March 1, 2006

Do It Wrong

I have really long hair, and supposedly the right way to brush really long hair is to start at the tips and work your way to the crown of your head, brushing only a few inches at a time, to prevent knots.

Give me a break.

One of the worst things you can do is the simple act of thinking about how to do something the right way. Don't do it right, don't be perfect. Just do it, and if it's half-assed, at least it's done!

Consider this: I need to build a trellis for some roses. I've been in a minor obsession about this all week, thinking of where to get the materials and how to put it together. Because it needs to be just perfect. Instead, I should either a) go buy a cheap, imperfect trellis, or b) just get some stuff and put the thing together, figuring it out as I go. In either case I would already have the trellis and I could obsess about something else for a while.

Do work when you know you don't have enough time to do it right. Pick something up and throw it out on the way to the door. Clean the sink, but don't scrub it out and clean all the gunk around the faucets. Be imperfect, do a slap-dash job. It'll get you further than sitting around, paralyzed by the need to be perfect.

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January 3, 2006

On Making Resolutions

You'd think that somebody as obsessed as I am with the idea of making things better would be a big supporter of New Year's resolutions. You'd be wrong. I stopped making (and trying to keep) New Year's resolutions five years ago, and I haven't regretted it one bit.

Does that mean I never decide to make big changes to improve my life? Um, no, obviously not. What it means is that when I decide to make a change, I do it right then, rather than waiting for some arbitrary date. I do this for any number of reasons, but primarily because this keeps me from putting off doing it, creating arbitrary reasons to delay starting the change ("I'll start my diet at noon, no after lunch, no, today is really a hangover day; I'll start tomorrow") and inevitably failing.

By starting right away, I make it clear to myself that I want to make this change, and I have decided to make it. It's important to me, so important that getting started has to happen as soon as I decide it's important. By not delaying starting, I show myself how important this change is.

One benefit to starting right away is that I can make changes in my life at any time. In early December I decided to change one simple thing I was doing every day, and I started right then. If I had waited until the New Year, I'm not sure that I would have done it, and I certainly would not have reaped the benefits of having made this little change for the entire month of December. So I start the New Year feeling like I've really made something happen, rather than with an encroaching sense of dread about not being able to keep resolutions.

Starting right away also maintains momentum. I had a crisis, I came to a resolution, I made a decision, and immediately I take an action. No waiting around. Just go out and do it. It's so much easier that way, without any starting and stopping.

Five years ago, when I sat down to think about what I wanted to change about my life in the year to come, I realized that what I wanted to do I should have started to do already, and that if I really wanted to make positive change in my life, I had to stop waiting for significant dates and behaving so superstitiously about when I would start. I realized that in previous years I had read a lot of articles about New Year's resolutions and how few people keep them, and that that negative press was hurting me. So I decided to get off that ride.

Now, when I fail to keep a resolution, I don't feel like the world is saying, "I told you so." I can pick myself up and get back on the horse, or I can change what I was doing again, trying to find something that works. I shifted my way of thinking from strongly negative, maybe not all the way to strongly positive, but positive enough that if I fail at something, I have enough self-esteem left to get up and start over again.

The much-touted benefit of New Year's resolutions is supposed to be that everybody else is making them. There are some benefits to making resolutions with other people, of course, as long as they actually help you stick to them. Making a resolution with a friend who will help you stay on track is really helpful: I do that, but not for January first. And I choose well the friends I make resolutions with: they have to be people I can trust to support me in the resolution, not saboteurs or critics.

Resolutions and decisions are the core of changing your life. Don't let them be guided by superstitious cultural quirks. If you mean it, do it.

October 31, 2005

The Value of a Deadline

In honour of NaNoWriMo, the annual contest to write a 50,000-words novel in a month, I've been thinking about the value of arbitrary deadlines and goalposts.

It can be hard to think about time in large units. To plan massive projects or stay motivated by a goal many years in the future. So I trick myself by aiming at micro-goals: when I was running in high school I would do sets of sprints up a hill that was longer than I planned to go. When I was almost at the point where I had planned to stop, I would extend the goalpost a little: tell myself I would run as far as that light post ahead, or to that mailbox. I tricked myself into doing a bit more than I thought I could.

I use the same technique now with work I'm not keen on doing (alas, I get no runner's high from sweeping). I'll set out to do a project with a small time limit on it: 20 minutes of taking books down and dusting them, for example. Then I'll extend the goalpost, and decide to just finish this row of books.

Some people think that there's a real power in stopping where you are, but I find that discouraging. I don't like seeing jobs half-done, or stopped at odd points. For me, stopping at a sensible point not only leaves a room or job more orderly, but it gives me the feeling that I did more than I was supposed to, which is a good feeling.

