Tackling To Do Lists

Understanding (your) Self:

In my social psychology class one week we studied the concept of The Self.  Roy Baumeister, author of the popular book Willpower, and editor of the text my class used, proposes that there are three basic roots, or areas of study, when considering selfhood: Self Awareness, Interpersonal Relations (how others perceive us), and Self- Control (how we make and achieve goals).

Since Self-Control is fascinating to me as a person trying to navigate this ‘growing up’ thing, I paid particular attention to that section of the text. I grinned when Baumeister cited some research that confirmed my personal experience that “self awareness is essentially for the sake of self-regulation.” Self regulation is therefore necessary to achieve goals.  My initial impressions of adulthood are that most of it is an exercise in self-control.

Self Control and Adulthood:

Well, in order to achieve anything long term (and in direct contrast to childhood – almost everything necessary to function in adulthood is long term – owning and caring for property, paying bills, contributing meaningfully to society, raising children…etc) you need to have a certain level of knowledge and mastery – which is mostly achieved through self-controlled study or experience.

Which leads to another personal conclusion that to-do lists are a necessary tool of adulthood in a modern world where we’ve got dozens of competing goals we need to decide between prioritizing.  BUT… even though tackling to-do lists will help you get many things done – depending on your level of energy, time, and motivation you might find it impossible to check things off.

This is why I think it is equally important to categorize things to do and then use the right strategy for tackling the To-Do list. I don’t think you can always accomplish tasks in the same way each time, mainly because you become accustomed to that particular approach and then start slacking off.  There’s a similar phenomenon in dieting – people get bored of eating cottage cheese, salads, and chicken every day so they start seeking novelty – and fall off the bandwagon.

Here are 3 of my strategies for tackling to-do lists and achieving focus.

Note: These strategies are particularly for tackling mental work.

3 Things Method

The Three Things Method:

Every 2 weeks I make a list of mental tasks that need to get done – generally things I can’t accomplish with my son around. This allows me to identify what times are useable (nap time, bed time) and what times aren’t (the witching hour 5-7pm). Then depending on the day and amount of time available, I pick 3 things (the most important on the list!) and focus on ONLY those 3 things – nothing else on the master list.  Clearing my mind of the other items makes it easier for me to focus.

Checkbox Method

The Checkbox Method:

I have a weak prospective memory – or in other words – I’m easily distractable. (Doesn’t the first one sound so much better?!).  I might sit down to read a book, then remember I need to answer an email, and find myself reading a newspaper article which prompts me to check my bank account.  It’s easy (for me) to lose an hour of productivity that way. Which is why, when I often start work I take a scrap piece of paper and make a series of boxes.  Each box represents 15 minutes of focus on a task.  If I complete 15 minutes of focus, I check it off.  If I don’t, I X it.  I feel a certain level of shame if I look at more than 2 boxes with an X in them, which prompts me to try harder to focus.  In my experience – focus begets more focus… and I can usually con myself into just fifteen more minutes of work.

Categorize Method

The Balanced Modes Method:

On my master mental tasks lists there are generally three types of tasks: thinking, reading, and writing. Although I sometimes have the energy to tackle 3 reading items… I often don’t. Who can read 100 pages of psychology textbook at once?  Answer: Not me.  So, I try and balance the tasks that I accomplish by switching between two modes.  First I’ll read for a set amount of time or length – then I’ll write for set amount of time or length.

Additionally…

I also like Gretchin Rubin’s 15 Minute “Tackle a  Nagging task” method which I read about in “The Happiness Project” (highly recommend!).  Sometimes tasks are so tedious, or difficult, or simply abhorrent that you can’t do it,  So, you break the task down into 15 minute pieces and you commit to doing 15 minutes (and ONLY 15 minutes) on the task every day until it’s complete.  This works for mental tasks AND other household tasks.

Could you see yourself using any of these strategies?  Do you have other strategies to get yourself through your to-do lists?

Keeping the Sabbath?

SAbbath KeepingMichael Sleeth came to speak at Gordon College, my alma mater, and I was giddily excited to see him.  I really enjoyed his book Serve God, Save the Planet, and have recommended it to many people since then (here’s the blog post I wrote about it.)

