Looking for the right tool

I have a lot of things I try to accomplish each day. Each week. Each hour. And I, like (I suspect) many people, have trouble keeping track of what I am doing and what needs to happen next. Things get away from me. I get lost in the mess of competing needs.

I’m obviously not alone in this. There are books, lectures, podcasts, entire systems of habit and action devoted to helping people get a handle on their tasks. And, of course, there are computer programs, websites, and apps.

I use a combination of things.

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1. I keep my Google Calendar updated, and color-coded, and I get notifications on my phone, and I pay attention to the schedule.

2. I keep my email inbox as empty as possible. I use labels and folders, also color-coded. I unsubscribe from spam and mailing lists, I read-and-delete or read-and-file or read-and-answer, even if it’s just a note to say “I can’t answer this right now, I will get to it later.”

Aside: A note on communication.

I used to be the world’s most terrible communicator. I wrote a short story, “No Return Address” (which you can still read here at Strange Horizons) specifically in apology to my mother for essentially not calling her for all of high school and college. More or less. Letters and emails would arrive from friends and family and I would feel so guilty about not answering any of the previous notes that I would fail to answer these new ones, too.

This is a non-functional system. Avoidance may look like a method of coping, but I promise you, it’s a method that will shatter and fail. Whatever you are avoiding, pick a different coping strategy.

As a former poor communicator, I have a convert’s zeal. I *believe* in answering my email. Your personal mileage may vary.

End aside.

3. I use Instapaper to bookmark things I will want to read later. This is where I store links from Twitter and Tumblr that I suspect I will want to look at in more depth. When I have a few minutes to kill, I go check those links and see if there’s anything I want to read. This works for me because I can access Instapaper from my computer, phone, or tablet. Once I read it I either delete it or I file it in Evernote.

4. I use Evernote to bookmark things I have perused, yet may want to refer to later. I keep links to things I might want to buy, conventions I might want to go to, art or reprint stories for Apex Magazine that I may consider in the future. Most of what I have on Evernote, right now, is recipes. Links after link of recipes.

5. I use Remember the Milk to send me daily reminders. This was not really working out for me. I tend to see the email from RtM and delete it without reading, because it makes me feel stressed. “Yes,” I say to the app, “I KNOW I have shit to do, thank you very much.”

However, I do find it useful for making near-time reminders of unusual things. Not calender-scheduling stuff, like doctor’s appointments — I use GCalendar for that — but “after doctor’s appt call J to see if kid needs a ride.” That sort of thing. I set a time, the notif pushes through as I am waiting for the pharmacy to finish up, or whatever.

6. I just started using Trello for more complex project wrangling. I’m not certain it’s The Answer — I don’t believe that human nature, with all of our procrastination, avoidance, and short-term-benefit-focused reward system, is a problem to be solved. So “The Answer” is a faulty construction of the situation. — but I think it may be a useful portion of my task-management. Trello has a couple things that I favor. One is that it lets me create subtask checklists, and then rewards me with a progress bar for checking off items. Another is that, when a thing is done, I don’t delete it. Instead I move it to a column of completed items. I can SEE how much I have accomplished! Look at me go! The third thing I like is that it’s incredibly customize-able. And, of course, I can use it on my laptop, phone, or tablet.

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Outside of computer management and apps, there are a couple methodologies I follow to help get things done.

1. I love the ethos of Unfuck Your Habitat. I believe in it. Perfect is the enemy of getting anything started. The goal is not “clean,” a mythical and unattainable state of perfection, the goal is cleaner than things are right now. UFYH is fairly no-nonsense, but it’s also incredibly cheerleading. UFYH is rooting for you.

2. I really like Nerd Fitness. Now, caveat — Nerd Fitness is not aiming its remarks at people with disabilities, chronic illness, or mental or emotional hurdles. It’s a fitness site for more-or-less healthy people looking to improve their fitness. There’s a certain amount of “if you don’t do it you have only yourself to blame” rhetoric which is not to everyone’s taste.

However. Within those caveats, NF is one of the most broadly welcoming fitness sites I’ve found. (If you have never surfed the Deep Schisms of fitness regimens, let me assure you that the Reformation has NOTHING on these people.) The principle tenet of NF is just do something. Crossfit? Sure. Barbell lifting? Great. Marathons? Fantastic. Marital arts? Tell us about it!

Moreover, NF pushes the idea that lasting change is made of SMALL STEPS. One manageable goal at a time. No clean-sweep-conversions, here. Take a deep breath, take your time, make a list, and pick one small goal to do this week. Sustainable fitness.

3. I like the Mark Bittman school of cooking. His cookbooks emphasize that of course you are winging it. Of course you don’t have the perfect kitchen and all the ingredients. That’s fine. He emphasizes how real people coming home from work with only ninety minutes to cook and eat and clean up deal with healthy eating. It’s flexible, basic cooking that is accessible to a range of skill sets and economies. There is no perfection in his books. There’s good and then there’s room to improve.

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All of this is very personal, obviously. Your tastes will vary.

Specifically, your individual hangups and neuroses will vary. I mean, all of the above it just a complicated way of tricking myself into doing the things I should just cowgirl up and DO.

There are days, and today is one of them, where I feel very negative and self-critical for needing the tricks. For needing the lists and the rewards and the little gold stars. I think to myself, “Sigrid, if you were a REAL grown-up, a worthwhile and competent human, you would just fucking DO THE THINGS without all this dancing about. What’s wrong with you, that you feel you need cute little rewards and color-coded files? Why can’t you remember to do things and just do them? What makes you such a special fucking flower?”

That voice, there? That voice is bullshit. We’re human, we like to do things that are rewarding. Doing the dishes in not immediately rewarding. Answering project emails for a goal four months from now is not rewarding fast enough. Coordinating yet another endless round of who is driving the kids to what, when and where, is necessary for my long-term goals of raising competent and content human beings, but it doesn’t really compete with “oh my god I want to go to sleep now” in the reward front.

If you are stuck with something, figure out a reward that works for you. Fear and terror of failure is not a reward, by the way. The brief cessation of internally generated pain and anxiety is not actually a reward. It’s great, yes, by all means let us continue to avoid pain and failure! But maybe you could come up with something nice, too.

I like Trello. It gives me little progress bars towards completion. And then I put things in a big column which I have relabeled “WIKTORY.”

This makes me happy. There’s nothing that sinks your tasks and projects as fast as never feeling happy about them. So I constantly look for little bits of happiness in my workflow.

I hope that you do, too.

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2 Responses

  1. Humans use all sorts of tools to make our lives better. Just because we have more options now than our grandparents had, does not mean that we are taking the easy way out. My favorite household tool is the dishwasher. It easily frees up 30 minutes a day that I can use for other tasks. In fact, I believe that it is the cumulative results of labor-saving improvements like this that drove the amazing improvements in standard of living over the last 150 years. So take advantage of all your tools with a clear conscience.

    I also find Nerd Fitness very helpful. Are you participating in the 6-week challenges? I am in my forth challenge with the Rangers. I don’t use a name you would recognize, but I do use my own picture. Stop by and say hi sometime.

  2. @Lynn No, I stopped doing the 6-week challenges. Every time, I ended up injuring myself trying to make some goal ….

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