There are never enough hours in the day to do everything we dream of doing—and that's fine. The act of deciding what we will do is how we construct our selves.
However, overflowing lists of things we might do, which we feel we ought to do, or which others would like us to do, can be so significant a source of stress and indecision as to eat up time we could spend on what we most want in our lives.
I've spoken before about the vital importance of giving yourself permission not to do it all, for example in this talk which I gave at an OmniGroup event last year. Maintaining the difference between active and inactive projects (and their associated tasks) and clearly dropping those you decide not to do, while still allowing yourself to get things out of your head and into a trusted system, is how you manage all that potentiality.
Whether that trusted system is software or paper-based doesn't matter (though I personally find smart software to be less work to use and maintain), the essential part is that it is your system—and, critically, that nothing else is.
You email inbox cannot be your trusted system because things can be added to it without you having consciously processed each of them and affirmed them as something you are going to do (even when "doing" means "delegating" or "adding to a someday/maybe list").
Your physical inbox cannot be your trusted system for exactly the same reason.
Your calendar cannot be your trusted system because it can't hold inactive projects and tasks without becoming useless for managing the active ones.
The essential qualities of a trusted system are:
- that it be easy to use wherever you are in order to see current tasks and to note new items (for later processing into active or inactive projects or tasks as appropriate);
- that it be simple to toggle projects from active to inactive;
- that it support a pleasant process for conducting weekly reviews;
- that it helps in reminding you to review projects on their individual appropriate cycles (some of which might be weekly, others monthly, quarterly or even annual);
- that it gets inactive and not-for-current-review things out of your face until it's time to consider them;
- and that supports deletion by archiving of things you decide not to do.
When you know that adding anything into your system or noting a decision about something in your system means that that item will be presented to you at the appropriate future time and that you no longer need to carry it in your head, then you can trust it. Once you trust it, you can relax and use your clear head to engage with the present moment and whatever task you are deciding to address in it. The work of building a trusted system pays itself back a thousandfold. Your stress will drop and your productivity and self-fulfillment will rise.
Draw that line in your life between your conscious engagement with potential activities and those things which are presenting themselves for your attention. As I indicated above, your email inbox is one of the critical areas for seeing the difference between what you have decided to engage with and a pile of stuff that you have not yet processed. Deletion, unsubscribe, and "No, but thank you for thinking of me!" are all your friends in keeping this territory under control.
Still, after you've got a trusted system and your email isn't driving you batty, and once you've gotten better at identifying an appropriate number of active projects, you may still find yourself feeling that you're running behind. Most peculiarly, you may encounter this feeling more often when you're not working than when you are. This is the signal to start hunting down and eliminating auto-loading to-do lists.
Information technology has made it easier than ever for us to be provided with things that truly do fit within our interests. Lots of things. More things all the time. And more things that are unconstrained by limits such as the number of pages in the daily paper or a magazine. Bit by bit, over time, we sign ourselves on for far more than we could ever hope to read or watch. Then we wonder why we can't seem to keep up and our leisure media nags at us.
Once again, decide what you are going to engage with, rather than letting someone else put those items on your list. You don't have to read everything cover-to-cover or catch every episode.
Here are great places to do some pruning:
- Podcasts. Not only do many of these take longer to consume than the average "long read" link, they also may be living on your computer, filling up your hard drive. Unsubscribing from TEDtalks videos and a couple hour-long-per-episode podcasts cleared up 37GB on my laptop! Consider your consumption rate and downsize your subscriptions and downloads to match it, making use of episode descriptions to skip what doesn't really grab you.
- Television. Don't watch things just because the fall in between two things you do care about. Watch what rewards you and watch it on your time. When it stops rewarding you; drop that show. Remember to answer that question "Is this rewarding me?" in comparison not only to what else you might watch, but also to all the other things you could be doing with that time.
- Books. You don't have to finish a book you don't like and you don't have to keep a book that isn't grabbing you around in hopes that someday it will. The last time a single human had a chance of reading every book in print in English in their lifetime was over 500 years ago; you can't get to it all, so quit beating yourself up and free up some shelf space.
- Magazines and email newsletters. If it isn't rewarding, unsubscribe unsubscribe unsubscribe! Plus, watch for boxes you can uncheck to keep yourself off these mailing lists when you're buying something from a business or signing up for a new service.
