working clearer Archives
Don't mistake the work of carrying anxiety in your body for progress on what you're worrying about.
Real, positive change doesn't require stress. Sometimes it comes along with it, but it's not mandatory & certainly not helpful.
Worry without the work doesn't help anyone.
Work without the worry helps—& does so by an order of magnitude more because when you're not stressed out, you can work longer and do better work.
A related tip for volunteering: Lean on your strengths & chill out to be more effective.
Doing what you're good at may feel like "cheating" because it's so easy, but you're giving better, faster results than they would otherwise get.
Making a difference doesn't have to be a strain. In fact, the less of a strain it is, the more likely you are to give.
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.
Got some small but stagnant stuff on your to-do list? Feeling nibbled to death by wee ducks? Try the 7x7 Streamline.
Now set a timer for seven minutes. Focus completely and without interruption on one task for those seven minutes. Let the phone go to voicemail. Do not check email. Do not do anything but this one task.
As soon as you complete that task—or when the seven minutes are up—go on to another small to-do on which you've been procrastinating.
The most time you are going to spend is 49 minutes, so email and Twitter and texting and the news headlines and all those other distractions can wait. You are giving yourself the gift of a smaller list. Focus tightly on slapping these chores down.
If you haven't built up your focusing "muscles" this may feel very difficult. Pull yourself back on task and keep going. You will get better and over time you'll become fantastic at getting seven (7!) things out of the way in less than an hour.
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!
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.
This tip is primarily about a nice new tech tool, but non-Gmail users can skip down to general principles that should be helpful with any list of things to deal with.
Google Mail now offers a feature called "Priority Inbox" which allows you to have three tiers in your email inbox with automatically-detected (and adjustable) important messages sorted into the top section. I've given it a try and find it does help me prioritize my time better.
The default tiers are "Important," "Starred," and "Everything Else," but since I don't use stars that much and I do have an email-intensive volunteer project, I've taken advantage of the customization options to change the middle section to contain all the things in my inbox which have a particular label identifying it as part of that project. If you use Gmail, go under Settings and check out the options in the Priority Inbox tab; I think you'll like it.
Beyond this specific tool, though, there are some great principles at work here.
1. Clump stuff together.
It's easier to tackle similar items than dissimilar items. Put all those "add to calendar" notes in one pile and all those "bills to confirm and pay" in another. You'll complete the tasks faster if you don't have to keep switching modes from calendar to bill pay.
2. Isolate large projects.
This is the same principle, but has extra benefits with longer, more focused work. Being able to close off the "hot but not necessarily strategic" and the "noisy but low priority" from your view when you are doing a session of work on a project is a huge help in making effective use of that time. Whether it's the ability to sit at your desk with only that project folder in front of you and no other papers nagging at the corners of your vision or using a software feature like OmniFocus' Focused view, build yourself clear thinking space.
3. Enjoy your finite attention.
You are going to receive more demands upon your attention than you have time for. You'll get too much email and by all kinds of methods online and off you'll find out about too many cool links/shows/books/hobbies/ideas for anyone to explore in one lifetime. Embrace this.
If you're walking on the beach, trying to pick up every shell you see will impair, not increase, your enjoyment. Pass things by without anxiety. And by that I mean delete, archive, recycle, unsubscribe. Don't let things pile up in the hope you can get to them someday; let the chaff go. Heck, let some of the grain go; there will be more good stuff to capture your attention tomorrow.
Let "Everything Else" beyond "Important" and your big projects offer itself for your consideration and ruthlessly respond to almost none of it. Either it matters now or it belongs to a project (active or inactive or new) or it belongs in your "Someday/Maybe" cool storage for later consideration or else you don't need it.
When feeling overwhelmed, check to see if you're keeping too much stuff under consideration that you should just drop and move on from. Picture the intangible as physical and the silliness of what you've been asking yourself to do will often give you the lift you need to take care of yourself. If those 2,327 things in your inbox were pieces of paper you were trying to hold in your hands, of course you'd be stressed! Stop asking yourself to do that! Decide and do or let it go.
