In today’s world of relentless distractions including email, social media and app notifications, we’ve also become obsessed with organising that chaos through tools and processes which promise to bring order to our messy lives. But do these to-do apps, project management tools and the like really help, or are they giving us yet another reason to indulge in useless busy-ness?
Over the years I’ve tried everything, and I’ve come to the conclusion that our answers lie not in the tools, but a few simple principles.
Just Do It
The best thing you can do right now is just get on with it. If you look at successful people down the ages, they didn’t need any planning or productivity tools. Just the guitar, paintbrush or golf club required to do their thing. Their burning desire to create and complete something drove them on without having to overthink it. The most creative people I know all work like this, they simply do what they need to with minimal planning.
Realise the Preciousness of Time
For some it requires a major life event like losing a loved one or having a near-fatal accident to bring home the immense preciousness of life. For others, and I suspect this is a common trait in successful people, it runs through their head every single day.
So if you’re not thinking about your mortality and the fragility of life every day, try it. This sense of urgency you will feel is something you need to reconnect with on a daily basis.
This doesn’t just mean you should think about death every day. Just think about how precious today is, and at the end of it be grateful you got to have today, whatever happened. All the dead people you know would have done anything for today.
Know Your Calling
If you’re lacking that burning desire that naturally gives you the energy to get on with it, you’re likely doing the wrong thing in life. What is the thing that would truly excite you, and what’s stopping you doing it? Most likely the answer to the latter part of that question is fear. Fear to tell your family that you’re going to take a big risk and do something different from that which you studied or trained for. Fear of failure. Fear of losing your house. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of being told it’s not viable or a daft idea. Maybe even a fear of wasting your precious time (that’s a valid one!).
Answer that question and then…
A Simple To Do List
There’s clearly a lot of comfort in to-do list and time management apps. But having used a lot of them I feel that the filling in of tasks, checklists and deadlines is in itself useless busy-ness. We naturally love useless busy-ness. It makes us feel productive. It’s so seductive because it’s very easy to start (unlike the valuable things we should be doing).
Other things that fall into this category of activity are checking email, reading social media and wandering the internet. But useless busy-ness creates almost zero value for you or anyone, and is a killer drain on our two most precious resources — time and brainpower. Those resources, particularly brainpower — cognitive energy, attention or however you want to term it — need to be spent on what you’re really good at.
Keep a simple to-do list that requires as little management as possible. I have a Notes (on Mac and iPhone — your system has an equivalent) note containing a few small lists categorised by the life goal to which they contribute. Each task on there must drive towards that goal. There should also be a personal list for stuff at home like repairs, things to buy and looking after family. Each task should be the immediate thing you’re going to do. So instead of ‘publish a book’, just start with ‘write pitch for book about birds’. You don’t need a project plan for stuff like that because you know what comes next. Just get started.
So mine is a somewhat spartan approach to task management. But after all these years of trying so many different processes I’ve realised that being protective of my time and attention, because I appreciate its value, and then just getting on with it with a minimal to-do list is what works for me.