THE INC. LIFE

Looking for a Life Hack? Try Time Travel

Forgetful? Absent-Minded? Scatterbrained? Send yourself guidance from the past.

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BY Mike Bechtel - 16 Feb 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

May 1994

High School. Senior Year. Morgan Park Academy's Awards Night.
I'm hoping to win "most likely to succeed".
I actually win "most likely to lose my own head if given the chance."
The latter draws considerably more applause.

I used to be legendarily absent-minded. Friends would try to soothe me by arguing that this was in fact a veiled compliment: "Bright folks are often forgetful!" They'd graciously say. (e.g., The tale that Albert Einstein, lost in deep thought, would regularly leave the house in the morning having forgotten to put on his pants.)

The truth was far less flattering: My "award" was built on the back of two lost pairs of prescription eyeglasses, two missing TI-85 calculators (think 1992 iPhone), and roughly 300 AWOL pencils, homework assignments, and textbooks.

 

Sep 1997

At Notre Dame, I went from bad to worse. Piles of books, laundry, and unfulfilled obligations. My dorm-mates drew straws to determine who'd be fated to be Mr. Disorganized's bunk-mate; the loser implicitly sentenced with having to ask me if I'd remembered my keys and wallet every time we went out.

 

Jul 2000

My best man Kevin gives a wonderful, elevating speech at my wedding. The crowd-favorite, though: A classic Mike Bechtel story about my absentmindedly putting on a t-shirt inside-out and backwards after a pool party.

Scatterbrain had become my defining personal brand.

 

Aug 2003

And now it was threatening my professional reputation, too. My Annual Performance Review from this era at Accenture (yup: Still have the .PDF scan) suggests I was "bright, creative, and driven to add value", but "not yet a natural business operator." Consulting jargon for something I had long since become resigned to: I could be counted on for off-the-cuff cleverness, but not future-facing follow-through.

 

Apr 2006

New web site called YouTube, and I'm watching an educational video about two memory centers in the brain: Retrospective Memory, and Prospective Memory.

Retrospective Memory is the kind of memory that recalls the vivid past. The ability to tell rich stories about long-ago moments as if they happened just yesterday. Great storytelling juju.

Prospective memory, on the other hand, involves remembering to perform a planned action or recall a planned intention at some future point in time. Remembering to feed the dog, pick up the kids, or proofread the client presentation.

I had the sudden realization that the universe had gifted me with a turbo-charged retrospective memory at the expense of an impoverished prospective memory. The old language of "absentmindedness" gave way to a more useful analogy:

Giant Hard Drive, Limited RAM.

 

Dec 2010

My alma mater's new head football coach is giving an introductory press conference on ESPN about a talent development model he uses called the "Four Stages of Competence".

The basic idea is this: For any given task or capability (e.g., catching footballs) we are somewhere between level 1 and level 4.

1. Unconscious Incompetence: We stink at catching footballs, and we don't even realize it.

2. Conscious Incompetence: We still stink, but at least we're aware of it and want to improve.

3. Conscious Competence: We're good at catching footballs, but it takes commitment, concentration, and support.

4. Unconscious Competence: We're great at catching footballs, and we don't even have to think about it. We're naturals.

And right there watching SportsCenter, I had a revelation. I'm not fated to being a scatterbrain any more than this new coach's butterfingered freshmen are fated to drop footballs. In fact, I was going to commit to climbing from "2" to "3" by willfully developing myself into a consciously competent organizer.

<cue the training montage music>

Strategy:

Clear and simple: Death to scatterbrain. I was committed to putting that narrative to rest. I was going to become competent at follow-through come hell or high water.

Process:

I realized that my poor ability to remember "next" might be solved through a process I've lightheartedly come to call "time travel".

Specifically, I could design a process where "current me" could bark orders across time to "future me". Armed with "past me's" prompts, "future me" would have a much better guide as to what to do next.

This required that I get into an entirely new, and initially awkward, habit: Capturing personal action items all the time, everywhere. Breaking the cadence of an otherwise natural personal or professional conversation to jot down little notes for my future self. If you've ever seen the Christopher Nolan movie Memento, you get the picture.

Technology:

David Allen's book "Getting Things Done" helped me realize that I needed to have a reliable system for storing all of my future "marching orders" in one fail-safe place. Clearly, little yellow sticky notes weren't a terribly robust solution, so I tried about a half dozen "task/reminder" apps: Evernote, Remember the Milk, Microsoft Outlook tasks, and Omnifocus, among others. I ultimately settled on a spartan little app called Toodledo.

Every task-list has "due dates", but the game changer for me was the concept of a "start date": The ability to hide my future obligations away so that my focus could be entirely on today's actionable tasks. By hiding all tasks with future start dates, I'm spared the soul-crushing weight of my 1,100 to-do's. No thinking about corporate tax documents until 1/25. No worrying about renegotiating the office lease until 3/1. Not even considering the Wyoming vacation until my youngest turns 8.

By providing myself these just-in-time "time-capsules", I'm able to do what I'm already a "Level 4" at: Focusing on the here and now.

<cue the victory montage music>

 

Aug 2013

My business partner Mike is now introducing me to prospective clients as "a ringleader", his parlance for a details guy with a mind for operational excellence and follow-through. Me?

 

Mar 2015

My client refers to me, in a celebratory post-project email to her boss, as "being very put-together and on top of things." Me??

 

Jul 2016

I create a to-do to write a magazine article about my burgeoning zero-to-hero journey from scatterbrain to "on the ball". I set a start-date of 2/1/2017.

 

Dec 2016

My buddy Patrick celebrates my being eerily on point with respect to issuing proactive early birthday wishes on Facebook. Me???

 

Feb 1, 2017

Helpful reminder from "July me" appears, suggesting I get cracking on this article.

 

Today (Feb 14, 2017)

I'll wrap up by sincerely encouraging you to:

1. Set goals. Big and small, profound and profane. Live your live intentionally.

2. Write them down to memorialize them and make them concrete. Mementos.

3. Send these as time-capsules to your future self to help that busy old codger remember what matters most. Case in point: I'm off to buy Valentine's Day flowers for my wife and daughter per the sage, just-in-time prompting of "2011 me".

That young fella's always looking out for me.