Assessing an Approach to Getting Many Things Done
Aug 21, 2020
How does one focus and finish more things?
This post is a brain dump, and not a refined version. So let’s consider this part 0 shall we?
I like to do many things. I get bored with doing the same thing for extended periods of time. It is a facet that is handy in many ways, but a handicap in getting substantial work done. One gets distracted soon, or lose momentum in something once you take the foot of the pedal for a bit. This is manifest in the laundry list of unfinished ideas/work.
I can hazard a guess that I am not the only one to suffer from this.1
Surviving is not doing
There was a time, in fact, plenty of times at work where I was looking to survive the day. That was the only motive. See this day off in the hope that tomorrow will be better. It was natural, things get out of hand sometimes, and the pressure of time is getting to you. The end of the day is a hope for a clean slate and a fresh mind. When a series of such days happen, you will notice a pattern elsewhere in your work. Your To Do list begins to look enormous.
The first conclusion you derive is that your work load has increased. It explains the pressure you are going through and is evident in your list of tasks to do. It begins to bog you down and the gap between what’s done and what needs to be done widens. The list goes longer. Weekends pass by in a blur. All you remember is Friday night, whatever happened to the other two.
Monday morning is brisk however. It’s a new week, you hope to do things differently. You look at your To Do, you begin bargaining with it, move around a few things, add a few things to get going quickly. Let’s get stuff done. A few things get crossed off and you feel the tide is with you. By Tuesday afternoon but things have turned for the worse. You long for Friday, and actually plan to work in the solitude of your home to get some work done and bring your task list under control. Now the days don’t seem enough.
What started as surviving a day, has expanded with your task list to surviving weeks. Finally there is no momentum left to lose. Everything fun has become boring.
Misery Thy Name is To Do List
I am now under the impression that To Do lists are the biggest distractions to productivity and not its ultimate aid.
They give you a false sense of accomplishment or productivity. The epiphany of this struck me when I wrote down on my journal - Read a book a week. I broke it down into - you have five days in the week, so read twenty percent of the book’s total pages every day and you are done. You even have two days of buffer at the end to catch up if you miss any*. I was glib about that and spent five minutes looking at the page smiling like a jackass. Then the smile waned. It didn’t look practical. And it began to feel like work.
I wrote down all the things I wanted to do, at least the ones I could think of then. And why I wanted to do them. And then I wrote down next to them. Now choose five things out of this, and finish them in the same order that you have written them.
I decided to not draw my sense of productivity from the length of my things to do. It has to come from what others can see. So I might read twenty different things to get a newsletter down, but my task weren’t those twenty things, my task was the newsletter. If I want to read books for their pleasure, then they are no longer tasks, they should go into a routine. And routines shouldn’t have to do list almost by definition. Things that should not be skipped at any expense.
I then thought this could be improved further. Why am I choosing even five out of the master list of things. Why have a list at all.
The Idea of One Thing at a Time
I decided to reframe that choice on the page into - Things to see. What would I like to see. Then I wrote - pick one.
The idea was, just pick one thing that is a tangible thing, and put all energies into doing it. Don’t add new things to a to do until you are done with the big thing.2
When you are done with one thing to your satisfaction, take a small break and move on to the next thing you want to do.
As I thought more about this, I had questions rise up in my head (as evident in my journal above). I have tried to answer them the best I could to myself.
What if the thing we want to do is a big thing? Shouldn’t we break it down into smaller things and do them one at a time?
Sure, we should, but not as a list of things to do. Use your brain to decide and remember what needs to be done. Use written lists not as a guide, but as reminders, a checklist, not a to do list. But once you start, you don’t stop till you have decided that you are finished. There is no going back to it. Stretch the time you give yourself to finish it as much as possible. You are doing things for the satisfaction of doing things, so be satisfied and then close it. Once you decide it is closed it is closed. This way you do fewer things, but you finish more.
If a big project requires you to learn or read something new, then by all means do it, but finish that part of your project, and then move on to the next. Give yourself as much time as you need, but don’t open new branches.
But what about other things? I am a person with many interests.
Sure, and you can do all that you want to do. In this case, put a routine on things you enjoy doing and don’t break the chain on that. But consider and understand that moving is not going. You love to sketch, you love to run, drive, you love books, and so much more. It’s great to have great taste, but don’t confuse activity with accomplishment. Don’t mix routine with goals.
Run, paint, read, study, eat, brush, bathe, everyday. Don’t compromise on it. But don’t let it give a false sense of progress. These are akin to cleaning and oiling things. Things don’t end by getting those well oiled machines to work, but they end when the machines output something.
If you want to run a marathon, but you are not good enough to run one, don’t add that as the goal. Keep it for later, start with a smaller goal for now. Say run every day for a month. Then change it after you achieve that to running for speed or for endurance of a different variety. Focus all your energies on getting that done. If you are pursuing a goal, the tasks become self evident, you don’t need a list.
The important point is, if you are enjoying something why stop and do something else. Best to close it, unfinished even, and move on if the heart is not in it. And don’t come back to it. Don’t let it take space in your head.
Try and pick something to do that can bring all your talents to work. Choose things that help express yourself completely. And keep doing them but also keep finishing them.
Focus on the done of getting many things done, and to focus is to trim the spotlight, to shine it on one thing.
What about impulse, and serendipity and things you do because you have a deep urge to do, even while you are doing deep work?
Break the rules I suppose. Be flexible and cut yourself some slack.
It is a tricky thing because, it is not that we will constantly find things to immerse ourselves in. The breaks you take in between these projects should ideally meet all cravings. But ideal is not a certainty. The question to answer is whether you are enjoying what you are doing. If not listen to impulses and come back and be straight with yourself if you want to do what you were doing.
- Stop making to do lists
- Don’t live by days
- Write down goals not tasks
- Take one goal at a time
- Start a goal when ready
- Finished or Unfinished, close before moving ahead
- Be flexible, not all goals need be mammoth
This where I am with my idea of work and getting things done. I haven’t linked to or cited anything to substantiate this because it is just a nascent idea. I will try it, and if it works I could look out and see if others say and do the same thing and if they have improved on it. Finally, what we want is to put our time to good use and make each other’s lives better. See if this works for you, or if you already work in this manner, let me know what your learning has been. My email and Twitter details are in the footer.