The focus of his talk though, was his newer book “24/6: A prescription for a happier healthier life.”  This book details the benefits and reasons for engaging in a weekly Sabbath which includes practicing several things (eg; hospitality, reflection, study) as well as abstaining from many things (eg: extended travel, commerce, hyperconnectivity, work (however you define it.)).

I agree with him on all those points.  But… bottom line – I can’t incorporate a “full-on Sabbath” into my life right now.  There isn’t a single day of the week that I can set aside to practice ALL of the recommendations AT ONCE (for multiple boring reasons you don’t want to read about.)

BUT, I do work hard at incorporating each principle throughout my week, and my long standing interest in the issue of rest and leisure (stemming from, unsurprisingly, my time in New Zealand wwoofing) means that in the past, I HAVE practiced “full-on Sabbath.”

Here is my short list of Sabbath practices and what they look like during my week, as a contrast to what they can look like on a single day.

Time for Reflection: Knowing that I would be busy during the school year, I purposely scheduled a time to reflect on the week, lessons learned, and changes to make, as well as a time to puzzle out interesting philosophical questions that arose.  For me, this meant giving up one of my son’s naptimes as a time for work, and instead allocate it as a time for reflection.  Adding on one extra hour of study to two other study sessions fixed the time difference with minimal sacrifice.

– No Emails on Saturday – (self explanatory, right.)

Limited hours on social media sites all week.  I have found that I am better able to manage my time, motivation, and productivity when I set aside time to browse ridiculous buzzfeed articles, watch movie trailers, and read blogs rather than taking “breaks” from study by indulging in 10 minutes here and there.  Inevitably I am distracted for much longer than I want.  Furthermore, I NEVER (okay, very very rarely) multitask between spending time with my son and the internet.  I know that won’t work for many others, but I have found it to be extremely free-ing to simply limit my computer hours to those when he isn’t around, or isn’t awake.

– Time for friendships – I agree with Michael Sleeth (and others) that part of the Sabbath should be time spent practicing hospitality and strengthening friendships, and making new ones.  I am sure to set aside at least 1 – 2 nights/afternoons a week for time to actively connect with others.  Generally, I also try to authentically engage with others during these time on more than simply a surface level (ie: ‘tell me about your day’) – though, there is nothing wrong with that if not done exclusively!

Limited Commerce – The average American spends 45 minutes a day shopping, so I read in a recent newsource.  (Whether that’s online, or physical stores I’m not sure, I didn’t dig into the numbers, nor did I dig into whether it included services (like haircuts?) as well.)  That’s about 5 hours a week.  Since I make it my goal to spend less than 5 hours a month in stores, this one is waaay to easy for me to make a habit.  Of all of Sleeth’s suggestions, this one is the easiest for me to see the benefit of.

And you – what are your thoughts on the Sabbath? On rest?  On practicing these elements of life?  Is what I’m doing technically not Sabbath keeping?

Robots, Restructuring, and Finding Rest.

imustkillalloftherobots via www.explodingdog.com

A few weeks ago I was reading another doom and gloom article in TIME about how robots and automatization are taking over the world, people are losing jobs, and the only skills worth pursuing are those that involve creative thought or highly original movements (like human haircutting.)

I keep hearing how these decades-to-come may be called the Great Restructuring.

My first reaction when I read these articles is –

AHHHH I just spent the last 10 years of my life figuring out what I want to do, what if in 5 years I have to start this process again… from scratch!!  I better start hoarding cash and skills so I can beat everyone else in the job race!

Or – I am getting older and things are not getting better.  What if I’m in my late fifties and s*** really hits the fan?

Obviously – these are very healthy reactions.

Not.

As usual, I’m then laying on the couch moaning about living in a basement forever, or scavenging for in dumpsters for food that the robots unknowingly discard when my husband offers a little comfort.  Usually something scholarly; insight from a different angle.

Such as this (paraphrase) –

“You know – Marx used to dream about the day when the workers would only have 20 hour work weeks and be able to pursue their own interests.  It all comes down to whether they are able to support themselves, and are happily ‘unemployed’ or destitute.”

Oh.

Yeah.

Aren’t we all striving for an endless weekend?  That’s what these books about four hour workweeks are… right?

I haven’t made it my study to know all the detailed logic of how the robot economy will be structured, or how workers will get fed, or what money will look like, or how it will be distributed.  My gut instinct is not good (see above). I don’t want to ignore these questions especially because the pertain to issues of social justice and equality.

