Surviving a busy life.

A serialised essay by Paul Atkins.

One of my interests is how to get more done with the little time we are given. I read widely on this subject as I see many people getting through a lot more than I can. I want to take life and wring out all the good stuff.

Without being pretentious, I’d like to share with you a few of the things I am learning, perhaps you feel like me, you are too busy, time is racing by, you fear regrets may be building.

So over the next few months, I will include a few words on this topic with each newsletter. It will be specifically about tools and techniques you can use to get more done in your day. This is not magical wishing guff, I will not be handing you any ‘Secret’. I know this will be useful information that you can take or leave.

1 – That panicked feeling

If you occasionally wake with that flash reminding you of something left undone, or sitting quietly involves battling thoughts that zoom in and out of your mental depths, you may want to hit the brake and consider what you are going through.

Chances are you have a lot on your plate. Many of these items are important and positive, and some you just don’t want to do. All these items have one thing in common; they will always be there, some go, some are replaced, some stay, but unless you are ‘pushing up the daisies’ they will be there.

So you have to accept that fact.

Fact accepted…?…then lets get on with making it all work better. Lets Capture everything. Write down everything that is bugging you, quickly, miss nothing, include everything. You can write them down on cards, in a book, in a spread sheet, or any kind of list listing device. Step 1 is capture.

2 – A long list?

No doubt it will be a long list. And if you are still standing it will be lengthening (can I say that?). The discipline must be that when something flies into your consciousness, your write it down. You capture everything before it flies away. Only when you are capturing everything, can you trust the list. If you can trust the list, then you know you won’t miss anything.

The next step is to have a long look at the list. If this is the first time you have made such a list, it may be filled with some crazy stuff. You need to recognise the crazy stuff and eliminate it. Statements like ‘be a better person’ are intangible, we are tackling items you can grasp, items that are gnawing at you.

Also be realistic, don’t fill your list with ‘unobtanium’ (eg: win a million dollars), these items need to be acknowledged for what they are and smiled at. Having crazy things hovering on your list will kill the sense of achievement when you are working the list.

One of my favourite authors on the subject, Merlin Mann, suggests that anything on the list that will take 2 minutes or less to complete, should be done immediately. I find myself attacking the 5 minute jobs immediately, but I am sure you get the point. Those items that take longer need to be divided into those that will take many steps to complete (projects) and those that are single step items (actions).

What we are aiming for is for each list item to have a single action to complete. So for a project, you need to break it down to the tiny steps it will take to complete.

Q: How do you eat an elephant?
A: A little bit at a time.

So set aside time each day to review the list. How long this will take will depend on the length of the list. When you are using this completely, it can take an average of 15 minutes to do the review. The best way to review the list is without distraction, so lock the dock, switch off phone/email/facebook/twitter and dig in. Be tough on the list, if you suspect an item is a waste of your time, kill it immediately. Use the list to plan your day.

03 – Caring

Merlin Mann talks so eloquently on the importance of this little word. Caring about what is on your list is at the heart of how you should edit it. Contemplating how much actual time an average person has to live, (ugh), sharpens your idea of what you should be spending your time on.

This is the time for honesty. This is the time to look at what you are making yourself do.

  • Do these tasks deserve your attention?
  • Will they contribute to the bigger objectives in your life?
  • Is each item the next single action in moving towards your goals?
  • Are the items achievable?

One of the key skills in this practise, is the understanding of what you are capable of doing each day. The process of gaining this understanding takes a long time. I am a year into it and I find myself lying to ‘me’ about how productive I am. I always think I can do more in a day. Perhaps I am an optimist.

I have found this optimism to be quite stressful. My morning reviews get the adrenalin gushing, and the during the day I catch myself moving items over to tomorrow’s tasks. You could call it cheating. I am sure it is a mix of this, procrastination, and learning how I work.

Not every item on your list will be a step up the pyramid to enlightenment, you may need to buy some loo paper on the way home! But remember who you are living your life for, and how much time you have to live it.

04 – Projects

Dave Allen of ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) makes the critical point that each item on your list needs to be a single action.

This is critical because any list item not properly thought through and broken down will mess with your head. Remember, the objective of using lists is to get the mess out of your head onto paper, thus freeing up your head from the anxiety of “…there is something I have to do!!??!!” or as I like to call it, ‘an about-to-lower boom’ (a boom is a nautical term that is best described by the sound made when a large, important thing hits you in the head).

