Today, I’d like to take a moment to introduce my concept of the “External Brain.” It was an idea that I had developed a number of years ago, inspired by the Evernote application, which I solidified when I presented my presentation to the TEDxGeorgetown board in 2011. For a draft copy of my presentation use this link. Let’s start to break this down.
My Early Thoughts
In starting to formulate the concept behind the External Brain, I focused in on the topic of productivity and the Internet. For me, one of the biggest detriments to my productivity has always been the distraction offered by tasks which are important, but not urgent, or worse, urgent, but not important. What does this mean? Well, I’ve been a fan of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habit’s of Highly Effective People for a number of years. The book is as it’s titled, a description of the seven habits that successful people have developed. Habit #3 concerns itself with effective time management and it’s in this section that Covey presents us with a four quadrant time management model that breaks up tasks in terms of what’s important and urgent. According to Covey, the tasks that are of the greatest detriment to me are those tasks in quadrants II and III. What this basically comes down to on some level are communications and opportunities. Usually a communication can wait for a response and an opportunity can be pursued later. The focus should be on what is important and urgent. If we connect this to the Internet, we realize that what the Internet has really done is exacerbated this productivity problem. The Internet is a source of seemingly limitless communications in the forms of notifications, instant messages, social networking sites, and, of course, e-mails. It is also a source of an infinite number of opportunities to network, grow, and improve. My first major revelation was that the tool that is the Internet and is meant to improve are productivity has actually impaired it. The net effect is negative an overwhelming number of people.
The Memory Free-Up of Our Generation, The Internet, Design, and PRI
My next step was to take a look at our memory. In the study of psychology, it’s been accepted that the human brain has infinite storage for long-term memory, but of course that memory is not always quickly accessible. Our short-term memory is much more easily accessible and the memory we need in order to be productive and creative. That being said the Internet does now store a lot of the information that people used to memorize. For example, people used to memorize phone numbers. Most people only know their own number nowadays if that. People used to memorize addresses, but, of course, now Google Maps and GPS devices are what we rely on for that information. For me it would seem then, that the Internet has taken a great burden off of us in the form of a storage device. So then the question that comes up is whether or not the Internet then is a good thing or bad thing. Is it a detriment to productivity or an invaluable tool? This is another circumstance in which I’ve been influenced by Merlin Mann. I think that when the Internet first became widely adopted, people came up with some very elaborate solutions to simplify our lives and improve our productivity, but in reality ended up having the opposite effect. Simplicity and transparency are the qualities of tools that help you to be your most productive. We over-thought the Internet. We ended up being in one of those situations were we weren’t sure how to properly use it to our full benefit. I view the productivity return on the Internet (“PRI”) as following the path of a cubic function. The Internet becomes widely adopted and we see increases in productivity. A few years later, we see staggering returns or for many people a fall in “PRI” and then there’s the final shift in the cubic function. The trend indicates that it’s really only been recently that we’ve started to see the real benefits of the Internet. There is a new emphasis on designing the Internet around how we think in order to reap the greatest use from the Internet and we see this from the e-mail clients we use to the social networks we use. I see this in the new Outlook e-mail by Microsoft and the strides in professional networking made by Linkedin.
The External Brain
The concept for the External Brain really came from Evernote. Evernote is one of those applications that I can’t say enough about. It just makes life easier. It is the quintessential note-taking application that has a solution for every problem and the best part of it is that it’s everywhere. It’s on every computer and device that I use so I always have my data and my notes accessible. That was the aim of Evernote when it first came onto the note-taking app scene. Evernote was meant to be your External Brain. You would throw anything you wanted to remember later into Evernote and you could rest assured that you could pull it up instantaneously. The general idea behind External Brain is to use the Internet as a repository for everything you don’t need to be concerned with right now. It’s easily accessible, ubiquitous, cumulative, and has a seemingly unlimited amount of storage. It eliminates the need to memorize, worry, or be concerned with irrelevant information. One of the major tenant behind productivity is to always be focused on the task at hand and the External Brain is methodology that can allow you to accomplish that.
Getting Things Done and Ubiquitous Capture
Getting Things Done, by David Allen is one of those books that has something to offer everyone. For me the major takeaway, is the idea of ubiquitous capture. Ubiquitous capture entails putting everything that isn’t either important or urgent into once centralized location that you can go back to at a later time and then process. The External Brain, on the Internet, is one location for all of these things. It just makes sense. Evernote is one of those applications that you can use as a medium, but the External Brain is really a concept that can be implemented with any number of tools. It’s already something that’s taking on ground. When you think about the computers we’re carrying in our pockets and the innovations of tomorrow, such as Google Glass, we’re going to see this concept implementing the External Brain on a much grander scale, but right now when you pair it up with medium, such as Evernote, and a methodology, such as GTD, you can see yourself becoming more productive and creative when you focus on those key tasks in your life.