But one thing I do spend considerable time reading and researching and (as a stay at home mom) participating in is leisure time.  Especially (re: stay at home mom) leisure time without a lot of a cash.

If it’s true that in the future we will all have considerably more “disposable time” on our hands, which may, unfortunately, come in the form of unemployment, then collectively we must get better at educating each other, our children, and our society on how to spend that time and ultimately, how to save (or redeem) that time for both restful and creative use.  This will be use of time that ultimately should restore our minds and souls, particularly when we may be without roles we’ve counted on in the past – ie: those jobs and the distinctions of certain titles.

From a Christian perspective – it is part of our very nature to act as creators. Men and women are made in the image, after all, of their Creator.  In the image of God, they create.

From a psychological perspective (re: Maslow, Csizkzentmihalyi) people seek to become self-fulfilled, to achieve mastery, to be creative, to exist in a state of “flow.”  A place where they recognize that they are being optimally engaged in a process that stretches, teaches, and uses their abilities, then allows them to extend them.

Neither or these perspectives is fulfilled by the current ideal American leisure as protrayed in the popular media – shopping for yet another item of clothing – indulging in a mindless moral morass of reality television,* vacationing in Cancun.   It is precisely because of that word “mindless” that these activities are not suited toward expanded hours of leisure.  To resign ourselves to the majority of our lives attempting to live on the fruits of the creativity of others is to sink our own brains and bodies into slime.

(*Can you mindfully watch television?  Yes – I believe that you can.  I just don’t believe that you can mindfully watch 35 hours of television a week.  Any more than I believe you can mindfully eat 6000 calories a day, or mindfully accrue $10,000 of credit card debt. )

But where have we been instructed in how to creatively and uniquely pursue leisure? Many of our opportunities have been taken away from us by the cheap convenience of mass produced goods (who needs to create clothes anymore?), dwindling budgets (another story about cutting art class? How cliche) or too much time commuting to enjoy nature.

Furthermore, in our leisure time we are often sucked into the shrill shrieks of what claim to be urgent and important information we can’t ignore.  5 Ways to Avoid Obsolescence!  6 New Ways to Make More Money! 10 Things You need to Do before Tonight!  How can we pursue growth activities if we must hurry hurry hurry to acquire all of our knowledge.

This is something of an oxymoron. Hurry up and Become Wise.
But I digress.

Let me return to my original question – Where can we look for insight into how to regain creative hobbies, true rest, and searching for the meaning of life. I am interested in finding that balance between rest and creativity, as well as mindful growth and discovery.

So far, I’ve begun to look for different answers in past writers about self knowledge and current writers who advocate for rest and a return to a weekly Sabbath.  In the past, I’ve also tried to decrease the amount of time I spend doing mindless things – placing a priority on prioritizing – especially my core values, and knowing what those are.

What are your thought?

Your Priorities aren’t just another “To Do” list

I bit off more than I could chew and it’s been weighing on my mind for a couple weeks now.

When I calculated how much time I had at the beginning of the semester – there was an ample amount of time to study and balance work.  I only needed about 35 hours total – and there are 168 in the week.

I immediately, of course, threw out the 56, give or take, I spend sleeping, and all the time I spend with E pouring water on the floor, watching buses, fighting to get the coat on, and all the other activities of daily living.  I’m smart about that stuff – I know I can’t read textbook chapters and eat oatmeal with a toddler on my lap (or can I?)

That brought me down to about 42 hours of time per week.  See!  Look!  I’d planned for 7 hours of wiggle room no less!

Haha.  Wiggle room.

Like always – I glossed over the fact that life changes.  That I would have new ideas about the best way to live – and those ideas might involve amounts of internet and book research which also has nothing to do with class – and wouldn’t fit into those left over 7 hours.

I didn’t budget in for feeling overwhelmed and sitting on the couch watching Modern Family, and Once Upon a Time over and over.  I didn’t plan for buying new furniture, or non-routine shopping trips.  I didn’t plan for just not wanting to work some nights – or not being able to figure out what needed to get done the first time around.  I didn’t plan for planning, or questioning my decisions.

Who can plan for that stuff?

