Write it down!

by | Aug 20, 2012 | Blog | 5 comments

“It’s in my head.”

“It’s all up there.” (Finger points to head.)

“I’ve thought lots about it. I can’t remember it right now, but it will come to me again.”

Sound familiar? Over the past week, I’ve heard these three statements and similar refrains multiple times.

But can we bet on it? Are we really able to pull that bit of information back into our working memory on command at the exact moment we need it? Don’t count on it.

After I was stranded in a client’s lobby when the receptionist didn’t write down instructions to call a different individual once I arrived and had totally forgotten, I became even further committed to the power of writing things down…whether on paper or in a smartphone, a computer or some other device.

We take a big risk relying on our brains, even for a few second, minutes or hours, when the “it” is vital information, instructions or ideas. This is especially pertinent when we want ourselves or others to add missing links, take action or help implement initiatives.

Even when we’re on the top of our game, stuff happens. The phone rings, the computer beeps with a new email message, or another idea rushes in, and—poof—the thoughts we were processing in our tiny prefrontal cortex—often referred to as the brain’s executive function—vanish.

And face it. We’re often also working under less than ideal conditions. We’re multi-tasking, we’re stressed about a project, deadline or personal situation or we’re sleep deprived—or all three. And as a result, we tax our prefrontal cortex and have a hard time focusing.

In fact, in the FLIP habits survey  that looks at the extent to which managers and project leaders are focusing, listening, involving and personalizing their messages, a number of respondents said that need to develop their focusing skills. (For more about this, check out FLIP with feeling or duty? And if you’re a manager or project leader and haven’t taken the survey yet, please take the survey before the September 5 deadline. Please share with others, too.)

So how to capture thoughts before they flee? Write them down!

Writing things down has multiple benefits. For example, by putting your thoughts on paper, on a mobile device or in your computer, you’re able to:

  • Start to get greater clarity for yourself about whatever you’ve captured on paper or electronically.
  • Have clearer, more concrete ideas or instructions to share with others.
  • Free up brain space to think about other things.

Even better, you now have a more structured way to work, including collaborating with others. You also can better leverage your ideas and get help implementing your initiatives.

Your regular delegating improves too when you create processes around the tasks or instructions you’ve defined. You and others can repeat the steps with predictable outcomes, which saves time and mental energy.

A number of my clients, especially those who value their creativity, resist doing “brain dumps.” They say they prefer keeping everything in their heads, letting ideas percolate and schedules run their course. But I wonder how many ideas evaporate and to-do lists expire?

And how can their co-workers support them if they don’t have anything tangible to work with?

Every brain is unique so we need to adopt a system that works for us. For example, my system of choice is sticky notes. Besides my office, I keep a pad in the car, my briefcase and in every room of the house. Others I work with use the recording feature on their smartphone or the notes section. Regardless, we have adopted habits to keep track of things. (However, I confess I still fall off the wagon writing down detailed schedules….)

Let’s face it. We work and live in a VUCA world—volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity reign.

We don’t have endless hours and simple tasks like our ancestors before us who sat around the campfire telling stories that would pass from generation to generation. We need to write things down!

So if you’re a manager or team leader, please start by writing down your thoughts about how you focus, listen, involve and personalize in a VUCA world in the FLIP habits survey by Wednesday, September 5. 

Thank you!


  1. Deb Nystrom

    I’m enjoying your FLIP series, Liz!

    I’m finding my notepads (iPad and iPhone) sent to email (Google search means I can find key words in my email) AND my electronic calendar and social (my Facebook timeline) help me find most key conversations that may have happened months, even years ago.

    Backing up is critical then. As in using Social Safe for Facebook (business pages included) and especially one of many secure cloud systems plus a 1 Terabit back up drive for the home computer. That said, I resonated with the concept of letting ideas percolate. Sometimes that is about introverted decision making and Jung’s preferences come to mind.

    Perhaps a series of deliberately raggedy conversation will allow for the freedom of noodling on ideas? It may be about idea sharing guidelines, in that case. Using your four FLIPs over a series of conversations, days, weeks, even years (think of friends getting together once a year, and how things progress), could be powerful!

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Glad you’re enjoying the FLIP series, Deb. And thanks for your thoughtful comments. In our fast-paced VUCA world, we’re in constant beta mode. So it’s important to to think about our own ideas percolating (or marinating, which may resonate with more people these days). Plus we do want to share ideas with others so we can work together on the worthwhile ones to iterate and develop the “winning” ideas more fully.

  3. Meredith Eisenberg

    I’m a reformed “It is all in my head person”. I’ve had some sort of task planner since I was 12 – but only recently did I start seriously using a project management system for life/work (yes, I keep my grocery lists and my daughter’s homework in there). The thing that makes it work (where others haven’t is the excellent iphone app and the fact that it is just plain easy to use. I also discovered a great app for the iphone that scans easily so I can upload all the random bits of paper too…

    I converted one of my biggest clients and how her business is running more smoothly too. Good stuff…

  4. Ian Blei

    Love this, Liz! If I may share a visual/illustration of your point from my book, “Kind Ambition – practical steps to achieve success without losing your soul,” it may be helpful for your readers: “our thoughts are like snowflakes swirling in a snow globe. When we write them down, it’s like plucking each one from the swirl and setting it in its own place. We reduce the blinding nature of the snowstorm, retain the thought for later retrieval, and open up disk space in our brains.” excerpt from “Kind Ambition” http://www.kind-ambition.com/ Likewise, sometimes we need to let those snowflakes settle, and stop shaking the darn snow globe for a minute. 🙂

  5. Liz Guthridge

    Meredith and Ian, thanks so much for your comments! I love the powerful visual of the snowflakes in the snow globe.

    So as the ground is shaking below us in our VUCA world and our thoughts are swirling like snowflakes, we need to pause often to regain our footing. We also need to reflect about how we can stay grounded as we lean forward for our next move. And last but not least, we need to write down our thoughts.

    Thanks all!

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