- Social Media. Monitor your moods when you spend time on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Are you getting joy or positive self-insight out of making this part of your day? Pare back how many people and who you follow to just those who help make you more who you want to be. Don't keep these applications open all the time or let them distract you with alerts, sounds and unread counts on the application icon. When you choose to connect with them, really do connect and then unplug to take the energy and knowledge you've gained into the rest of your life.
When something seems to be piling up beyond your ability to keep up, take a good hard look at how things get added to that stack and make sure you're the one in control.
"[Manage] your agreements with yourself. If you break your commitments with yourself, you'll be in negative stress. So you either don't make the commitments (lower expectations), keep the agreements (get busy and finish your stuff), or renegotiate your agreements (constantly review and make smart choices about what you can and should be doing, at any moment in time).”
- David Allen
One of the scariest things when you get organized and pull all your obligations and expectations out of your head and into some trusted system for tracking them is that you can finally see just how much you've been carrying around in there. To overcome that tension, acknowledge that you can't and won't do it all.
Just as a chef has things on the stove, ingredients in the pantry, and cookbooks full of potential recipes, so too will you have active, inactive, and someday/maybe projects.
It's okay that a lot of your ideas about what you might do are hopes, dreams, contingency plans, or other things that aren't necessarily part of today, tomorrow, or ever. What is a part of today is capturing the idea for later review so that you can get it out of your way and get on with what's cooking now.
It's that act of review which keeps the whole system working. That doesn't mean you have to engage with every potential idea every single week—some things you might only want to think about once or twice a year—but it does mean you think every week about what matters in the week ahead. What are your goals this month? What can you do in the next week to help achieve them? What ideas and loose ends do you need to pack away from the past week so that you can focus on what matters most?
Give yourself a regular bit of quality time to pull back from the stream of reaction to see where you are and where you want to be. Look a couple weeks back and ahead in your calendar to find unfinished tasks and opportunities to make things go more smoothly for yourself. Even taking 20 minutes a week to do this will help you do more, and do it more calmly.
I like using the OmniFocus software for this, but paper works great too. Try starting with four lists: "Think about every week," "Think about every month," "Think about every quarter," and "Think about every year."
For example, you probably want to have "Home Maintenance" show up every week. Some of the time you'll look at it and move on right away, but often it will remind you of a problem to resolve (whether it's at the 'buy toilet paper' or 'start a savings account for better mattress' scale). On the other hand, "Career Advancement" would usually be on the quarterly or annual list, unless you're actively working to switch jobs.
As time passes you'll get a better sense of how often something needs to appear in front of you to prompt you to capture any unfinished business or opportunities.
The big reviews help keep you aligned with who you want to be and what you want to achieve. They reveal goals which can have projects and actions on shorter time cycles. The weekly review helps clear your head and get you back on the tracks you set out for yourself.
Granting yourself that quality time to catch your breath is vital to maintaining your momentum in your chosen direction. You deserve that chance to find clarity every week.
It's easy to waste time worrying that you haven't done something you should have done when you don't have a clear picture of what you're currently committed to—both to others and to yourself.
The solution to that problem has three parts: A system, a habit, and a piece of permission you give yourself. I learned what I think is the best version of the first two of these from productivity guru David Allen's great book Getting Things Done and his writings and lectures on the topic since, but some of it boils down to good advice any of us might have gotten from a parent or grandparent. "Write it down" and "Measure twice, cut once" are just another way of talking about these same two ideas. As for the third, it is in essence the Discardian mantra: "Let it go".
The system part is to get this stuff out of your head (and your calendar and your inboxes, etc.) and keep it in one master place. That place might be a digital tool (like OmniFocus) or it might be as simple as a paper notebook. Whatever it is, make it easy to get your ideas and commitments into it as soon as they cross your mind.
Constant and fast capture has several benefits. Obviously, one is that you're more likely to remember your ideas and obligations if you write them down. Another is that the faster and simpler you make it to capture these things—by using OmniFocus's quick entry shortcut, for example, or by always having that master notebook with you—the harder it is for those thoughts to seriously distract you from another task at hand. You can park the thought in the right place and carry on with what you were already doing. The last big benefit is that the more you trust and use your system, the better you become at focusing on the right things at the right time.
