to evolve
    • Refine thoughtfully, on a schedule, capture what you’re learning
    • Workflow – refinement is a regular procedure
    • Don’t refine too much too early
    • Refine things that are near, not on the horizon
  • Review of the three things
Backlog – other issues
  • Backlog Holds tasks – a task is never completely defined until its done
  • A backlog must have multiple contexts
  • Multiple ways to organize things – not a static list (so probably not inyour CRM)
  • What about collaborative stuff?
    • It has to be personal – your thinking and your organization – emergent organization
    • Impersonal is the fundamental challenge of group information management systems


I think we are all victims of the squirrel from time to time. The best way to tame it is to be careful about how we build our task list. The typical To-do list question “What do I need to do today?” is heavy-duty Squirrel fodder. Instead, develop your daily task list from your well-managed backlog. I cover properties of a backlog and it’s toolset, along with workflows that help you keep it under control. It’ll help harness the Squirrel.