There are never enough hours in the day to do everything we dream of doing—and that's fine. The act of deciding what we will do is how we construct our selves.
However, overflowing lists of things we might do, which we feel we ought to do, or which others would like us to do, can be so significant a source of stress and indecision as to eat up time we could spend on what we most want in our lives.
I've spoken before about the vital importance of giving yourself permission not to do it all, for example in this talk which I gave at an OmniGroup event last year. Maintaining the difference between active and inactive projects (and their associated tasks) and clearly dropping those you decide not to do, while still allowing yourself to get things out of your head and into a trusted system, is how you manage all that potentiality.
Whether that trusted system is software or paper-based doesn't matter (though I personally find smart software to be less work to use and maintain), the essential part is that it is your system—and, critically, that nothing else is.
You email inbox cannot be your trusted system because things can be added to it without you having consciously processed each of them and affirmed them as something you are going to do (even when "doing" means "delegating" or "adding to a someday/maybe list").
Your physical inbox cannot be your trusted system for exactly the same reason.
Your calendar cannot be your trusted system because it can't hold inactive projects and tasks without becoming useless for managing the active ones.
The essential qualities of a trusted system are:
- that it be easy to use wherever you are in order to see current tasks and to note new items (for later processing into active or inactive projects or tasks as appropriate);
- that it be simple to toggle projects from active to inactive;
- that it support a pleasant process for conducting weekly reviews;
- that it helps in reminding you to review projects on their individual appropriate cycles (some of which might be weekly, others monthly, quarterly or even annual);
- that it gets inactive and not-for-current-review things out of your face until it's time to consider them;
- and that supports deletion by archiving of things you decide not to do.
When you know that adding anything into your system or noting a decision about something in your system means that that item will be presented to you at the appropriate future time and that you no longer need to carry it in your head, then you can trust it. Once you trust it, you can relax and use your clear head to engage with the present moment and whatever task you are deciding to address in it. The work of building a trusted system pays itself back a thousandfold. Your stress will drop and your productivity and self-fulfillment will rise.
Draw that line in your life between your conscious engagement with potential activities and those things which are presenting themselves for your attention. As I indicated above, your email inbox is one of the critical areas for seeing the difference between what you have decided to engage with and a pile of stuff that you have not yet processed. Deletion, unsubscribe, and "No, but thank you for thinking of me!" are all your friends in keeping this territory under control.
Still, after you've got a trusted system and your email isn't driving you batty, and once you've gotten better at identifying an appropriate number of active projects, you may still find yourself feeling that you're running behind. Most peculiarly, you may encounter this feeling more often when you're not working than when you are. This is the signal to start hunting down and eliminating auto-loading to-do lists.
Information technology has made it easier than ever for us to be provided with things that truly do fit within our interests. Lots of things. More things all the time. And more things that are unconstrained by limits such as the number of pages in the daily paper or a magazine. Bit by bit, over time, we sign ourselves on for far more than we could ever hope to read or watch. Then we wonder why we can't seem to keep up and our leisure media nags at us.
Once again, decide what you are going to engage with, rather than letting someone else put those items on your list. You don't have to read everything cover-to-cover or catch every episode.
Here are great places to do some pruning:
- Podcasts. Not only do many of these take longer to consume than the average "long read" link, they also may be living on your computer, filling up your hard drive. Unsubscribing from TEDtalks videos and a couple hour-long-per-episode podcasts cleared up 37GB on my laptop! Consider your consumption rate and downsize your subscriptions and downloads to match it, making use of episode descriptions to skip what doesn't really grab you.
- Television. Don't watch things just because the fall in between two things you do care about. Watch what rewards you and watch it on your time. When it stops rewarding you; drop that show. Remember to answer that question "Is this rewarding me?" in comparison not only to what else you might watch, but also to all the other things you could be doing with that time.
- Books. You don't have to finish a book you don't like and you don't have to keep a book that isn't grabbing you around in hopes that someday it will. The last time a single human had a chance of reading every book in print in English in their lifetime was over 500 years ago; you can't get to it all, so quit beating yourself up and free up some shelf space.
- Magazines and email newsletters. If it isn't rewarding, unsubscribe unsubscribe unsubscribe! Plus, watch for boxes you can uncheck to keep yourself off these mailing lists when you're buying something from a business or signing up for a new service.
- Social Media. Monitor your moods when you spend time on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Are you getting joy or positive self-insight out of making this part of your day? Pare back how many people and who you follow to just those who help make you more who you want to be. Don't keep these applications open all the time or let them distract you with alerts, sounds and unread counts on the application icon. When you choose to connect with them, really do connect and then unplug to take the energy and knowledge you've gained into the rest of your life.
When something seems to be piling up beyond your ability to keep up, take a good hard look at how things get added to that stack and make sure you're the one in control.