Today’s topic arose from reading Mark Forster’s popular blog ‘Get Everything Done‘ – subtitled ‘all about time management and personal organization.’
For me, (the illusory nature of) time management is a kind of productivity p0rn that can become addictive but often in a very positive way. I confess that I do still get a kick out of learning about personal growth and productivity systems. But of course it is one thing to read about these things and an entirely different matter to put them into effect.
And that’s what I like about Mark and his blog. He does try out and report on his various systems. They’ve evolved over the years, partly because he’s encouraged feedback via comments on his blog – from which I’ve learned much, as readers experiment with his ideas, make modifications and even suggest some systems of their own.
I remember buying ‘Do It Tomorrow’ several ago, one of his early books, and found it to be an interesting read. All things considered, I am at the stage where I’ll try a system, and then just run with that until something better (or maybe ‘better’ is just a synonym for ‘different’) comes along. What I do is rather than grow and prune an endless list of tasks and priorities and essentials, I just think of a task that needs to be done right now, one that I can do in that time and space and resource base, and then I start doing it. And once completed I then write it down in a small lined notebook and cross it out. (Marking a task in this way is a very satisfying act for a person like me who still has occasional guilt trips about the sins of being bone idle haha.)
In this system, ‘finished’ can also mean going as far as I can on a task perhaps because I’ve been distracted and had to move on to something else. Yep, stuff happens and those proverbial ‘fire fighting’ emergency activities can erupt at any time and often have to be addressed right away.
I just write down a few words about what I did, put a line through it, and off I go fight the bloody fires. I can then work on the task again whenever another suitable opportunity presents itself.
But how do I know what to work on first? Well, aside from the ‘must do now’ tasks, which almost everyone encounters during their waking/working hours, I make a choice on how to use any given discretionary block of available time. A block might be just five minutes or it could be five hours. Control of available time is a tricky game to play so it’s best to get started and work with what is up for grabs.
OK, so having chosen to give a task some attention I then allow the subconscious a few moments of cognitive awareness. That means asking myself what should I work on now, what’s best to work on now, what can I reasonably make a start on now etc. I listen for an answer, a mood, a feeling of interest or angst or tension, and pick one that makes sense to proceed with.
As an example, I finished the dictated first draft of this blog post in a couple of minutes and let the ‘Dragon Naturally Speaking’ software transcribe it. Then I had to go out for a few hours and knew I might not get back to cleaning up the transcript today, so I left the Olympus dictation device on my study desk at home as a reminder for the next time slot in which I might get around to checking on new blog posts (I run three blogs). That device on my desk becomes a visual reminder that I was working on an unfinished blog post and even if the recorder is later moved somewhere else, I know I’ll also get a mental prompt to revisit it again on one of my regular weekly sweeps through each blog where I check for software updates and will probably notice the date of the last published post tugging at my editorial awareness.
The final action I took on this task before heading out was to add an entry to my notebook and promptly cross it out – creating more of a ‘done-to’ list than a ‘do-to’ list. Just looking at the finished items now inspires a creative momentum all of its own.
Of course, I still track multiple projects containing subtasks and content folders and spreadsheets and milestones but I no longer put those on one big list and then try to figure out an optimal way to scan and prioritize such a monstrosity. I now reference my external project folders only if I feel drawn (or need) to look. For example, if I’m working on a book and need to go check up on a list of website links about time travel theory or some current advance in astrophysics that I want to at least get a flavor of, I’ll go do that and record the task attempt as ‘done’ in my notebook. And, if necessary, also update any external tracking or reporting tools that may be required.
When I first started this way of task tracking the biggest fear I had was one of trusting the part of myself that comes up with the next action, step, task, goal, call it what you will. What if I give up consciously trying to plan, prioritize and track every single task that comes calling? This is the 64,000 dollar question – the answering of which has kept battalions of self-help gurus and time management consultants in some style over the years.
I mean, if I’m randomly relying on memory here then what happens if I screw up and don’t get prompted and things slip through that should have been done? Again, it comes back to trusting that the subconscious (more on that in a future post) can sift and sort and select from the big data trees growing roots in my cortex. My role (that is, the personality structure I seem to identify with as ‘Mark McClure’) is then to recognize and act on an upwelling of ideas, inspiration and issues with whatever cognitive tools I have at my disposal. These days, the external tools can include cloud-based calendaring systems and digital reminders, smart phone apps, even traditional analogue systems such as notebooks and pen and paper.
It’s a big leap to take and one that rests on a two-part foundational belief structure.
Belief #1: I believe habits that help require me to keep showing up, whether or not inspiration strikes like the fabled lightning bolt from the blue. Such habits include a daily sift of email, a regular (usually weekly, but I sometimes miss!) prune and processing of paper inputs, time for reading, a daily walk to ‘clear my head’, 15 minutes in a quiet room alone with just my breath and my thoughts, and random doodling with mind maps and cluster maps. All are tools that I’ve grown to respect and attend to over the years. Email I can take or leave but my reality is that lots of communication still happens that way. And each of these habits follow rule five of my ‘Just Five Rules’ self-coaching model – ‘Let Time Go Lightly.’ Much indeed gets done unseen beneath the waves of awareness.
It’s belief #2 that ties the habits together. I believe in a metaphorical reality in which genius is not what only a lucky few get to inherit by genetics and good fortune, but is in fact a personification of who we each really are and that attends, guides, instructs, cajoles and looks out for the best interests of the surface personality at large in the physical world. Readers of fiction may detect here hints of the daemon / muse working in tandem through an author’s interests and capabilities. Some may even sense in this belief the original genie of the lamp, the djinni or jinni. And you would be correct. In this modern technological world the fields of neuroscience and psychology will continue to rub on the underlying biochemical and electrical nature of consciousness. It will be interesting to see if and how our gene genies grant their wishes.