I have enjoyed Sherlock Holmes stories in various forms since I was in elementary school when I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles. It left such an impression on me that I can still see the cover drawing of the well-worn paperback on my parent’s bookshelf. But I have to admit, the BBC series Sherlock is perhaps my favorite adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes character — it is witty, unapologetic, and super fun to watch!
One cinematic device used in the show to highlight Sherlock’s incredible power of observation and super-human memory is his mind palace. While interesting as a visual aid to help the viewer see inside Sherlock’s mind, it is even more interesting to learn that this is not merely a cinematic device.
The mind palace is a mnemonic device that is believed to have originated at least 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece. The first written description of this method was penned by an unknown author around 80 B.C.E. in Rhetorica ad Herennium (Rhetoric: For Herennius). Cicero wrote the next known documentation in De Oratore (On the Orator) in 55 B.C.E. The mind palace — also known as memory palace, method of loci, memory theater, journey method, & art of memory — has seen a recent surge of interest with the creation of Tony Buzan’s World Memory Championship and mainstream references such as BBC’s Sherlock and the New York Times best-selling book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer.
While the BBC has taken some liberties in depicting how Sherlock’s mind palace functions, the underlying principles remain correct. There are countless books on the subject if one would like to learn how to create and use a mind palace to remember just about anything. (If you do not want to read a whole book, you can watch Joshua Foer’s fascinating Ted Talk Feats of memory anyone can do.) Two details that are included in nearly every description of the method are statements similar to these from Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and be More Productive by Kevin Horsley:
These systems take long for me to explain, but they work at the speed of thought. (p. 54)
You can use this system to remember any information and mountains of it. It takes practice, but once you use it you will never look back. (p. 75)
In other words, it is difficult to describe the process, but once you understand and practice, it will happen naturally with little effort on your part.
Many people have tried to use the Getting Things Done® method of productivity which was detailed by David Allen in his seminal book first published in 2001. Many people have also given up. In a previous article, I discussed how the complexity of GTD® (short for Getting Things Done®) is likely one of the primary reasons that people fail to install GTD® successfully. Although this is still true, it does not have to be.
Just as the use of a mind palace is difficult to describe, GTD® has many interconnected and dependent parts that are difficult to explain. However, even once you understand how GTD® functions, it still requires practice and effort before it will work at the speed of thought. Most people give up before GTD® behaviors become so natural that they no longer require significant effort.
The good news is that installing GTD® does not have to be a losing battle. There are steps that one can take to improve the chances of success. When successful, using GTD® becomes so natural that one will hardly even notice it anymore. It is just who you are.
Getting Things Done® is like a mind palace. It is complex to describe and requires practice to master. However, once internalized, GTD® will require little effort to maintain and once you use it you will never look back.
Describing the steps takes a long time to explain, demands effort and practice to master, yet provides benefits that far exceed the work invested. In future articles, I will detail these steps and help you pave the path for truly stress-free productivity. You will be surprised to learn that mastering GTD® has very little to do with GTD®!