Getting organized

Via Susan, here's a nice (and pretty short) series of posts from someone Susan knows about (in essence) how getting in the habit of capturing tasks on a to-do list can change your life:

  1. Why I Cared
  2. What I Did
  3. What I Learned
  4. Why It Worked
  5. How I'm Different Now

If you're short on time, you could start with part two, “What I Did,” which is the most practical one; but I also recommend parts three, four, and five, because they address some psychological issues (like anxiety, and like taking a certain sort of pride in thinking of oneself as a messy/disorganized person) that I hadn't really thought about before but that I think make a lot of sense.

. . . One thing I especially like about those posts is that after she attended a Getting Things Done workshop, she focused on using the parts of GTD that worked for her. I feel like most of the time when I see people talk about GTD, they talk about it as if it were the Master Plan of the Universe, like a religious text that you must follow in the tiniest detail to reach salvation. Whereas my attitude about it is that it provides some really useful tools, and that people should use whatever tools work for them.

For the past couple of years, I've been using a task-list application for the Mac called Things, both at home and at work. It has flaws, and I don't entirely use it the way it was intended, and I ignore various features, and it doesn't make me magically stop procrastinating. But the most important thing it does for me is the same as the most important thing the abovelinked writer learned: it lets me capture tasks as I come up with them. If I'm at my computer and I think of something I need to do (that I can't do right then), I press Command+Space and a little window appears, and I type a description of the task, and I press Return, and now that task has been captured for later sorting.

(I also use Things for iPhone, but because of a missing feature that they don't seem willing to add, I use it almost entirely for capturing tasks when I'm away from my computer. Susan uses Things for iPad; I don't, but that's mostly because there's almost never a time when I have my iPad but not my iPhone or my MacBook.)

Things is not, of course, the only task-list application. Kam, for example, uses OmniFocus. I'm occasionally tempted to try it—it's more powerful and complex than Things—but (a) I gather it's aimed primarily at hardcore GTD people, and (b) other Omni applications I've used have felt to me like they were designed by aliens, and (c) it's complex enough that it seems to encourage spending a lot of time organizing your to-do items. Given the option, I would happily spend all of my time coming up with ever-more-complex systems of organization, so the more freeform Things is better-suited to my actually getting stuff done.

There's lots of other task-list software, too, including web-based stuff like Remember the Milk and, I'm sure, plenty of Windows applications. I don't know anything about any of those.

I've recently started to try to use Things even more effectively. One thing I've been doing is trying to reduce the number of items on my at-home (as opposed to work) Today list; there was a time when I regularly had a hundred tasks on the Today list, which was just silly. Eventually I noticed that even at peak productivity I rarely check off more than about ten items a day from that list. So I gave myself a rule: no more than thirty tasks on the Today list on a given day. Every morning (or every night after midnight), I shift things into the future to result in keeping the list under thirty items.

That's still silly. I think the most I've ever gotten through in a day was about twenty-five, but more commonly I do about three to five items. So keeping thirty on the list for a day is a guarantee that I'll never get through everything.

So I'm trying to cut down on the thirty. But I realized the other day that I don't want to cut down too far, because I rely on an old procrastinator trick: if there are items I don't want to do, then I can put off doing them by doing other items.

So if I had only, say, five items on my to-do list in a given day, and I didn't want to do any of them, I might look at the list and say “I don't want to do any of these. Guess I'll go watch TV or read a book.”

Whereas as things are, I can avoid doing some of the top tasks by doing some of the smaller ones, so at least my procrastination is sometimes productive.

But even so, thirty is excessive. I'm gonna try to whittle it down to more like twenty.

One Response to “Getting organized”

  1. plantgirl

    re: procrastinator tricks-
    Sounds like the art of structured procrastination.

    “If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.”
    -John Perry


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