Getting Less Done

My touch-phrase for 2019 was, “no.” In terms of self-imposed stress and crippling depression, 2019 was the worst year ever; I’ve more than 10 years of journals and I’ve checked. 2018 was bad, but 2019—the year I set out specifically to reduce the problems—was definitely and significantly worse than 2018.

I remain convinced that it is not possible to optimize one’s way out of burn-out. If I have 500 things I want to get done and I’m burnt-out, the solution is to reduce the number of things, not get better at getting things done. I’m speaking from personal experience, not from theory.

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

In 2019, the “no” touch-phrase was meant to guide me to developing the habit of saying no to things coming towards me. A huge amount of ideas and opportunities come at me, and I’ve gotten much better at saying, “no.” (I’m not quite ready to say I’ve gotten “good” at it; but I’ve definitely gotten better.) I’ve gotten better at evaluating Big Asks from the world, and saying, “no.” A textbook example of that is people/groups which reach out to me, asking for my input or participation.

“No, I do not have the time to do that well.”

“No, I cannot to do that the way it deserves to be done.”

…and so on. Note particularly the absence of the societal lubrication, (a.k.a., the usual lie,) “I’m sorry, but…” Because, I’m not sorry. I’m defending myself, and I’ve reached the point where if my candid, timely, and honest response feels like a wack on the head… Bummer. Life’s hard; get a helmet.

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

In a previous post (on my personal blog) I mentioned the idea of leverage; positing that I should focus on asking myself, “how much leverage does this opportunity afford me?” This still doesn’t feel quite the right fit for 2020 because leverage per se isn’t a value I’m interested in maximizing.

So that leaves me where?

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

GLD — Get less done.

Maybe that’s the touch-phrase for 2020?

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Meta: I had posted this in the Movers Mindset Forum early in 2020. But, for some reason I cannot fathom—perhaps it was simply an oversight—I didn’t post this here on the ‘ol blog in very-early 2020 when it was written. ;)

Bad planning

It’s a long to-do list that doesn’t translate into action. A spreadsheet where you gather information in order to forget about it. A long chain of thought culminating in an epiphany that goes nowhere. An argument about an issue that you never work on directly.

Bad planning like a belief in telepathy. It makes you feel like your private thoughts can change the world. The quintessential example? A college humanities essay that gets read by the student, the professor, and nobody else, but which the student remains proud of for the rest of their life.

~ “AllAmericanBreakfast” from, https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/pt7XYxnhTQdHGf7MN/change-the-world-a-little-bit

Planning, todo list management, goal setting… for me it all comes down to beginning with the end. What does “done” look like? What would a solution to this problem look like if I had a magic wand? When this is done what effect will it have [on me or the world]? Far too many people struggle with lists, and with getting things done—also with Getting Things Done. The real challenge is to figure out if the idea you just had pop into your head… is that a how to do something, or a what [as in, a goal] to do? If you have a how you really need to figure out that what. Because otherwise…

How are you going to figure out why you are doing anything that you are doing?

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Wherever I go

Your freedom will not come from trying to ignore all the “stuff” or by trying to complete everything—it requires truly detaching from it.

~ David Allen from, https://gettingthingsdone.com/2018/05/gtd-and-stress/

Detaching from all the stuff is a linchpin behavior for me. Wherever I go, there I find myself; if I want to not be swept away by all the stuff on my mind I have found exactly four things which work:

  1. Sleeping — This however is cheating. This is being unconscious and is simply a form of escape. Depending on what’s on my mind, and how poorly I’ve physically set myself up, (alcohol, caffeine, food, etc.,) sleep may even not be an option.
  2. Distraction — Visual entertainment switches off my brain. Movies, streaming TV, etc.. 100% waste of my life… but it’s an escape which does work.
  3. Focus — I can sweep away the crush of things on my mind if I’m sufficiently focused. Rock climbing, (not just the time literally climbing, but the entire day and experience of it,) is great for this. Lots of other activities indoor, (reading in various mediums and writing,) and outdoor, (walking and biking for example.) This is in fact, still a form of escape from the things on my mind.
  4. Capture and process — This is the only thing I’ve found which works for me. To be clear, a single idea had in a flash might require two full waking-hours days of capture and processing for me to fully flesh out the idea. If there’s even the slightest nook or cranny left unexplored, my broken mind will snag on that like a nick in a fingernail. Harmless, but very very repetitive redundant and repetitive.

