Get rid of Chronic Forgetfulness with Zachary Sexton

Zachary Sexton

In last week’s blog post, I shared a new productivity system I’ve been trying out for a while, the Personal Kanban, which has dramatically changed the way I approach work and life. I’ve been introduced to this system by one of my productivity super heroes, Zachary Sexton, formerly host of the Asian Efficiency podcast. He graciously accepted to come over this week and share a bit more about Personal Kanban and some of his best productivity advices. Here’s the transcript of this exciting interview!

Can you introduce yourself and your background, your why and how you are living it at the moment?

“I am a writer, podcaster, teacher, meditator, skier and non-recovering business, caffeine and productivity junkie. I live in Austin, TX with my fiancée Nikida and two dogs, Gus and Morty.”

Zack graduated college in 2009 with a degree dual degree in Business and Economics. He then spent a year in Washington DC working as a Senate aide. He also taught math in Denver Public Schools for 2 years. He eventually burned out. Took a year to explore ‘who am I’ question. This soul-searching led him to the conclusion that he was a teacher. He discovered productivity and decided to teach that. He hosted the Asian Efficiency podcast to later start his own podcast and coaching business. 

What inspired you to create a business around productivity?

“I love to teach. I love to share the exciting tools, systems and resources that I’ve learned about over the years. And I feel like I’m teaching what I need to learn the most. 

I used to be a disorganized all over the place person. Once I figured out a few tools and a few systems for myself, I realized how much more effective I could be. Sharing those ideas and concepts with small business owners is just fun for me.”

One of the ways you felt disorganized, you used to call chronic forgetfulness. What are the 3 steps you take to overcome this problem?

“The first step to overcoming my chronic forgetfulness was putting all of my appointments into my iPhone calendar app. In additions to the date, time and location, I would take the time to add notes to myself in the event description.

For example:  

David’s sister will be there. Her name is Sarah. She’s going to school in Chicago to be an architect. Offer to introduce to Uncle Mark.”

I also included multiple calendar alerts to keep me on track. Using a digital calendar was a great start to overcoming my chronic forgetfulness.  

I then started to journal as a self-reflection exercise. Reflective journaling started a habit of writing notes. Those notes expanded to the point where I started to create and organize my own personal reference system.

The reference system helped with learning, review and reflection, but I still needed to improve how I prioritize my work. I would overcommit and underdeliver at jobs and with my friends and family because I didn’t have a complete picture of all of my commitments. To solve that problem I began using a to-do list manager to help keep track of the promises I made to myself and other people.

Every step involved outsourcing my memory to a different digital tool. I outsourced my appointments and events to Google Calendar. I outsourced learnings and reflection to a notes app called Evernote. I outsourced my actions and to do’s to an app called Trello.”   

Why did you choose Trello as your task management app?

“I enjoyed using it. The user interface was intuitive, visual and easy to learn. It was also free.”

Can you describe in a few words what is personal kanban and why it works as a productivity system?

“Jim Benson, the inventor of personal kanban, describes the productivity system with two rules:

  1. Visualize your work.
  2. Limit your work in progress.

These rules (and some Post-It notes) will help you understand your work. That understanding is the key to controlling it.

Zachary Sexton's Kanban Board
Post-it note kanban board from my home office

I feel like personal kanban works so well because it is highly visual — you can see at a glance what needs to get done, what you’re working on, what your priorities are, and what you’ve accomplished.”

You used to talk about getting things done a lot at Asian Efficiency. Do you incorporate part of the methodology in your current workflow? If so, what part?

“You can think about Getting Things Done (GTD) in terms of rules as well. The rules of GTD are roughly:

  1. Write down everything that has your attention.
  2. Decide what, if anything, needs to be done about the things you have written down.
  3. If the thing you wrote down is actionable, define the next action that needs to be taken.
  4. Organize your actionable tasks into lists.
  5. Review those lists on a regular basis.

David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, also speaks about how to handle non-actionable ‘stuff’ with a simple reference and calendar system. This blog post does a great job giving you a high level overview of the full GTD system.

