Decide and Do Archives
Oo, it's terrifying to have a big pile of papers. There could be anything in there. Unpaid bills, your diploma, letters from an ex, uncashed checks. Anything!
But probably it's almost entirely not that kind of stuff. I'm betting it's mostly four things:
3. Stuff to shred
4. Manuals and receipts for the purchase with which they came
There are probably some other big categories that are well-represented. For example, packing slips or receipts that came with things you bought. You also may have papers relating to your health: bills and insurance statements from doctor visits, those information sheets that come with prescriptions, etc.
There are two main ways to conquer random stacks of paper: targeted missions and steady chipping. Targeted missions are great for feeling a big positive impact fast. Decisions can be tiring, so rather than picking up each piece of paper and deciding its fate, make one decision that can apply to a whole lot of pieces of paper.
An ideal decision to start with is, "All the catalogs in the house can be recycled. While I'm conquering having too much stuff, I'm not buying more stuff, and they'll be sending me another catalog in the future anyhow, so goodbye to all of these." Similar is the decision, "I want to catch up with my other papers before I add more, so all magazines and newspapers before the current issue can be recycled." Either (or both) of these decisions allow you to attack a stack without having to do a lot more thinking. All you're asking is if it's one of those things you said you're going to recycle. Yes and it goes in the bin. No and it stays in the stack. That simple.
Do that one targeted mission against the stack and then stop. Give yourself credit for forward progress and go do something you enjoy. Flinging yourself against the paper wall until you collapse isn't the road to success; define your current lap, run it, and then take a rest and your reward.
Perhaps in the course of doing that targeted mission you'll notice some other easy target. For example, you might see a lot of health-related items. Your next targeted mission can be to pull those all out of this stack and consolidate them in a folder or box which contains only health materials. That transforms a mystery blob into a clear category. If you're later looking for your passport, you know you don't have to look in there because it's not a health-related item. Categorized chunks are easier to navigate than random stacks.
After the obvious targeted missions have been run, the way to purge the rest of that amorphous blob of paper is to chip away at it steadily. Working just 5 or 10 minutes at a time—with a timer!—is all it takes. Don't get hung up with taking action on any individual item. Merely spend those 5 or 10 minutes quickly identifying each successive item you pick up and then throwing it away, recycling it, shredding it, or putting it in a labeled folder based on a category (e.g., charitable donations; letters from Mom) or an action to be taken (e.g., add to address book; scan and then discard the paper; add to calendar)
The folder can go in your inbox or even in a stack of "to be dealt with" folders, so long as you have the sacrosanct rule that nothing goes into a folder that doesn't belong in that folder's category. Remember: A set of categorized chunks is progress over a random mystery pile!
The key to making chipping away work is to keep it steady. Do another 5 or 10 minutes every day. It's quick, you'll make it through those minutes!
If you run into a occasional difficult item that you just don't know what to do with, something that hinders your progress, put it on the bottom of the stack and return to it later. Take your easy wins first and then use that victory to give you strength to tackle the tougher stuff.
As you go, keep an eye out for useful patterns to save yourself from having to repeat this chore. If you had to throw a lot of the same catalogs or unread issues of a magazine into the recycling bin, get off that mailing list or cancel that subscription; it's costing you more time, space, and pleasure than it is giving you. If you have a lot of receipts you held onto in case you needed to return something, start a folder for those and keep them all together, where it's easy to purge the oldest ones on a regular basis. Optimize your inflows for quality over quantity and ease of use.
Paper piles can be beaten! Chime in in the comments to tell of your epic battles and how you won out against your stacks.
"Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success."
-Thomas J. Watson
Or, to put it in less scary words:
"Always be throwing crap at the wall [to see what sticks]"
- Matt Haughey
When something in your world isn't optimal, decide what you want to try instead, and then do that. Did it help, even a little bit? If so, great! Keep doing it! If not, observe what you've learned, decide on a new adjustment and do that.
Don't wait for external forces to improve your life; find any point where you've got a little give, and nudge things in the right direction.