I really hope you have no idea what I’m talking about here. If you do, I offer my sincere condolences.

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Closed loops

The point of life is not to get things done. But life is better if you are able—at your own pace, if and when you want—to get things done.

Aside: In addition, other people will like you if you are also consistent and reliable.

The point of reviewing what I’ve captured is two-fold. Get everything done, (some of which I may have freshly captured yesterday.) But also to not do things. Yes, it’s delightful to finish something; it’s delightful to close a loop. But it’s also delightful to simply not do something. I have countless ideas, and the vast majority of them get captured… and then summarily deleted to be not done.

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I try to forget my ideas

Keeping track of project ideas, in my experience, is usually a waste of time. I used to fear that if I didn’t capture and review my sparks of brilliance I’d forget them and an opportunity for impact would be lost.

The reality, however, is that most people (myself included) have waymore ideas for things to work on than they have time to work. Forgetting ideas is not your problem. Having too many ideas competing for your attention to execute any one well is a more pressing concern.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2014/11/07/deep-habits-forget-your-project-ideas-until-you-cant-forget-them/

In the beginning I didn’t try to do anything with my ideas. Even though—my mom may disagree—I had mastered bathing and dressing, I was still under the false-impression that my mind was for holding ideas. It’s not good at that. Actually it’s terrible at that.

It took me a few decades to figure out— …honestly, I never did figure it out. Rather, I started reading a bunch of stuff about how to get my arse organized, and started to write things down. College helped. 43 Folders helped, a lot. Reading Getting Things Done made the final pieces click into place.

Whereupon I entered the Second Epoch of Craig. At this time I dutifully studied, and earned my title, Wizard of Process and Organization, with a specialization in Internet Dark Arts. Do not meddle in the ways of Process and Organization Wizards; we are quick to anger and you are tasty with ketchup. As you can tell, I completely lost my marbles in the process. Near the end of this Second Epoch I reach the epitome of my list-building, (and project management setups, and universe-domination plans.) I was completely drowning in over-planned, over-committed, over-stressed, over-organization.

Cue, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the dawning of the Third Epoch of Craig. Wherein I straight-up deleted most of my lists of ideas and plans. The really important stuff continues to live in my level-37 wizard process-management systems. I know they’re working when I forget they’re working and yet things magically appear when I need them to.

Ideas are worthless. It’s execution, (plus luck, and timing,) that makes them valuable. I’ve a few ideas that I cannot get out of my head. Those are the ones I’m working on in an attempt to make them go away. But it’s a good day any time I can manage to just forget about some idea having blissfully done nothing with it.

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Quitting at quitting time

The best thing you and I can do at the end of the writing day is to stash our work gloves in our locker, hang our leather apron on a hook, and head for the workshop door. If we’ve truly put in our hours today, we know it. We have done enough. It won’t help to keep at it like a dog worrying a bone.

~ Steven Pressfield from, https://stevenpressfield.com/2014/08/the-office-is-closed/

…and similarly: https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2012/07/24/perfectionism-is-a-losers-strategy/

I’ve recently learned that “inertia” as a word, was first applied to the cosmos during a fairly recent philosophical shift in thinking. People like Copernicus were looking at the cosmos and used “inertia” to point out the universe’s inherent, not-alive property; as in, the cosmos possesses inertia, the property of being inert. Newton’s idea of inertia, in the sense that slow moving dump trucks have a lot of inertia, aligns with the idea that the inert cosmos resists. It resists starting and it resists stopping. Newton’s equation, “F=ma” is a result of inertia; If (F)orce is zero on the left, then (a)cceleration is zero on the right. If acceleration is zero, then velocity remains constant.

Aside: “velocity” is speed, “how fast?” and direction, together as one property. Turning a corner in a car, at the same speed, is a change in velocity. To do so requires force from the steering tires of the car. The steering wheel is simply a well designed control for applying lateral force to the front of your car to control your velocity without changing your speed.