As writer and teacher Clay Shirky said, "Behavior is motivation filtered through opportunity." In order to be making the right choice of what to do next, you need to understand your motivations (as I discussed in my last post) and make sure you have a complete and current picture of your obligations and options. When you know what you want to achieve and what you've said you'll do, it's much easier to identify the best match between the current opportunity—including your available resources and energy level—and the tasks on your list. But look out: If you don't have a purpose-driven list, other motivations will take over.
This is where the habit comes in. Until you pull back and consider those tasks (and the projects of which they are a part) in light of your goals and values, they can feel like a giant, depressing pile of undifferentiated to-do's.
How do you transform all that stuff you want to do (or someone else wants you to do) into something which will motivate you and keep you calm? You review it regularly. Every week you quickly look over the most important things. Periodically, you review the less important things. As you do that (along with looking at the past and coming couple weeks on your calendar), you'll add any commitments you haven't captured yet and you'll cross off those things which are complete or no longer necessary. By doing this every week, you will be able to trust on the days between that you will be soon returning to that big picture view where any date-bound obligations can be identified and scheduled. During this review—ideally through the very structure you use to organize things within your system, as I discussed last time—you will remind yourself of where these tasks and projects fit in relation to your higher level goals and the roles you want to be playing in the world.
It's easy to resist doing a review—it can take a couple hours for most busy people. But, as David Allen points out, "The additional amount of time and energy that you’ll have to spend, caught in the 'last minute' syndromes which will arise from avoiding a Weekly Review, so far outweigh what the Review requires, pure economics demand that you stop and do it – now!"
One of the things which keeps the review more manageable is to only be looking at the important stuff every single week; other things can be revisited on slower cycles. Use those shiny buckets I talked about last time—the roles you currently want to be playing in the world—as the identifier for what is important right now. For example, if you've currently got a bucket labeled "Awestruck Parent of a Beautiful Newborn Baby" now is unlikely to be the time that you also have in play that bucket labeled "Beginning But Getting Better Marathon Runner". It's fine to quickly note any less important ideas for the future—so you quit trying to carry them around in your head—but focus your time and energy on the projects and tasks for your active roles.
That brings me to the last element of solving the problem of worrying you haven't done everything you should and that is granting yourself permission to define "should". All of us can pile far more expectations on ourselves than any one person could achieve, let alone achieve while enjoying a happy, relaxing, rewarding life. Whether it's a single task, an entire project, a goal requiring multiple projects, or even something as big as a role you play in the world, you are in charge of deciding where it falls in your priorities. It might be currently active, it might be inactive and something you'll review and perhaps revive in the future, or you might exercise "completion by deletion" and drop it from your lists entirely. As I've said before, you can do anything, just not everything. Recognize that you will change over the years and filter your expectations of yourself to maximize your happiness and service to your highest values.
It is that permission to let go which is one of the essential ingredients to sticking with a system like this (and to getting back on track when you veer). Productivity guru and humorist Merlin Mann noted that "The danger of tracking everything is setting yourself up to a) have to keep revisiting them and maybe b) feel bad about not doing." This danger led to my labeling the inactive section of my system as "Things to think about again sometime". Thus I remind myself that these inactive things are not a commitment to do, just an acknowledgement of a thought that I will reconsider at some point in the future, so it can get off my mind now.
Getting stuff out of your head and safely parked somewhere in your system—whether paper or digital—combined with picking today's top few priorities is vastly more productive than perfect fiddly management of all possible tasks. The best systems will support all three aspects I've discussed. They will make it easy to capture an idea for later without losing focus on your current task. They will support weekly review for the important stuff and less frequent reviews for the lower priority things. They will enable marking projects inactive and getting them out of the way of your current focus.
Constant capture to a trusted system, weekly reviews, and choosing to let go of some expectations previously laid on yourself are powerful tools, but can be tough to get into constant use. The value of such organization and habit change can be profound, though. Coach Clarissa Rodriguez said, ''Even if you only save an extra ten minutes a day, over the course of a year that adds up to forty hours... Who couldn't use an extra week in their year?''
Ideally, our hour-to-hour decisions should serve our highest values. But how can we encourage this simultaneously strategic and tactical behavior in ourselves? My solution is to organize the way we think about projects and tasks to be in alignment with the way we prioritize our goals and the values they represent.