It's not only about smoothing down the rough spots that snag your day. Continually find, celebrate, and amplify the small joys in your life. Even in the hardest times there is enjoyment to be found. Recognize those moments of delight and relief. That first sip of a cool beverage when you're too hot. A snatch of favorite music from a passing car. The coziness of pulling on a favorite shirt.
Tuning in to what is good will encourage you. Literally; it will give you courage to lift more of your life into that realm of joy and satisfaction which you absolutely deserve to be enjoying more of the time.
Everybody procrastinates about something. Even more than that, we all procrastinate in multiple ways for different reasons. Identifying which pattern of delay is interfering with a particular project right now can give you strong clues in how to overcome that hesitation.
It can be easy to perceive the "I don't wanna" feeling, but look a little deeper to find out what's behind it.
Is it that you don't see the value of this task? Asking—with serious openness to good answers—"Why does this matter?" can help you find the payoff in a dull chore. Maybe it serves a bigger goal that does matter to you. Maybe it will make a real difference to someone who matters to you. (Yes, and sometimes it turns out that there isn't a good answer and you don't need to do it, but make certain that that oh so easy answer is actually true.) To beat this kind of procrastination you must make the payoff more visible to yourself. Eyes on the prize.
Is it that the completion of this task will trigger the beginning of something bigger that is scary to you? Perfectionism loves this pattern and can keep you endlessly tweaking rather than bringing your creation out into the world where others can react to it. Name that fear. If you're afraid people won't like what you've created, remind yourself of why you're doing this project. Being liked is rarely all or even most of what starts projects; usually you do big things to learn from the process, build and demonstrate your skills so far, and create more opportunties for what you can do next. Get those baby birds out of the nest so they have a chance to fly—a chance they'll never have without taking that step.
Is it that the payoff doesn't seem bigger than whatever short-term pleasure you're inclined to substitute for completing this task? Again, return to why this task is on your list at all. Repeatedly make visible to yourself the direct chain of relationship between tasks, the projects of which they are a part, the goals those projects serve, and your core values which drive you having set these goals. The more you acknowledge and re-affirm your reasons for doing everything, the easier it gets to do any one thing.
Start your day with your big goals and use them in choosing what it matters most for you to achieve today. When you can feel your progress toward your dreams, the next step comes more naturally.
Get a little perspective. You can use Discardia in June as a trampoline to give you a big bounce forward and break up patterns of stagnation. This holiday period—a really long one this time, lasting through July 18, 2012!—is about solving entropy by making choices and acting on them. You’ve gotten your solid ground in place and given yourself a good footing with Discardia in March. Now it’s time to jump, knowing that your landing is already prepared.
• What’s dragging you down or holding you back?
• Where is your energy going?
• Is your energy fueling your engines or just polluting your world?
Take a good hard look at the patterns in your life right now, decide what you want to change, and begin those changes. As Discardian and fine-art painter Laurel McBrine said, “Refusing to do some things sets you free to do what you really want or need to do.”
Remember 30 days ago when I suggested we each work on one new habit?
What did you pick?
I chose a really tough one: changing my sleep routine. I decided I want to go to bed earlier (between 10-11pm) and get up earlier (between 7-8am or a little later if my other half sleeps in).
How did it go?
Not as well as it would have if I hadn't spent two full weeks fighting a dreadful cold. License to sleep all I needed to get well wreaked havoc with the plan, so I've doubled down on this one for another 30 days.
I'm excited about the habit I'm currently thinking will be my focus after this one—writing 1000 words a day. :)
One of my coaching clients faced a problem a lot of us deal with:
I keep struggling to pull the important emails out of a pile and follow up in a reasonable amount of time with the people I have not heard back from yet. At the moment, I'm able to barely keep up by relying on my memory, continually re-deciding whether an email in the pile is important (usually external communications with, say, a donor [to the organization for which she works]) every time I skim my inbox, and checking my sent file (another mixed bag of important with unimportant) every few weeks. Needless to say it's hardly a well oiled machine. It seems like there must be a way of automating some of these problems away.