Where was I? …oh, right! Inertia. The cosmos. Back to it…

The inert cosmos resists starting and stopping. But I am not inert! I long ago recognized that when I was not moving—figuratively speaking, moving by being engaged making progress toward some goal… When I was not moving, then I needed to do something to get moving. I needed to start, and realizing that I was bad at starting, I needed to practice starting. Okay, did that.

Unfortunately, I have created a new problem: I don’t know how to stop. It turns out one really needs to also be able to start and to stop. Now that I’ve mastered starting, I can finally begin to learn to stop.

<sarcasm>And surprise!</sarcasm> F=ma. Starting and stopping are equally difficult.

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Start before you are ready

It’s Einstein’s principle of relativity: all points in the universe are created equal. “There’s no need,” Patricia teaches, “to find the right starting place.”

~ Steven Pressfield from, https://stevenpressfield.com/2014/06/principles-of-improv/

After considerable consideration, I remain unsure what to think of, “start before you are ready.” I agree with it, in the sense of one’s needing to avoid the opposite behavior: Never actually starting because one is busy preparing procrastinating. If Pressfield’s admonishment to, “start before you are ready,” gets you around procrastination, terrific!

However, I have a different problem: Taking on too much. At this point in my insanity, I’m desperately trying to insert an emphatic “wait, no, don’t!” in front of any urge to start any project. But my thinking becomes circular. What if all the things I’m doing—which I’m trying to avoid starting… What if all the things I’m doing are actually just me procrastinating. What if there’s some other thing that I do need to “start before I am ready,” but I just don’t see what that is yet?

Are you starting? Are you procrastinating? …how do you tell the difference?

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Focus

I’ve touched on the importance of focus frequently. Today I just wanted to remind myself of two ways that I often lose focus.

First, shiny-distraction syndrome gives me the urge to try all the things, do all the things, build all the things, fix all the things, improve all the things… This does not end well for me. I’ve been getting much better at sitting with, (as Leo Babauta would say,) the urge to chase the shiny thing. Like a dog being trained to resist an urge; OH A SQUIRREL! …no, sit! …wait …wait (the squirrel moves out of sight) …good boy!

Unfortunately the second way I lose focus is pernicious; I’ll call it shifting-sands syndrome. This happens when I decide to take something on—maybe it’s something small, maybe it’s big, whatever, it’s something I feel moves me towards some goal. “Ok, yes, this is a good thing to work on. This is definitely not shiny-distraction syndrome. I’m in. Let’s do it.”

And then someone else moves the goal posts.

I fall for this all the time. It’s like the sunk-cost fallacy. “I was going to do 42 units of life-energy-work, what’s 2 more?” Hey Craig! I’ll tell you what 2 more is: 2 more is 44 units. Stop and think! Don’t make the decision based on, “it’s only 2 more.” Rather, I need to start over: What’s the task/thing/etc., how much work is it (now 44 units, not just 42), do I want to do it, is it worth it, and so on.

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Getting less done

I believe I’ve mentioned that my touch-stone motto for 2020 is, “Get less done.” I’ve been working on this. I’ve been setting smaller daily goals, and I’ve been keeping the “today I should…” list shorter.

Yesterday was a curveball. Didn’t feel well the night before… very little sleep, spent some time napping on the bathroom floor, etc. Nothing serious, nothing major, just… a curveball. So Saturday was a crazy-slow start. …later than normal start. …maybe I’ll just read a little before I even stretch. …maybe I’ll do my little exercise route later. …there are a couple things I need to prepare for a small car trip, but I’ll just do them quickly, rather than my usual thoroughly. …maybe I’ll skip this. …maybe I’ll do that later.

It’s not yet my usual bed time, and I’m stumble down tired. But I’ve gotten more done today than— well, it’s like one of the most productive days in ages. What’s up with that? Was it the slow-and-steady pace that led to all-day success? Was it the complete lack of any real goals for the day; and then, well I did that one thing, so I guess I can do this next thing…

“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice.

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