Take some big-picture contemplative time away from distractions to think about who you are and want to be. What fundamental beliefs drive how you relate to the world? What roles do you play?
You can start by identifying the big areas in your life (e.g., family or other relationships, work, creative expression, social responsibility), but push down to greater detail and articulate to yourself the roles in which you manifest these. In the book, I refer to these roles as "shiny buckets" and I believe you really can't be effective over time if you're trying to carry more than five or six of them at once. Its fine to periodically swap out those buckets and emphasize different roles (with their different goals and projects), but focusing on a few at a time is what creates success and avoids overload.
Within those buckets are your goals, and the projects that you use to achieve them. Again, you can only handle so many at once and focusing on fewer makes for faster and less painful accomplishment. If one of your buckets is very full (many simultaneous goals and projects) or very heavy (involving tasks that require exceptionally high amounts of time or emotional energy), you should lighten your load of other buckets to compensate.
Identify your buckets.
Now imagine yourself faced with a personal or family crisis. What's the first bucket you'd set down? What next? What could wait when a real emergency came up? This exercise serves two purposes: 1) To remind yourself that you are allowed to set a bucket down when you need to and pick it up again when you're ready; 2) To reveal to yourself the priority order of your roles and therefore of the goals and projects they contain.
Reflect that priority order in whatever system you use to track your goals, projects, and tasks. Review it regularly—quarterly is good, I find—to confirm that these are still your current buckets and that they are still in the right priority order.
By reflecting your buckets as the core organizing principle in whatever system you use to track your tasks (e.g., as folders in OmniFocus or as flagged sections in a paper notebook), they are automatically prioritized. When you review your projects on a weekly basis, you will be approaching them in the order that echoes your higher vision for yourself.
Executive Christie Hefner said, "Be sure you’re true to what you believe... I would argue that the way to do that is to spend less time thinking about what you’re doing and more time thinking about what you represent."*
Writer and Kirtsy founder Laura Mayes, in her session "Be Your Own Boss: Create a Life You Love" with Maggie Mason at SXSW Interactive conference in 2010, put it even more succinctly, "Be really solid on what your intention is."
By making time for the big picture thinking that enables structuring your to-do system around your fundamental priorities, you give yourself the daily freedom to spend more time doing and less time figuring out what you should do next.
Choose three things you want and three things you don't want in your life.
Think big. Don't edit what your heart and your gut are telling you; it's the truth of your wanting which will fuel your change in the right direction. Something that sounds little and achievable that you basically like the idea of will not lead to as much positive growth as burning for something huge you're afraid you can never have.
You can change your choices later, but choose something now.
I don't want...
Next time you have an option – and we are faced with options all day long – make sure whenever possible that you're going for things that fit the Want list and avoiding things leading to the Don't Want list.
Do not believe that it is very much of an advance to do the unnecessary three times as fast.
"To progress in life you must give up the things you do not like. Give up doing the things that you do not like to do. You must find the things that you do like. The things that are acceptable to your mind."
-- Agnes Martin
Ze Frank's got a good idea for you - acknowledge that you're made up of many selves with different moods.
Accept that you are who you are, in the mood you're in today. Recalibrate to the current baseline and try to do the things that today's me is best at.
Two things today:
- Do the mundane things that must be done before December 31st.
For me that's figuring out submitting receipts from health expenses for the past year for my Flexible Spending Plan fund. Always odd how this, with it's great potential for a reimbursement check, gets pushed to the end of my list. Tackle your bureaucracies and take whatever rewards that brings you - even if it's just the relief of being done with the chore.
- Think about an emotional loose end that you could complete.
Perhaps it's having watched the brilliant film Hiroshima Mon Amour this past week that has me musing on the past and that amazing balancing act between the fear of forgetting (and repeating) our horrors & mistakes and the necessity of forgetting in order to live life unparalyzed.
I suppose there are folks for whom December and January are not busy months, but I'm not sure I know any.
Since the chaos is descending and won't lift for a bit, take a little time today to smooth your path.
- Renew prescriptions - and check out online or renewals by mail if your pharmacy offers the service.
- Pay bills early or set up automatic payment.
- Look over your calendar for anything else requires special action (e.g. reserving rental cars, buying tickets, finding those tickets you bought a while back, etc.)