Article written for Visionen 2015/2.
Happiness is one of those concepts that is very difficult to describe, but you know it when you feel it. For me, an integral part of happiness is the feeling of being in control; unfortunately, I cannot describe how it feels to be completely in control, but I can describe all the 50 shades of being out of control.
Because I dislike everything about being out of control—the constant thinking about the loose ends, the panic and the anxiety, the lack of focus, the loss of productivity—I am on a constant quest to organize. When my obligations are neatly ordered, no matter how many of them there are, I procrastinate less and get more done.
The first book on the topic of organization that resonated with me is authored by David Allen and is entitled “Getting things done” (GTD). The most powerful message from the book—and quite obvious in retrospect—was the notion that our brain tends to “chew” on the same thoughts if they are left uncared for. If these thoughts involve some unfinished business, this can result in the feeling of anxiety that so often haunts me.
Another issue highlighted in the GTD book is that all of us “knowledge workers” share the lack of completeness, the lack of the feeling that something indeed is done. You could always be better prepared for the exam; the master thesis could always do with another round of revision; the analysis can always be repeated to make sure it is valid; the code can (almost) always use fewer resources; and this essay can be better written.
Another problem that I shared (share?) with the intended readership of the GTD book is the complexity of the projects that I am working on in relation to how easy it is to start them. Paradoxically, the larger the projects—i.e., the more work needs to be done—the more difficult it is for me to start working. In particular, if the project involves activities that are not too much fun—grading written exams, to take a random example—I only start working when the deadline is angrily huffing and puffing down my neck.
What I will describe in this article are some of the strategies that I implemented to avoid the aforementioned problems. Most of the strategies are based on the GTD book, but I have extended them to trick my brain into thinking that organization is fun. Procrastination, be gone!
Getting things done
The central ideas of the GTD book can be summed up in five words: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. Capture all the items that require your attention; these can range from the trivial, such as cleaning the whiteboard, to the more engaging, such as organizing the class notes. Clarify what kind of an action the item will require; for example, for cleaning the whiteboard, you must be at work or University, where the whiteboard is located, and you must have the cleaning products available. Organize the items (Figure 1); for example, you will have a list “At work,” where you can add your action “Clean the whiteboard.” However, if the cleaning products are not available, the preceding action is to buy or order them. If you do not know where to buy or how to order them, you need to find the relevant information. And going back this way, you will finally find an “actionable” item that is required for your mini project of cleaning the whiteboard to proceed. Reflecting is both the most difficult and the most crucial component of your system; you will regularly update your lists and reflect on the next actions that will lead to success. Finally, engaging will follow the Nike slogan, “Just do it.” And I am sure you will find engaging much easier when you have a clear picture of everything that needs to be done in front of you.
I try to capture and have an overview of everything I need to do, and this is particularly crucial with email. I used to have some elaborate scheme to label the emails in the inbox, so each time I would look at the inbox, I would get a slight jolt of panic with the sight of everything that requires my attention. And add on top of that the time lost sifting through the differently labeled emails that were interspersed with emails that no longer require my attention.
However, this changed markedly with the introduction of the GTD principles in my work. Combined with another productivity idea, “inbox zero,” I now have a firm grasp on my email inbox. Inbox zero is similar to the GTD principles I just described: for each incoming email, decide if it can be 1) archived, 2) forwarded to someone else to answer, 3) answered immediately (i.e., in less than 2 minutes), and 4) taken care of later, when there is more time. Having taken care of them, categories 1, 2, and 3 can be archived; category 4 goes in a special folder named Action. I will periodically revisit the Action folder, and try to address the emails there.
In addition to the Action inbox, I have two more folders: 1) Waiting, for emails that I am expecting a response for (e.g., some request I made to the ETH administration) and 2) Notes, for emails that are handy to have close by, such as e-tickets for upcoming flights. I will periodically purge these folders, archiving all the emails that do not belong there anymore.
Implementing the system
There are different methods to implement the GTD principles, both digital and paper-based, but the one I found most useful is Trello: essentially a collection of boards with lists where each list consists of cards, and each card will represent one action or one project. What I needed was a system that does not have too many bells and whistles, is portable across all my devices, and is free to use in its basic form. For some, this will be a simple pen and paper, for others some emacs voodoo, and for someone else it might be Endnote.
The little tomato that could
However, I found myself procrastinating some tasks even when my system was in (relative) order and next tasks are clear. Most often, this happens with tasks that I know will take a while to complete, but that I dread. For example, I rarely find writing the Methods section for papers exciting. Yet, this is an important part of reporting my results to the scientific community, so there is no way of dodging it if I wish to have a complete publication. This is where another productivity system comes in handy: the pomodoro principle.
It is—like any good idea—simple in its brilliance. The idea is to spend 25 undisturbed minutes on a problem, and then take a small break, about 5 minutes. The name comes from the italian word for tomato, because the inventor of the method (reportedly) used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato to measure these 25 minutes.
What I find brilliant about this idea is that I can trick my brain into starting a task that I find tedious because there is an end in sight: I will not spend infinity time on the Methods section, just these 25 minutes. In turn, what I realize during one “pomodoro” is that I was needlessly stressing about the task; once the inertia of doing kicks in, I go with the flow, and very often spend more than one pomodoro on the previously dreaded task. The key is to focus on the process, rather than on the goal.
To implement the pomodoro system, all you need is a device to measure time that has an alarm. However, I found that putting as few obstacles (i.e., taps or clicks) between me and the time measuring will result in a more successful implementation of the system, so I have a small app on my computer that starts the 25 min timer with one click.
How do hedgehogs and cats come into the picture?
The one thing that I found myself missing with the systems above was prioritizing and having an insight into how much I get done per day or per week. Also, I was missing something to make the system especially attractive for me to use. As it turns out, my system was not cute enough.
Each of the priority projects that I need to tackle in a week, I add to a list. For each project, I estimate the time I need, and measure this in 25 minute intervals. Then, I stamp as many hedgehogs as there are 25 minute intervals (Figure 2). For each interval I spend on the project, I cross out one hedgehog. Of course, in the beginning, my estimations of the time a project would require were off by a few hours. But with practice, I became much better at estimating how much time I need to finish a particular task.
Still, there are tasks that will inevitably cost me more time that I anticipate. For these, I have another stamp, a cat. Cats are the symbol of procrastination and cuteness (and cheeseburger?), so in my system they indicate I spent more time than anticipated on a particular project.
What I learned in the process of crossing out hedgehogs is that the old advice suggesting to only plan 60% of your time holds true: there will be unplanned meetings, consultations, questions from the colleagues. To avoid panic—the initial reason to start the system—it is wise to be realistic with time management.
Now that we are at the end, I must ask you: did you start reading this text to procrastinate some other obligation?