The External Brain

The 2017 Self-Care Project: Entry #9

Achim is a pretty techy guy. I nerd-brag about what a good modern handyman he is. He fixes our broken screens himself, even took apart a ricemilk soaked laptop and was able to revive it. He always knows about new geeky things well before I do and he’s pretty good at optimising tech to make life easier.

But for the last year or so his top brain organising tool has been a little paper notebook which he has dubbed his “external brain”. I know a lot of people consider their phone a kind of extension of their “brain”, but the thing is that while phones are awesome tools they are also pretty fantastic playthings. Even if you don’t use your phone for fun stuff, I think they are just inherently distracting, what with all the notifications and this app linked to that one connected to this service and that social media platform, etc. Altogether, it just doesn’t lend itself well to calm, collected, single focused thought.

Besides that, there is something to the processing that happens in the act of just writing something down with your actual hand on actual paper. It feels more linear and finite.

This is all to say, in the midst of this crazy winter, Achim came home with an “external brain” for me too. A lovely little turquoise notebook, with a sunshine yellow penholder that he bought separately and attached with my colour preferences in mind. Sweet right?

Buttttttttt as much as I agreed it was a great idea, I have a weird relationship with notebooks. I get enormous pleasure from a pretty little book, but I also feel a weird pressure to not uglify it with all my random scribblings. It always seems like a pretty notebook should be full of pretty things, both aesthetically and conceptually. So inevitably, I end up abandoning it because neat, tidy, focused, orderly, always pleasing thoughts are just plain not reality.

So when I got this pretty new notebook, I felt both delighted and a mild panic and gnawing discomfort. It took me a week to write anything in it at all. Achim kept asking me if I’d used it yet every day, and I just kept not “getting around to it”.

Finally, he asked me why I wasn’t using it and I thought about it and told him how I always mess books up and that the task of creating an external system on those blank pages for the complex chaos that is my mind seemed like a giant ordeal. And we had a little talk about that and he showed me how he uses his. And it was really quite simple, and it turned out, it worked pretty well. I’ve been happily using my external brain for about three weeks now, most days, and I find it very helpful, both practically speaking, and emotionally, it is a really good thing for my stress.

It’s an emptying of the brain, where the contents will be kept safe from the big bad forgetting monster who loves to eat all precious and important thoughts while we are distracted.

So here is how it works: Every day or so (no pressure if we miss a day), we date it and just write down what’s on our minds. Anything pinging around in there, any thought that feels like it needs to be remembered. Appointments, to dos, general concerns. It’s an emptying of the brain, where the contents will be kept safe from the big bad forgetting monster who loves to eat all precious and important thoughts while we are distracted.

For me, the pure, distraction free act of using the book helps me really get everything out of my wild and wily little head. When I am done, I feel like I can breath a sigh of relief, close the book, and feel calmer as I sit down to lose myself in my work or kids for an hour or two, with the knowledge that when I’m ready, I can come back and take a look and nothing will have been devoured by the monster.


Lately I’ve added another step sometimes, where I go through and for each thing on my mind, I write down one small, concrete step I can take to get that thing, that thought behind me, taken care of and off my mind. It might be as simple as asking Achim if he knows where something is, or looking up a phone number online and writing it down. I often have the temptation to list more than just the first step, but this is not a good idea! Sometimes, 2 or 3 steps are okay, but I find that any more than that gets complicated and the task starts to feel daunting again.

Whenever I start to feel like life is creeping up on me, like I’ve been in my own world too long and am probably neglecting my responsibilities, I remember, ah, yes. My external brain. And I go get it and skim through the last few entries, take stock of what I’ve done, what needs to be done and everything feels much more under control.

So. Paper notebook external brain for the win! And my husband the sage does it again. 🙂


2 thoughts on “The External Brain

  1. Betsy

    I also love pretty little bound journals, sketchbooks, notebooks, etc. And I have also been reluctant to “mess them up”. I know that writing things down sort of “cements” things into my brain and know that it is of help to me. I guess I need to sort of take the plunge, too! Here’s to getting some thoughts on paper…
    Betsy in the very gray and very rainy and windy Seattle

  2. Pingback: On wanting both - Elena's Treehouse

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