Raymond's Weblog^

Ways To Get More Brainspace

At the risk of overgeneralising, my biggest constraint is cognition. I think more brainspace would get me more of everything else I want.

So I generally try to find ways to get more. Here are some that have worked very well for me. They are all highly recommended.

Health warning: The point of more brainspace is not to max out your productivity. It is generally good to be more productive, but you will get better things done if you keep slack and absorb the fact that pain is not the unit of effort. I believe posts like those two have both made me more productive and given me a more rich and fulfilling life.

To do lists

I hate hate hate keeping track of all the things I’m meant to be doing at some point. It’s so bad relying on your brain to randomly remind you that you need to finish some code, reply to a message, wish someone a happy birthday, and do your laundry, plus you need to fill in a form.

So I have a notion doc called ‘Things To Do’ with a bunch of checkboxes. It’s very lightweight - when I have something to do, I put it down, and then I don’t have to worry about forgetting.

Sometimes the list splits into short-term and long-term. Sometimes I’ll put in a checkbox and then add in all the relevant links below so that I can stop thinking about it and close the damn tabs. Sometimes it’ll be something really abstract like ‘think hard about that thing’.

Once it’s there, I know I’ll check on it again soon. Whenever I have some lingering sense that I’m forgetting something I need to do, I check the list.

If you want to try this, just get the simplest interface you like that will give you checkboxes and that you can leave open (for me this was notion), and then making a checkbox for every message you need to reply to, and every tab cluttering your computer that you know you’re not going to come back to for a little while. It’s very liberating.


Anki is a program which automates spaced repetition of flashcards. I use it for poems, basic mathematics, and languages.

Part of what I get is a system that portions out the new things to learn into short daily batches, and part of what I get is correctly-spaced topups so that I never forget things.

The upshot is that for a fixed daily investment (say, 10 minutes) I can just get a slowly growing pool of foundational knowledge that’s reliable.

I resisted Anki for years because of some school hangups about not being one of those rote memorisation tryhards. A lot of what swayed me was this Michael Nielsen essay where he argues that, for instance, when people have a hard time with complex mathematics it’s often because they haven’t fully absorbed the basics. I felt seen.

It’s easier to think through hard problems if you don’t have to pause to recall the notation, the definition of terms, and the simple relations.

The learning curve is somewhat steep: For me what worked was first trying Quantum Country, a Nielsen essay which talks you through quantum physics (very well!), to get a feel for how spaced repetition could be useful. Then I downloaded Anki and just used a premade language deck with very few cards per day so that I had a consistent habit where I could really see the results. After that I added my own little bits on the side.


I am pretty strict about my own version of the rationalist sabbath.

For me what this means is never making plans for Sundays, and on the day itself, only doing the things that I actually want to do.

A lot of the projects I work on, which are in some sense ‘work’, are things I actually enjoy. But once I start having deadlines and commitments, it’s easy to lose touch with that. This helps me reconnect, because I will only work on the things I want, in the ways I want.

And sometimes all I want to do is flop and play video games or go on a long walk: it’s very helpful for me to regularly check if I’m that burnt out, and actually take a break.

It is not an extra day to finish all the things I didn’t have time for: if Sunday hits and I realise that actually I need to hit a deadline, that is a warning sign that I’ve taken on too much work and I need to dial things back a bit.

It might be less obvious why I’d class this as a way of getting more brainspace: basically, there are some things it is hard to think about without having free time, and I think that when you try to optimise more for getting stuff done, you need to also optimise more for reflecting, checking in with yourself, and maintaining slack.

Screen Economy

I have an old second-hand ipad which exclusively serves as an extended display for my macbook. No wires, lovely display, seamless transition.

There’s a bit of friction that comes from constantly tabbing between the page you’re reading and the page where you’re taking notes, or the code interface and the rendered website. Sometimes you want to have something running in the background where you can glance at it easily.

The only reason this works for me is that I don’t have to muddle around looking for a power cable or even an HDMI cable. I just have a small extra monitor that’s basically running over wifi and bluetooth.

I also make very liberal use of the ‘spaces’ feature on mac, which lets me keep open several different desktops that I can swipe between. Roughly, I have one for each project, and as soon as anything I’m doing balloons into more than five or so tabs or windows, I move it all to a new space.


The more general class here is ‘setting your environment up to make it easy to make good choices and take care of yourself’. I keep a nice big waterbottle with me, and I stay hydrated, and when I’m a bit thirsty I don’t have to go walking.