Time hack: Create a ‘mindless’ list

Takeaway: Accumulate a list of the mindless activities you do (the laundry, cleaning, etc), and do them all at once while listening to something productive (a podcast, audiobook, TED talk, etc.) for a huge productivity boost.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 14s.

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Playing around during my Week of TED experiment, I made a wicked discovery: I could easily do mindless activities (cooking simple meals, cleaning, doing yard work, working out, etc.) while I listened to a TED talk. After the experiment ended I played around a bit more, and realized that even with podcasts, audiobooks, and phone conversations, I always had enough spare brain cycles to dedicate to something mindless and mechanical.

Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that our minds are able to process 110 ‘bits’ of information at once, and listening to a conversation (or TED talk/podcast/audiobook) takes about 60 bits of our attention. This is great news, because it means that even if you’re listening to a dense TED talk about dark matter, you still have spare brain cycles left over for something mindless while you listen.

Enter the mindless list.

Since you have so many spare brain cycles while you listen to a talk, podcast, audiobook, or something similar, you can easily tackle mindless activities while listening to something productive. That’s where the idea of a mindless list comes in. Your mindless list contains everything you need to do that you can do mindlessly (without thinking about it). A mindless contains:

  • Tasks that require a good amount of time, but little attention
  • Tasks that require no thought to complete
  • Tasks that you can lean on your habits to get done

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To create a mindless list, simply collect all of the mindless activities activities you need to do in one place (I diary them in a note on my phone), and when enough of them accumulate, do them all while listening to a podcast, audiobook, TED talk, or anything else that requires a good amount of attention that you can do passively.

My list usually includes stuff like:

  • Washing and folding the laundry
  • Sweeping the front walkway
  • Raking the yard
  • Cleaning and putting away dishes
  • Sweeping the floors
  • Putting away all of the crap on my desk

Activities like these require almost no thought, which means you can listen to something productive while doing them.

My favorite part of keeping a mindless list is how simple and effective the idea is. I often rail against multitasking on this blog, and rightfully so, because multitasking compromises your focus and attention, and ultimately your productivity.

Mindless activities are different: they require very little of your attention, but often a lot of your time. And since you can lean on your habits to get them done, you can easily do them while you consume something more meaningful and productive, whether you consume something on your phone, the radio, or the TV.

Crossing off things on your mindless list while listening to something productive feels great and lets you get more done in less time. What’s not to love?

If you can’t find a good podcast, audiobook, TED talk, or another activity to do, try flipping the equation and doing the activities mindfully. Mindfully slowing down is another great way to bring meaning to what you do and get more out of your time.

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