Out of Sight, Out of Mind Can Be Good for Productivity

Out of sight, out of mind.

This phrase is usually applied to people or problems, but it can apply to our information and workflow, as well. If we use it properly, it can even be a good thing for productivity. What I mean is that if we could find a way to put potentially interrupting tasks, priorities, and information away somewhere that we know we can find it later, it will clear up our current attention and allow us to focus where we want to in the moment. For the system to work, we’ll also have to be able to trust that it won’t let us lose those reminders. With the Attention Compass, we have all of that covered.

Keeping things on our mind doesn’t work

We often think of “out of sight, out of mind” as a trick to help us deal with unpleasantness.

Maybe you get shot down when asking for a date and then don’t see that person again – “Oh, well. Out of sight, out of mind!” Or, maybe we use it as an excuse for overlooking something at work or with your family – “Oh, sorry. Out of sight, out of mind! I’ll get right on that!”

As a response to losing track of things, we are constantly trying to keep them “on our mind.” But, our minds have limited capacity for such things and we will ultimately fail using this strategy. As we approach our capacity limit, we begin to feel busyness or stress as our brains try to signal capacity problems. Once our capacity is exceeded, we just start losing things – they fall out of mind, potentially never to be thought about again. Maybe they fall back in at some later point, maybe not. The typical crutch is to try to keep things where we can see them (sticky notes on our monitor bezel is an example that I see far too often). However, since this is a physical representation, it is limited. There are only so many things we can keep track of visually.

Also, what is going to happen when they finally engineer the bezel away from monitors?

Out of mind should mean fewer interruptions

So, I like to make the point that “out of mind” is a good thing, but only if you do it right.

Out of mind means we’re not using up mental space for things that we can’t currently deal with. This is a good thing. But we need a place for those things so we don’t lose track of them forever. As I’ve studied attention and task management, I’ve found that the place we’re looking for needs to have certain properties and capabilities to allow us to use the Attention Compass and process our workflow. If you want more information about that system, you are welcome to check out how I have mastered my personal attention and taught dozens of other people to do the same here.

One of our primary concerns is that the place we store information to get it “out of mind” is not also an interruption for us. It should be a place that we habitually check, but it shouldn’t ping or otherwise alert us when we’re in the middle of other work. An example of a system that doesn’t work well for this purpose is another crutch I see people frequently use – reminder systems. This could include calendars, todo list apps, or anything else that ‘pushes’ notifications to the user to get them to act. This push is something that immediately captures our attention, either visually or audibly.

Unfortunately, push notifications have two typical problems:

  1. They present an interruption that disturbs us from our work.
  2. They don’t have a shelf life. What I mean is that you normally can’t store them up or rely on them to come back when you need them.

As an example, even Evernote’s visual notifications aren’t helpful as a reminder tool. They pop up in the corner of the monitor, alerting you, but they only stay up for a few seconds and then disappear. If you aren’t at your computer to see them, they will also fail to alert you. Apps with an audible alarm can solve this problem because they typically don’t shut off until you make them. Unfortunately, that annoyance often means that we turn them off before we are ready actually to take action on the reminder.

Snooze button, anyone?

The proper time and place for reminders

So, instead of trying to make our reminders more and more precise and annoying (smartwatches, really?!?), we need to build habits around checking our place for reminders.

This is why the Attention Compass includes workflows – so we build the capability and habit of checking. Anything that needs our attention should quietly go into the same basket without interrupting our current attention. When we are ready, and only when we are ready, that basket will be processed and the tasks will be sorted based on priority and added to a future work block. Only then can we successfully put things “out of mind” while not losing track of them.