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My extended brain

We are all busier than we have ever been. We are being asked to produce greater results with fewer resources. We are also required to manage more complexity, more tasks and responsibilities, and more relationships. I believe that this is a trend that will continue long into the future.

Part of what got me thinking about this is Dunbar’s number. Dunbar’s research proves that human beings can manage somewhere between 100 and 225 relationships, but most people use 150 relationships as the number. This is the number of relationships you can keep up, not the number of people you know (and surely not the number of connections you have on LinkedIn).

But Dunbar’s number is based on what the human being is capable of without any help. We aren’t limited by the substrate that is the human brain. We have a silicon extension of the human substrate that radically increases what we can manage. That silicon provides us an extended brain.

Here are the tools that make up my extended brain.

Omnifocus: the ultimate in capture and organize

Omnifocus is a critical component of my extended brain. It’s a task management tool that allows you to follow David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology (collect, process, organize, review and do). If you aren’t familiar with David Allen’s methodology, it’s worth checking out.

What makes Omnifocus work for me is that it’s one place where I can do each of the GTD steps, beginning with capture. Because I always have Omnifocus with me, either on the laptop, the iPad, or the iPhone, I am always able to capture. This means capturing commitments that I make, ideas about the projects I am working on, ideas for blog posts, and all kinds of miscellaneous to-do’s that show up.

One of the benefits of GTD is not having to relying on your own brain to remember everything you need to remember. It takes a lot of psychic RAM, and it is stressful.

The part of my extended brain that is Omnifocus allows me to dump everything into an electronic inbox, process it to decide what it means, organize it so that I can plan my work, and review that work weekly. For me, it’s the killer app.

(This is also how you get to inbox zero)

Evernote: my outboard brain

I am surprised at how many people don’t know about Evernote. If you aren’t using it, you are really missing out.

Evernote is simply an electronic notebook. But it’s so much more than that. You can create notebooks based on subject. You can create as many notebooks as you need (fewer is better), and you can access them through the Internet. More still, you can keep a sync’d copy of notes on your computer—and any other device you may happen to own.

Evernote also allows you to tag notes. This flexibility allows you to search for notes in all kinds of different ways. You might have a notebook called Receipts for all the receipts you accumulate and a separate notebook for other financial documents. Using a tag called “2011 taxes” lets you find notes in both notebooks.

I keep everything in Evernote, including meeting notes, conversation logs, ideas, half-written blog posts, and all kinds of records. All I have to do is type what I am trying to find in the search bar, and Evernote brings it straight back to me.

(Add a Fujitsu ScanSnap, and you are very quickly paperless.)

Highrise: keeping track of relationships

Let’s go back to Dunbar. If you have a lot of relationships to manage, and we’ve already agreed that you do, then you need a relationship manager to track those relationships. I use 37 Signals’ Highrise.

Highrise is web-based, so I always have it with me on either the laptop or the iPad. But that’s not always necessary. I can forward emails directly into Highrise from Mail.app, so I don’t have to log into Highrise to update a record.

Highrise tracks my conversations, my notes, my scheduled follow-ups, and the contact’s page has a tab for their LinkedIn and their Twitter accounts, allowing me to easily keep track of changes on their profile and see what they are tweeting. Highrise also allows you track deals, even though it really isn’t a traditional customer relationship management software, and it really isn’t sales force automation.

These are the software tools that I use to supplement my limited hardware. It’s good to pick a few tools and really learn how to use them at a very high level so that you can maximize the value that they produce for you.

What do you use to extend your brain?

Questions

What limitations do you have that can be overcome with hardware and software tools?

Have your personal and business lives grown more complex, with more commitments and more to remember?

What are the tools that you use to extend your brain?

Which tools have you learned to use well enough so that to really capture the value of the tool?


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