Life is full of surprises, true, but there are plenty of things that we get stressed out about which we could have predicted and made less painful if we'd only planned a little bit. You can dramatically reduce your craptastic moments by following this simple practice:
- Look at what's coming up on your calendar and to-do list.
- Think about what you'll need to make it go right and about what could go wrong.
- Look at the equivalent past period of time and think about what was less than optimal.
- Think about how you could avoid or reduce hassles.
- Implement as many of those positive changes as possible.
- Confirm that any preparatory to-do's are properly noted on your list, especially anything that requires an errand.
It's so simple, but we all see people failing to do this. That guy at the DMV having a hissy fit because he's been waiting in a line and didn't bring anything with him which would allow him to turn that into productive or enjoyable time? Don't be that guy. That gal running all over town on her lunch break trying to find a present for a birthday party she's attending right after work tonight? Don't be that gal.
It's really not hard to steer yourself clear of a lot of pain.
Once a month have everyone in your household sit down together with their calendars and quickly go over the next six weeks and the past six to make sure everything that impacts any other people is known and what works well gets learned. Everyone should know when there are houseguests coming, when they need to give someone else a ride or otherwise be available for assistance, or similar significant features in the domestic landscape.
Once a week do the same look-ahead for yourself with your work and personal calendars for the next and past month.
At the end of each day, do a look-ahead for the next morning, noting commitments and writing down any loose threads from now that you want to pick up again then.
Set yourself up for happy calm, it won't always work, but it's always worth it when it does.
Many people procrastinate on filing. In fact, most of them (us) dread it. Here's my theory: this is because most filing systems suck. They are painfully over-complex and inefficient.
Now folks like David Allen have suggested ways to make this less awful – use a simple A-Z order, only when needed should you make folders for a specific thing (filed behind the folder for that letter), and, most importantly, keep way fewer things. You can also make the filing process less unpleasant by using pretty folders and nicer filing cabinets and fancy labels and... ah, screw it. Filing is dull and uninspiring.
Here's how I do it.
1. Arrange to receive things you do not need to keep in digital form rather than on paper. Bank statements are a great example of this kind of thing which you can later access online in the rare case you need it.
2. Keep only papers you have high confidence you'll need again or that the government requires you to keep or that it stresses you out to think about discarding or shredding at this moment.
3. Make as few folders as possible for your comfort. Yes, A-Z, but also make folders for the stuff you know you'll have a bunch of (e.g. "Next Year's Tax Prep") or will need in a hurry or when stressed (e.g. "Homeowner's/Renter's Insurance," "Health Insurance," "Automotive Repair").
4. Make a folder called "Manuals" and throw the booklets for new stuff you acquire in there. Warranty info and purchase receipts for major things can also go here until they expire. I like to put the newest thing at the front of the folder and to weed it out once every year or so to purge manuals for stuff I got rid of and forgot to send the manual along with the item.
5. Put everything else you think you have to keep in one stack.
Seriously, just stack it up.
Make it very handy for adding to the stack and very unoffensive to your eye. My stack has sat on an upper shelf just above eye level when I had a seated desk and now resides behind two more constantly used desk items below eye level at my treadmill desk. (If I happen to spot a nice 9"x12" open-topped box, I might incorporate it, but so far it hasn't been necessary).
My discovery was that I spend far less time flipping quickly down through the reverse chronological stack to find one of the few things I actually wind up needing to refer back to than I ever did filing, so why file?
When the pile gets unappealingly high (or reaches 1 foot high, whichever comes first), whip through it quickly and pull out obviously stale stuff that can now be discarded or shredded or for which you have since created a file folder because you turned out to need those papers all together very often.
Here's the really sneaky part: since you know you'll be adding to it again soon you are not actually required to completely file or discard everything in the stack. If you feel anxious about what to do with it, just leave it there on the bottom and deal with it next time when it's less emotionally loaded or uncertain.
Is it perfectly orderly? No. Do I know just where to look for something when I turn out to need it? Yes.
Less time filing = more time for working on things that really matter to me!
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.