So we take the time to analyse the list items into single action items (e.g. buy a saw) from the projects (e.g. build a boat). Conjuring this project detail will take time, but when flying through your list you will welcome the already completed thinking stage.

How much detail do you put into breaking down a project? Here is an example, do you put ‘clean the bedroom’ on the list, or do you list ‘vacuum under the bed’, ‘clean behind the door’, ‘dust the lamps’,etc? I would think that ‘vacuum the house’ could be a single action item in the ‘clean the house’ project, because you may wish to add ‘dust the lamps’ on a specific cycle, but not every time. Providing the list items are clearly broken down, so they do not call on your memory or calculation power, you have a sensible list.

The amount of detail added will vary between people and the tasks, it is about what you can do with minimal thought. What can you act decisively on.

Making a regular time to set out your lists, analysing the items, reviewing them, break them down into do-able chunks is an enormously freeing experience. So much of your day will be filled with action, not thinking on the fly. Your decisions will improve. So will your inner peace.

05 – Contexts

Dave Allen and those wonderful people at OmniFocus say that any single action has a ‘context’. That is to say it takes a place, person or tool to complete.

Why do you need to define a context for each action? Aside from it being a thorough way to describe each action, it can have big benefits when managing your lists.

For example, this is super-efficient when a task requires you physically to be somewhere to complete. I have a context called “Bunnings” in my lists, we purchase supplies there for the lab, and I have the occasional need for a new “x” for my boat construction. Both are separate list items in separate projects, but when I get to Bunnings, I can kill both jobs. Straight from the Jetsons, some software will even note where you are (via smartphone GPS) and pull up those items that need to be done at that location!

Consider ‘people’ as a context, can you imagine all those items from a multitude of projects that need discussing with your business partner, when you schedule your meeting, you have an instant agenda.

06 – Thinking

When do you get time to ponder all of these projects? Life is very distracting, good clean thinking time is what is needed to pick through your priorities.

I had put off buying an iPad because I was concerned about adding any more ‘input’ into my world. More noise that fills my attention. It seems as though all these gadgets stop us from being quiet. Are we afraid of boredom? We need quiet time, time away from entertainment.

At PMA in Sydney last month, I had the pleasure of hearing Ita Buttrose talk and some time during her presentation, my phone grumbled at me. I glanced at it in a distracted way and cursed technology for interrupting. It led me to thinking about how technology adds to a busy life. Then Ita came out with the best line of the morning, it went something like this: ‘The problem today is that executives are taking showers. There is not time to really think in a shower. What they need are baths, everyone should take a bath and think.’

I am a fan of the bath, but my current bath and size are at odds, however we have a plan for a new bathroom and a bigger bath might just fit…

Back to the PMA tradeshow floor, I was wandering around, lusting after gadgets and accessories and I caught sight of a waterproof iPad case!! Wow, I can enjoy my iPad in the bath! Wow what a short memory I have.

Then I looked closer, the iPad was flickering, water had worked it’s way into the case…

I think I may have found my sanctuary from distraction, my time to think.

07 – Attitude

Let’s look a little closer at Ita Buttrose. Can you imagine her life, the ups and downs, the battles and the parties? How would you like to work under the Packer family, and fight for your ideas, see them work and watch them fold…All in the era of “come here love, sit on my lap”.

Here is a person who is surviving a busy life, and they have done so through extraordinary circumstances.

The most impressive aspect of Ita’s presentation was her attitude to life. Gary Glenn once said ‘it is your attitude not your aptitude that determines your altitude’. It is how you take life that defines you, not what is thrown at you.

Ita has bundles of attitude. The ‘take away’ line from this aspect of her speech was ‘When Ita (the magazine) folded, I was devastated, but I soon realised that it was just a chapter in my life, not the book.’.

In my case, the genesis of having a busy life is a desire not to miss out on anything. I get lots of opportunities flying across my desk and keep grabbing at them, and I would guess most people think the same way. Often these ideas lead to nowhere, the best will be a big gamble.

So if you are going to play this way, you need to have your attitude ‘prepared’ and the system in place to give each idea it’s best chance at being extraordinary.

08 – Tools

So what tools can you use to make this work? I know we all like to ‘gear up’ for these things (speaking for the boys especially!).

How about Merlin Mann’sHipster PDA“; Coloured file cards, clipped together with a dog clip…? Consider what the aim of this system is: capture the thoughts as they swim about your head. You need a device that can work anywhere, and the price of the “Hipster PDA” is great.

