Relative Sanity

a journal

Inbox one

“You got a minute?”

Instantly, I’m on guard. Negotiation for my time and attention has started. I’m already doing the most important thing I know of, but here’s someone with important new information: maybe I’m wrong.

I smile.

“Sure, what’s up?”

Actions check in. They don’t check out.

Many todo lists are places where productivity goes to die. I’ve been there, and my list still has things on it that are there purely to make me feel better.

I pat myself on the back these days for at least being aware or them, and of the difference between them and the other things on the list. We’re all fallible creatures, and sometimes smiling at our own foibles is healthier than trying to eradicate them.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s all too easy for a todo list to cease being a tool, and start being a story about all the things you aren’t doing.

If your todo list doesn’t optimise for getting things off it, it’s not a todo list: it’s a fiction.

The good news is that it’s pretty easy to perform that optimisation. The bad news is that it involves being brutally honest.

My todo list is a jealously guarded list of things that I know I will actually do. I have two tools for maintaining my confidence in it:

Let’s look at them in turn.

Why are you still here?

Every task on my list has a review period. For most things, it’s daily. For, some it’s weekly. I use OmniFocus for iPad for this, but the tool doesn’t really matter. The key is that nothing can hide on my list for more than a week.

Regular review does two things: it encourages me to clear as much off the list as possible each day, so that tomorrow’s review is nice and short; and it shows me, in vibrant technicolor, the things that I’m not doing.

My reviews take three stages:

For each task, I mentally note whether the task is active, urgent, quick or stale. “Active” means that I’ll get to it soon, “urgent” means its due today or overdue, “quick” means I should jump out of the review and just do it now (this is a variation of Dean Allen’s Two Minute Rule) and “stale” means I’m just not going to do it.

This sounds far more complex than it actually is. The overriding goal here is to get rid of as many things on the list. If that means just deleting stuff that I’m not going to do, so be it.

Wait, what?

I told you the hard bit was the brutal honesty. The truth is that we pick up tasks in our lives that we have no intention of completing. And the person we might be doing the task for (or, rather, not doing the task for) likely equally doesn’t care. They told someone they’d do it, and so they asked you. Chances are you’ve even asked someone else to do it.

The problem here is that nobody is going to get angry if it doesn’t get done. It’s busywork. You don’t care, so it’s always going to be superseded by anything you do care about. Which, hopefully, is everything else on your list. So it’s baggage. It’s going stale, and making you feel bad every time you see it.

More than that, it’s making your list useless. Your list is now lying to you. It says you have twenty things to do. You actually only have ten, and you know you have ten. You just internally blank those items off the list whenever you look at it. That blanking takes time and energy, and it saps your will because you could work all day and still have a full list. It’s just full of things you’ll never do.

Be honest about why

Now, some of those stale things are stale not because you don’t care, but because you’re trying to solve the problem at the wrong level. You’ve got a task saying “open business bank account” that’s been sitting on your list for literally weeks. Is it not important? Well, if it’s been sitting for weeks then I’d suggest it’s not actually important. If you’ve survived that long without one, maybe you should wait until you do need one.

Kill it: if it’s important, it’ll come back.

But maybe it’s been on there for two days, and hasn’t moved because first you need to agree on the bank with your partner, or you need to get their signature. Reviewing and seeing it as stale can help you identify projects masquerading as single tasks. Break that shit down, and see how many “quick” items you can pull out of it. Maybe your stuck project will be done before you’ve finished the review.

The key here, again, is to get stuff off the list. If you’re hesitating over deleting an item, ask what single thing you could do to make yourself not feel bad about deleting it. In many cases, that’s enough to solve the problem.

Sorry mate, not tonight

The real issue here isn’t how to clear out stale items, though: it’s how they got in there in the first place. They probably got in there because you let them sneak into your inbox. Someone walks over and asks if you could take a look at something “when you have a minute”. You’re organised, and you’re busy, so you smile and say “not right now, but I’ll get to it”, throw it on the inbox pile, and forget it till later.

Then you get to it and think: it’ll just take a minute. I’ll add it to the list and pick it off tomorrow.

Which, of course, you don’t. Maybe it’s a quick thing, but you need to discuss it with your colleague, or your not sure what exactly they wanted from you. In any event, you’ve now got a stale item on the list. It’s not yours, it’s not going to get done, and you’re stuck with it.

How could you have stopped it getting on board?

Real time review

What I’ve found myself doing lately is pulling the review process right up to before the inbox. Someone asks me if I’ve got a minute, usually interrupting me from the thing I’m doing (which, by implication, is what I have judged to be the most important thing I could be doing), and asks me to think about something else.

Previously, I’d have chucked it on the inbox pile to minimise immediate disruption, but here’s the rub: I’m already disrupted. That’s okay, it happens all the time, but hey, let’s have this negotiation right now:

  1. do I have to do it? Is there anyone else who would be better placed to do this. If so, bye bye;
  2. can I do it right now? If I take five minutes out of my time right now, when I’m already out of where I was, we can sort this shit out and keep it off my list. Or, if there’s anything that comes out of the five minutes that I do need to do, I can make sure it’s well formed and actually needs me to do it;

This is not about dodging bullets, or about avoiding work: it’s about not lying to people about what you’re going to do for them.

If you’re going to do something, do it. If not, don’t kid yourself (and others) that you are.