That being said, I still 100% use GTD. I don’t see how any workflow could avoid.

I only stray from the methodology by not being as strict about writing down the next actions as David Allen recommends. I could also stand to review my lists more often that I do.”

What tip do you have to prevent information overload?

“To start, I want to redefine the question. It’s not information that overloads and overwhelms, it’s the potential meaning that comes with information.

For example, let’s say there was a letter sitting on your dining room table. In that letter was some information about a credit card you could sign up for. It takes 5 pages and 4,000 words of fine print for the credit card company describe the details of the offer. Are those 4,000 words going to overwhelm you?

Not likely. You can either choose to apply for the credit card or throw the offer in the recycle bin. No big deal.

Now let’s say another letter was sitting on your dining room table. This one has the same amount of information. 5 pages. 4,000 words. But this letter is from the IRS. It says you owe $50,000 in taxes.  Are the 4,000 words of fine print going to overwhelm you?

Damn, right!

The letter from the IRS holds more meaning for you. Thoughts of how the $50,000 debt will affect your future will be swimming around your mind.

So information overwhelm comes from the potential meaning the information holds, not information itself.

Overwhelm also comes from uncertainty. You’ll likely start ruminating about all the different ways the IRS debt letter could play out.  Because of the meaning and uncertainty, you are going to be giving a lot of mental energy to those 4,000 words. That worry is not likely to go away until the IRS debt is cleared.

So, again, it’s not the information, it’s the repetitive thinking about the meaning and uncertainty that come with the information that causes the overwhelm.

Hopefully you don’t have a letter from the IRS sitting on your dining room table. But it’s not hard to think of smaller examples of uncertainty and meaning that cause stress.”

Have you ever stayed up all night tossing and turning thinking about an incomplete project?

“Does the need to check off random to-dos pop into your mind at less than opportune times? … like while driving 60 mph on the highway or just as you sit down for dinner with your family?

If so, you’ve experienced the Zeigarnik Effect.

The Zeigarnik Effect gets its name from experiments done in 1927 by Soviet Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. The studies showed that we humans remember incomplete and interrupted tasks best.

Bluma first made this observation watching servers remember detailed meal orders at a restaurant only as long as the order was in process. As soon as patron’s paid their bill, the orders would fade from the waiter’s memory.

The Zeigarnik Effect shows up as cliffhangers in TV series as well as marketing messages that open incomplete loops in your mind that you become compelled to close.

  • Who will die in the next episode of Game of Thrones?
  • 16 Leaked Celebrity Photos Chris Pratt Doesn’t Want You To See

I’m sorry Chris Pratt. I have a psychological need to know what those photos are.

In marketing, entertainment, work and life, the human mind is motivated by closure. When a task is interrupted, we remain in a state of tension until it is resolved.

Unfinished work that we’ve left hanging are like cognitive itches. We’re compelled to scratch them off our mental list.

This tension is a great motivator, but has one major productivity downside.

Distracting thoughts about all our unfinished work.  

These intrusive, repetitive thoughts distract us. They stress us out. They make it hard to focus on the task at hand.

The solution?


  • Do small tasks as soon as possible.


Lack of decisiveness piles up to create overwhelm. For example, has this ever happened to you?

Someone sends you an email with a request. You read the email. Think about it. You are not sure how you respond so you move on, leaving the email in your inbox.

Let’s be conservative and say this situation happens to the average information worker 2 or 3 times a day. By then end of the week, you’ll have 10 to 15 open loops in your inbox. These are emails that you’ll re-read and mull over multiple times. The re-reading and mulling takes cognitive energy you could be using on more productive tasks. It also stress you the fuck out.  

If you want, next week you can choose to be more decisive. When you open up an email, you only have a few choices.

You can:

  • Deleted/archive it.
  • Respond to it.
  • Send it to your reference system.
  • Send it to your task management system.
  • Send it to someone else to take care of.