Let’s look at a bundle-of-paper-dog-clipped more carefully: The ability to take your captured notes and physically order them is what it is all about. A book does not allow for easy reordering. A diary is a good capture device, but it will not allow for sorting without re-writing. The ‘friction’ of having to re-write may stop the system from working.

The next logical step: Software. The modern solution. This is obviously a job for a database, and ideally one you can carry in your pocket. The more the tool is at your immediate command, the more you are likely to use it.

I am a fan of Omnifocus.

Warning from the outset, Omnifocus is mac only for desktop and laptop computers, but they have an excellent iPhone and iPad version, and I know many windows users with iPhones. Omnifocus can sync in the cloud, so you can view your tasks from any of your connected devices.

Why do I like Omnifocus?

  • It has been designed under Dave Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) system, it is a honed tool that just does GTD.
  • It’s notifications remind you when something needs doing.
  • Reviewing projects is elegantly handled, and makes the weekly scan of what you have on the go a pleasure.
  • It can receive emails, voice and pictures, so capturing is simple.
  • All actions have a context, ie where you need to be to perform the task. Omnifocus is location aware, so it can bring up the tasks you need do when you get there. Very useful when you are outside the supermarket.
  • Perspectives. You can look at your tasks from many angles, and you can customise the view to suit yourself. Eg; Viewing every task due within the next week that needs to discussed with your partner.

What I don’t like about Omnifocus?

  • Not windows compatible.
  • Can be daunting to begin with.

Omnifocus is worth reviewing, however there are others. But be warned, because software opens up a world of opportunity, you have to be careful it only does as much as needed. Using you email program’s task manager opens up a world of distractions, so this is a bad idea. Beware of ‘features’.

The keys to a good survival tool are simplicity and robustness.

09 – Priorities – you can slice your cake a small number of ways.

You have your life, it can be divided up into time segments, you estimate how much total time you have and I’m sure you are well aware of how this can change. Now hold this idea of ‘scarcity of time’ in your conscious.

Hopefully you give yourself the opportunity decide on how this time-pie is divided up. Don’t be a victim on this one, seize control as often as you can. Only you can know what you want to spend time on.

Merlin Mann suggests a priority is something that involves care and sacrifice. You must care enough about the task to sacrifice other things to get it done. Care is a soft harmless, well-meaning word, but add it to the term sacrifice and it sharpens things.

We all know what sacrifice is. The word looms out of history every ANZAC day, it carries a lot of weight when you consider swapping your life for a cause. Sacrifice is a huge concept, but it is ideal when you are considering your priorities.

What do you care enough about to consume up that time-pie..?

This essay is called “Surviving a busy life”. I want you to consider what is making your life busy? Are these items priorities, is the sacrifice aligned with what you care about, what you really care about?

10 – Making changes.

Have you been the victim of a New Years resolution? How often have you made or completed one? I am sure failure is the most common outcome. So what goes wrong? Intentions are first class undoubtably. Perhaps they are made with alcohol…or perhaps real change is really difficult.

Most of our resolutions are grand ones, but they are goals that we are setting ‘off the cuff’ without much thought to their achievability. Gary Glenn defines success as “the progressive realisation of any worthwhile personal goal”. So setting a goal or New Years resolution needs to be carefully thought through, you don’t want to set yourself up for failure.

By playing fast and loose with goals, you set up a ‘muscle memory’ for failure. You train yourself to accept it. You may want to change, but because you have set about it poorly so often, your subconscious is ok with failure. It is like training a pet, regular reward for good behaviour reinforces the behaviour, and given time, good behaviour will be the norm.

So let us consider those goals very carefully, then work backwards noting the steps it will take to get there. Write them down, each step is a single action. Tick those steps off when you achieve them. This will allow you the joy of succeeding towards your worthwhile goal. This will retrain your behaviour.

Now consider this example. Resolution: I want to get fit this year. Question: how? Answer: by walking 30 minutes each day. Question: where will the 30 mins come from? Answer: I’ll get up earlier! This makes the first step get up earlier. And so on. That first step is surely achievable.

Finally, it is worth being a little easy on yourself. Surely if you miss a day here and there you are still making that goal of getting fit? Success is progressive, you are working towards that goal, you have to stumble, what gets you there is the behaviour of getting up and moving towards the goal. That is the behaviour you need to encourage.

I am sure Picasso painted some crap, and Hemmingway certainly wrote some, but what defined them was the active passion towards what they cared about.


43 Folders, by Merlin Mann
Getting Things Done, by David Allen
Omnifocus, an application for Mac, iPhone and iPad
Gary Glenn