Real life takes up time – and even though people say it can be organized – (Even though I’m trying to be organized – and there are purportedly more tools than ever via apps, the internet, and experts – I get the feeling that’s not really helping anyone – it’s just kind of putting off disaster a little further.)

One Problem? These tools aren’t doing what needs to be done – they won’t tell you a single thing about your Priorities.

These tools are trying to tell us we can have it all, if we can just pull together by trying another solution, or working harder, or just smarter.

It doesn’t work like that.   You have to say ‘No’ to some things – and you have Say ‘Yes’ to the Right things.

You have to do your best, forget the rest – and then not try to fit “the rest” in later in the day.

No tool in a magazine, on the internet, in a book, or in a day planner will tell you about your priorities.

You will need to figure out your priorities on your own.

Truth be told, you should probably get help from others too.  Cause if you, and all your little wants, and all your impulses are priority one – you did it wrong.

None of those other tools, the books, planners, and resolutions, will help you when the going gets tough.  For that – you need grace – not another “to do” list.

I’ve been clinging tight to the words of advice from Proverbs 6:6 that Donald Miller reminded me of and simply trying to do one thing at a time lately – and those things that have a lasting impact.  The right things.

Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.

image via fineartamerica.com

For more of my thoughts on Priorities and Values : Check out my post “This I Believe.”

The Power of 15 Minutes

“In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

 For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,                       
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;”
-from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock  by TS Eliot.

I have often been put the question, by well meaning pastors, small group leaders, and teachers – Which do you spend the most time thinking about? The past, the present, the future?

My answer has always been the future.

I look forward to birthdays, summer, the next course to enroll in, books to be read, the completion of personal projects and trips to be taken.  I look forward to the time when breakfast will be done, and its time to drink coffee.  When my son and I stop reading books and start playing trucks.

So often, then, I bump up into these no-mans-land moments.  Maybe they are what some people call “the present.”  That point of transition where the crescendo of laughter at a water fight has died away, and the howling of the diaper change has yet to begin.  The uncanny silence when the last few murmurs of smallonetalkingtohimself has faded into naptime, and I can hear the tap of the keys on the computer, looking looking looking through the newsfeed for something that I can’t quite put my finger on.

I take notes on what I want to do between 1pm and 3:30 pm.

And that moment.  That little moment right there, when I put the pen down – or sometimes, the moment when I’m just staring at the ceiling, lying on our couch (which needs to be vacuumed of the little cheerios I can feel in my back).

That moment is the most important.

In that moment, the beginning of the most important 15 minutes happens. 

I find myself here, at this crossroads a handful of times a day, asking myself the same questions.

The Persistence of Memory. Salvador Dali. From http://www.moma.org.

Do I dive in to what I have been planning? – To read the next chapter of my textbook –  To start on the next task – the one I’ve been planning my day around, the grudging needling feeling that I should finish whatever to do list I started yesterday the day before or last month.

Do I succumb to the tiredness?  Tired of following plans!  Of being an adult! Of cleaning!  Of measuring my life in coffee spoons!

Do I escape – in the depressant of this season of life? – be it novels, or TV, or sleep or  (fill in your own latest “bad habit” or “guilty pleasure.”)

Or can I, as I’ve learned and I’m learning – in these pangs of growing up – to simply take fifteen minutes – to breathe – to sort through the bubbling pot of emotions, and move on.  To do what needs to be done, or to undo what was already done.

The power of 15 minutes – which path do I take?  The path of productivity?  The path of escape?

And are there… is there… any other choice?

Time is a River, an Ocean

May was a busy month, but honestly – they all are.  I found myself learning to give up more quickly on things when I hit a brick wall, and allowing myself to rest more often.  This is partly because I did my Time Inventory, searching out wisdom related to what makes a good time manager, and what little tips and tricks can help us make the most of each minute –  those elusive building blocks of life, those fleeting drops of water.

In the journey to discover these things I spent long moments in solitude and reflection.  At times I was so exhausted from digging into my brain that I fell into a near stupor on the couch reading dystopian novels about virtue and valor.   The more of these inventories I do, the more I realize the process of taking stock is two parts theoretical and two parts practical. What do I believe about time?  How does time work? (Very old questions, Plato wrote whole books about them, Augustine too.)  And then, How do I already manage my time, and how can I do it better?

