Consider a building with a broken window. If this window does not get repaired, other windows can break (over time, or by vandalism). In the long run, someone may break into the building, becoming a squatter.
Or a more usual situation. If some litter gets accumulated in a sidewalk or a lot, soon more litter will accumulate, until people start leaving whole bags of trash.
Mental litterSo far, so good, and you may wonder what this has to do with productivity. Quick! Pick a scrap paper and a pen, and write the first five things with a pending in your mental to-do list. I am pretty sure you came up with big, real things to do. Good! But... are you working on them? Really?
I bet you have too much mental litter, keeping you from doing your work. It won't pop out in such a list, because it is a small thing: today's grocery, an appointment, the hour of your favourite TV show has changed.
Computer analogyThe widely used analogy of brain as a computer applies in this mental litter framework. You have a fixed amount of RAM (Random Access Memory, where running programs are while doing its jobs), and when you run out, you have to use disk cache (another computer parallelism: when there is not enough RAM, what you are not doing gets moved to your hard disk until you need it again to be running). And this slows you down in your most important tasks, because there is this constant switching between litter and gold.
Freeing your mind: howYou have a lot of important tasks, and an increible amount of (non)-important, non-urgent tasks. If you are a Getting Things Done (buy on Amazon link) user, you may already know how the brain dump process when creating your Next Actions list frees you (frees your RAM from all your stuff, by putting them in your 'disk cache')... And you already know how hard it is to keep up with it.
How can you effectively get rid of all these small things in the back of your mind? The answer is easy, but hard to effectively follow: do them.
Doing it: Classify and do themThere are several options for classifying all these small tasks, depending on which type they belong to. You have to keep a clean mind, every time a small task pops out, classify it and forget.
1. Reminders: Keep a file in your main computer, or a piece of paper nearby where you can write down all your personal reminders (i.e. don't turn on the oven while the dryer is on, pick up books from bookstore).
2. Appointments: Easy, as agendas are for this. Use your favourite agenda tool, and put whatever is in your mind there.
3. Tasks: As in the reminders, keep a tasks file (i.e. write that post on broken windows).
And there are several options about doing them1. Daily: Set each day a fixed amount of time (1 hour, 1.5 hours) to work on all these small undertakings. Order should not be important, as they are small tasks. Non urgent tasks have no priorities. You don't need to finish each one, just work for a fixed amount of time in them and then go on with another thing.
2. Weekly: You need to set at least one half-day for them (Sunday afternoon, for instance), and keep working on them for all that time span. It is somewhat harder, and maybe it is better to set one full day and work a little more relaxed on them.
3. Monthly: I only recommend this if your lists are really small. If they are not, forget about doing a monthly sweep.
Love thy tools to increase your productivity
Procrastination: Causes and cures
What the 'broken windows theory' has to say about productivity
Time management systems
Love thy tools to maximize your productivity