A nice alliteration is: Delete, Do, Defer, Delegate. I have a couple of podcasts that walk you through the decisive email system. Getting to Inbox Zero & Email Workflow

  1. Write down all of your to dos and put them in a trusted, organized system.

Writing down your tasks and projects reduces the amount of distracting thoughts you experience by giving you some closure on the tasks still left on your to-do list.

For example, when your brain reminds you:

  • “the RFP still hasn’t been sent”

you can respond.

  • “I know brain. I have the project in my Doing column. I even have a checklist for the next actions I’m going to take to get the RFP out the door by Friday.”

And your brain will be like,

  • “Nice job. You’ve given me some closure on this. I’ll probably only remind you a few more times. But it seems like you’ve got this one taken care of. I’ll be watching out for ya.”

The more of your work you get out of your head, the less your brain will feel the need to “watch out for ya” and remind you about those incomplete tasks.

If you’ve never experienced what if feels like to have all your work out of your head, it’s life changing.

The increase in focus is wonderful. The reduced stress, is even better.

The Zeigarnik Effect says we remember incomplete or interrupted tasks best. This need for completion is a powerful motivator. But it comes at a price. Distracting thoughts about unfinished work. Ironically, making focusing and finishing the work more difficult.

And I get it some of the resistance around it.

Many people avoid being decisive because they don’t want to disappoint others by saying no. But a quick no is better than a drawn out maybe. If you fall into the ‘don’t want to disappoint’ camp, I’d suggest creating templates or script for saying no nicely and using those scripts as often as you need.

Here’s one of mine:

Thank you so much for thinking of me. I’d love to help. But with my current workload, I don’t have time to give the project justice. Have you considered asking [name] for his input?

Other people have a hard time being decisive because they don’t have a either a:

  • complete list of current obligations
  • location for their reference material to live

Without this, it is hard to know if you have the bandwidth to commit to the different opportunities that come your way.

To solve this problem, I’d encourage you to read or get the audiobook of Getting Things Done. Or at least read the GTD blog post I mentioned earlier.

Then find a tool you enjoy using to hold your tasks and reference material.

There are lots of great paper based examples on this site. If you want to go digital,  here is a 15 minute video that shows you how I use Trello as my visual work dashboard of. And here is how is how I organize my reference materials into Projects, Areas, Resources and Archive in Evernote and Google Drive.  

You could also take my free Kanban course. It covers this topic in much greater detail with step-by-step instructions to get your task management system up and running.”

What is a habit that you’ve successfully implemented into your life that reaps the most benefits in your personal productivity?

“If I need to remember something, I write it down or set a digital reminder.”

What is the productivity tip that you give away the most?

“Write shit down.” 

If you could recommend one book to someone who’s looking to improve their personal productivity, which one would it be and why?

“Getting Things Done by David Allen. If you find it dry or difficult to get through for whatever reason, How to Be a Productivity Ninja has the same material presented in a lighter way.

I’m also a big fan of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. GTD is a bottom up approach. 7 Habits is a top down. Both routes are effective. They work even better in combination.”


Parting word of advice?

“Write shit down and be decisive. It will lead to Productive Happiness.”

Thank you so much Zack for coming over and share your productive wisdom with us today! If you’d like to hang out with Zack, head over to zacharysexton.com! Now let me know, what part of Zack advice resonated with you the most?

Zachary SextonZack is a writer, podcaster, teacher, meditator, skier and non-recovering business, caffeine and productivity junkie.

Since launching Buckets Productivity in 2014, Zack has created trainings on business documentation, habit formation, project management and sales that have been watched by tens of 1,000s of people. He also hosts a small business productivity podcasts that has been downloaded over 100,000 times in its first year.

When he is not discovering new systems and tools to help his clients, you can find him reading, traveling or hiking around Austin, TX with his new puppy Morty.

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  1. I’ve never heard of the Zeigarnik effect before! That’s super interesting…I’m going to have to look into it.

    Is the audio version of this interview available anywhere?

    1. Yes! It is super interesting! Basically, it means that uncompleted tasks remain on top of mind until they are completed, and this effect has an impact in many areas of our lives!
      We conducted this interview via email, so there is no audio version, unfortunately!