In that quiet space of discovery and self-examination I learned that if your brain is ordered (or your heart, or your gut, or your soul, or whatever other body part you identify as the control center of your actions) then you will find your time management to be easier.  That week I took Proverbs 4:23 into my brain and made this little collage to serve as a reminder of what I was reading.

I also made this little sign to put on my desk table, where I do my work.

How do you order your brain?   I sorted through my priorities.  They are simple ones if you put them broadly enough: Taking care of my body and soul through healthy living, good relationships, and placing myself in a zone of proximal development as much as possible.  It is focusing on my family by extending grace, hospitality, and a listening ear or good lunch.  It is participating in church, community, prayer, and Bible Study and spiritual growth.  It is looking forward to making a small mark on the world though a not-yet-realized career.

Choosing what to pursue isn’t a matter of separating bad choices from good choices.  It’s a matter of discerning the best choices in an ocean of good choices.

These were some of the theoretical implications of time management.   The pragmatic?

There are only so many hours in a day.

And sometimes, you are too tired to do what you want to do.  As always, the key is balance, but the ability to gently say “No” to the things that don’t match up with our priorities helps too.  So does focusing on one task at a time or doing your hardest work when you’re freshest.  It involves deciding sometimes to do standing work, and other times to do sitting work.  It involves delegating some tasks to others more suited, or simply being content with something the first time you do it.

Crowd out the Bad with the Good

This is part of my ongoing series: Secrets of Adulthood, where I discuss some of the life lessons I’ve learned.  This was inspired by Gretchin Rubin’s Book ‘The Happiness Project.’

There is a parable that goes something like this:

 A certain man rented a room in his house to a tenant.

When the tenant arrived he immediately set out to use up, destroy, and break all that the man cherished within his house.  The man, seeing this, evicted his guest, cleaned and fixed his house and drafted up a tenant agreement form.  After several days of advertising for a new tenant he allowed a new man to enter his house who was morally solvent, mannerly, and neat. 

A week later, the man’s previous tenant returned more dirty, rude, and disorderly than before requesting that the man reinstate him as a tenant.  However, upon showing his former tenant the already occupied room, the boor was forced to once again leave the house this time never to return. 

The man lived with his new tenant comfortably and convivially ever after.

While I was without the internet, I had some time to re-prioritize my life.

I knew I wanted to exercise more consistently, preferably in the morning around 8:30 or 9:00am. 

I knew I wanted to leave my house every single day between 1 – 3:30pm every day to go to the park, library, shop, or visit friends. 

I knew I wanted to have dinner eaten, dishes done, and Ethan to bed by 7:30 every night.

Now, there are a lot of other things I like to do (read, blog) and they are important to me as well, but they fit around these basic desires and wishes as well as my son’s sleep schedule.

However, the Internet used to obscure my ability to see the day as a continuous whole.  Instead I would be emailing, “just one person” looking up “just one thing” on pinterest, or checking facebook “for a minute.” Those were inconsequential moments of my day, but they acted like mini-seizures.  Each time I stopped to check those things, they derailed my concentration and fragmented my focus.  I was magnifying details that (truly) do need to be done, but losing sight of the greater Good.   Plus, it was easy to ignore a self-imposed and largely self-regulated schedule when I couldn’t manage to see the whole thing in context. I wasn’t actually sure what was important to me anymore, aside from getting my “to do” lists done.

After I took out the Internet it became clear to me how I naturally seemed to want to structure my day, and then to reinforce these habits to achieve more long term goals.   A lot of time-management gurus seem to think you can simply impose a rigid schedule on yourself with no thought to your basic nature and habits. (If you want to exercise you have to do it in the morning!) However, I have had limited success with that type of thinking.

Is the Internet bad?  No.  Neither are other things like eating, texting, cleaning, or whatever else it is that has the ability to fragment thoughts.  But, now I’ve learned a secret of adulthood.

If I want to put  peripherals in their place, I need to crowd them out  with things I recognize as the Greater Good. 

Now that I have identified the things I want to do, and which give me the most satisfaction at the end of the day, I can add in the icing to top it off and give me some cheap thrills.

Ps.  If you recognize that parable, that’s because it’s modified somewhat from a Biblical parable, found in Matthew 12:45