I suggested some techniques for her to try:
You're on the right track: Don't use your memory for these "waiting for" items in email. I use a label ("waiting for", unsurprisingly) with a distinctive color (cool, ignorable light purple) and review them once a week, along with the rest of my weekly review. If I know something needs follow-up before my next review, I schedule that follow-up as a dated task in OmniFocus.
Note that I will also use this label on sent mail. Gmail and some other programs have the ability to display all messages with a given label, regardless of what folder or mailbox they're in [meaning they can still be tracked by that label while not being constantly on view in the inbox]. That can be extremely handy and is worth watching for as a feature when deciding which program to use.
In my system, read emails that are unlabeled are done and have no further action (or I've captured that action in OmniFocus or my calendar as appropriate). My most commonly used labels are "task support" (for things I'll be doing today or tomorrow), "bills and statements" (which I tend to deal with once a week, en masse), "waiting for", and "w: talk with Joe" (which is a special sort of waiting for).
As for getting "waiting for" items out of your face between reviews, if the label isn't enough, use a folder, but be scrupulous about doing your weekly review and checking it. The relief from having to wonder if you've forgotten anything is worth the discipline, believe me!
If you want to track more details about something that's pending, just reply to yourself from that message with your note on the top (e.g., "Wait until 3/25 & see if resolved by Foo & Bar's meeting at the conference") and label the resulting email to yourself "waiting for".
Ten days later I got a great note from her:
Thank you so much for these great ideas. These are some of the changes I made with your advice and things are already much better:
- Automatically filter staff, donors, and partners (from other organizations) into different folders, so I don't have to mentally re-sort every time I read my inbox. Staff emails are mostly about little tasks that need to be take care of at some point, while donors deserved quick responses. So sorting emails by sender also helped automatically sort by priorities and group tasks. Filters are based on address book group, so I can easily add someone to new to the right group and filter doesn't need to be changed.
- BCC myself on emails that I might need to ping someone again for a response, filter them into a folder and then the filter also turns them red when the send date exceeds 7 days.
- Enter to do items in the appropriate program instantly and then archive the email.
- For my personal email, I similarly sorted messages by family, local friends, purchases, travel paperwork, etc.
Thanks again and I'll let you know if I find any other efficiencies!
I love seeing the lift people get from these kinds of small adjustments to the way they deal with the complexities of life. When something we spend so much time dealing with is involved, even savings of a second here and there really adds up over the months!
For a habit to become automatic—truly habitual—you need to keep at it for a while. 30 days is the number I've heard from many sources and that fits with my experience. Personally, I find the 1st and 15th of the month often line up with too many other things going on in life, so let's try starting those 30 days on the 23rd (or 24th if it's too late to start this habit today).
As I discuss in Chapter Four of the book, building a habit is a gradual process to which you commit effort and measure progress. It does not have a deadline or an end point. Making that effort and improving over time defines success.
The effort you're about to make is to try to have your new habit every day for the next 30 days. If you don't succeed one day, oh well; do better tomorrow. As we know, really changing our behavior takes time. Keep making this week more like how you want it to be than last week.
Don't try to establish more than one habit at a time; this is definitely an area where focus helps you succeed—and success will create confidence for the next habit you'll work on after this.
What would you like to do or do differently? Start now.
“Making decisions requires energy, but not deciding about whether to decide requires even more energy.”
— productivity guru David Allen
Celebrating Discardia begins with deciding what belongs in your life and what does not. Deciding now is the best habit you can teach yourself. Once you decide, you can act – it is action that changes your life for the better.
Without decisions our lives become a constant accumulation of junk. Things pile up, usually literally. Magazines and newspapers, clothes with missing buttons, mail to read, half- finished projects, obsolete computer parts, and on and on. The problem is not that you don't know how to get rid of these things – you know how trash, recycling and the Goodwill donation box work – it's making yourself get around to it. Rather than giving yourself a hard time for it, your first Discardian act should be to let go of feeling bad about what you haven't gotten done by now. You were doing something else; it was a choice; you're a big kid; it's okay.
