A lamp in the sand

The Cognitive Task List

In his book Cognitive Productivity with MacOS, Luc Beaudoin introduces the notion of the Cognitive Task List:

“Moreover, as much as we love our Macs, we can’t spend all of our time on them. We need to exercise, run errands, commute, attend events, etc. In order to make optimal use of these potentially stultifying periods of time, it helps to treat them as thinking opportunities. Without adequate preparation, however, it is not always easy to select the right problem to think about while away from our favourite operating system.

[also quoted here on Luc’s blog]

The idea is to use time where we are engaged in less mentally taxing tasks – for instance, exercising, gardening, driving, walking, shopping, etc. – as “thinking” time. The cognitive thinking task list is intended to be a prompt for what we might want to think about during this time.

I once used a note entitled “CTL” as my list but with the advent of the current crop of linked note taking/personal knowledge managers, I now use a system of tagged ideas that are returned to me through a database-style look-up of my notes. The result gives me a list of all the ideas that were once floating around in my head that are now floating around in my notes. From this list I can then pick an idea or two to think about on a run or a walk. ‘Thinking’ needs to be a more active task than it seems however. I want the results of my thoughts – the major ones, at least – to be captured as well, otherwise the gestation of ideas will not happen. So I dictate new journal notes, listing the idea and my thoughts about it while I am doing my activity. Sometimes this leads to a stop and start cadence in the activity, but I have learned to work around that. It is far more important to me to get new thoughts into my notes so that ideas have room to either develop or be abandoned. This is what I call an Idea Machine. What is really good about the approach is that it both frees cognitive burden while also magnifying it at appropriate times.