Now that that's out of the way, I'm not going to tell you to get cracking and change all your habits overnight. No, what I'm suggesting is that you start with a few small steps that are the foundation for bigger changes. The key to fighting entropy is simple and threefold: slow down your accumulation of this stuff, make it easier for yourself to get rid of it on an ongoing basis, and habitually decide what you want to part with.
Act as your own gatekeeper and decide what gets in. As you control the inflow, increase the outflow to rid yourself of stuff that only serves to make your life more awkward and overstuffed. Ask yourself “Why do I keep holding onto that?” and use your answer – or the fact that you have no answer – to decide whether or not it is time for that thing to move on.
Make deciding as easy as you can. The more you do it, the easier it gets. You can even have a friend come over and help, holding up one object at a time as you lounge on the sofa with a glass of wine giving them the thumbs up or thumbs down.
You can give your life a Discardian nudge any day of the year. Use your positive energy whenever you have it and allow yourself some slack when you don’t; the next occurrence of the holiday will be around soon to help you get back in gear!
Welcome to the last day of this June's Discardia! Here we are in the middle of the year with our progress and lessons of the past six months under our belts and plenty of potential ahead of us.
Discardia in June is a trampoline you can use to give you a big bounce forward and break up patterns of stagnation. This holiday period and the time following it is about making choices and acting on them.
Get a little perspective on things. What’s dragging you down or holding you back? Where is your energy going? And is it fueling your engines or just polluting your world?
This is a good time to take a hard look at the patterns in your life right now, decide a few things you want to change, and begin those changes.
Discardian holidays are a reminder to re-commit your energy into moving your world toward awesomeness. Once you're in motion, refine your direction, and let yourself progress to your current goals. Maybe you won't take on as many life-transforming activities between now and the September holiday, but you can set yourself up for the decisions you make and the actions you take between now and then to best serve your dreams.
When you are creating or modifying something – a new furniture arrangement, a new aspect of your routine, a new way you want to approach particular social situations – design for not only the expected use but also for several possible other conditions if major variables switch to other settings than what you predict.
Prepare yourself for comfortably rolling with the changes.
There is a great discussion of this principle in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built by Stewart Brand (a book which informs about a much broader range of thinking than merely the architectural!) on page 178. He says "All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong." I'll tone it down just a hair:
All plans are predictions.
No predictions are 100% perfect.
By preparing yourself for imperfection and envisioning reasonable responses to the most likely alternate scenarios, you'll reduce your stress and optimize your results.
Here's an example:
Over the past few years I kept reading about treadmill desks and thinking "Wow, that might work great for me." I finally reached a point where I was ready to try it. Instead of just making a plan to switch to the first one I heard about, I thought about some possible alternate scenarios to "Everything goes as I hope and I love it."
Alternate scenario #1: "I don't love it."
Influence on my plan: Find a way to invest less money on the experiment so it's not too painful if it doesn't work out. (I have more time than money. If you're the opposite, ordering the fancy pre-made solution could work for you if you are satisfied with the company's return policy).
Alternative scenario #2: "I totally love it and want it permanently, but it takes up too much space and disrupts our use of the room which serves as my office/guestroom/Joe's desk area."
Influence on my plan: Explore ways to rearrange that room which still allow for all the functions we currently use it for instead of assuming I need to leave my current workspace where it is.
Alternative scenario #3: "I like it, but my body takes a long time to adjust to working while standing."
Influence on my plan: Create 'infrastructure' to support taking care of myself physically. Continue using a rest reminder (I use TimeOut on the Mac) to give myself time away from keyboard and treadmill. Make a nice seating area near enough to my walking desk that I can step off for a few minutes and rest my body while writing on paper or reading a book or doing something else that doesn't require the computer.
Even a short brainstorming sprint on what else is fairly likely to happen besides your favorite prediction will allow you to plan better and build solutions which can accommodate a variety of futures without breaking.