So if I were to be writing a novel for NaNoWriMo, I would take the number of writing days in the month and divide the word count by them. Let's say I knew I would not be writing over Thanksgiving, so there are only 25 writing days in the month (also, it makes the math easier). That means I'd have to write a minimum of 2000 words per day. That's a doable amount for me, because I write fast and furious when I'm writing (when I freelanced I wrote at least 10,000 words a day on top of a full-time job, though those edited down to considerably fewer), but it's a heck of a lot if you've never written professionally. Heck, even if you have written professionally, 2000 good words a day is some work. So chop it up. Plan to write 1000 words, then challenge yourself to write another 200, and then another 200, and so on. See if you can't add an extra 200 while you're there: every extra word you write earlier in the month is a word you won't have to write later. Set up your goalposts, but keep moving them.

Another great use for a slam project like NaNoWriMo is a massive decluttering. It's getting near the holidays, when people entertain more, and maybe you want to get the house in shape. Why not set a goal of decluttering a square yard every day? Or map out the month with a goal for every day: tomorrow I'll sort the paperwork on the desk, Wednesday I'll clean the crisper drawer in the refrigerator. As you do each task, you can add on to it, go a little further. You'd be shocked at how much you can get done with small goals and big pushes.

October 3, 2005

Do What You're Doing

One big reason why we have trouble getting things done is an inability to concentrate on what we're doing. Either because we're being interrupted (by kids, pets, noises outside, coworkers) or because we are interrupting ourselves (checking e-mail, refreshing that message board, getting the latest scores).

The real problem is that we're spending a lot of time not actually doing what we're saying we're doing, and thinking that means that we can never get it done. Instead, we should learn to concentrate on what we're doing right now: to be fully in the moment. This is a principle that can be applied to every aspect of life. Instead of sitting around at work thinking about what you're going to do when you get home, or even worse, sitting around at home thinking about work, take those times and concentrate your energies. At work, do your work. I was surprised when I applied this and found myself running out of work to do halfway through the day, because I was suddenly so efficient. No more late nights, trying to get something done that I could have finished that afternoon. And that freed me to be more fully at home when I left work. I could think about what I wanted to do in my free time during that time, and not worry about a work problem.

We make a lot of excuses for why we can't get things done, and some of them are just ridiculous. If there's a noise outside, an adult human being with no diagnosed mental disorder should be able to ignore it and work. Yes, even the sound of jackhammers, and the only exception I will make is for anybody who has to listen for something fairly quiet under that sound. I worked for some time in an office next to a freight train track, and apart from it being impossible to hear each other talk when a train was going by, everybody learned to work with it.

The big excuse I hear is that there are constant interruptions from kids and coworkers. Kids and coworkers need limits set for them, and you need to learn how to set those limits. You owe a duty to both of them, either to care for them and supervise them, or to respond to them when the problem is urgent. But getting your work done means learning how to delegate responsibility, and perform triage on emergencies. It also means learning how to say, "I'm working right now; I'll call you when I have time to talk."

Like outside interruptions, ones you create for yourself can seem really urgent. You sit down to work on your novel, and the first thing you do is check your e-mail, just to be sure there's nothing critical there. An hour later, you remember you wanted to be writing, but now the time you had for it is eaten away and nothing gets done.

To deal with internal interruptions, you need to know what they are. For me, it's catching up on the various web sites I visit regularly. I often come home with a specific task in mind (tonight I will do the laundry) and the next thing I know, I've frittered away hours on stupid things, and the task goes undone. To deal with this you have to ration the interruptions. Trade fifteen minutes of engineering calculations for fifteen minutes of blog-reading, for example. Or take the laundry and homework to the laundromat, and afterward give yourself an hour of reading that great book about plant propagation. Give yourself a time you must spend doing the actual work you need to get done, and also a time you can spend doing the fun thing you want to do (or the thing that wastes your time). When the time is up, the activity is up.

Learn which tools are good and which ones are more distracting. For me, an RSS reader helps keeps the blogalanche under control. For some people, having a little desktop widget that shows the latest headlines is just too damned distracting. This is a very personal thing. You learn what works and what doesn't by observing yourself, and noting what you were doing when you got distracted.

Again, learning to concentrate and work on what you're doing without day-dreaming takes work. But the only guarantee there is in life is that if you keep doing nothing, you will get nothing done. By learning to concentrate your work, you can take advantage of concentrated doses of time, and get more of the things you want to get done done. The biggest (and worst) excuse is, "I can't get enough work done in fifteen minutes." But you can get some work done, and that's more than you were getting done before.

The key is to learn to turn on the intensity quickly, to be able to focus immediately on the task and pick up from where you were. And then, of course, to be able to turn off the intensity just as immediately. This is not easy. It does not happen the first time. It takes practice. But it is possible for anybody to learn this with time.

NOTE: No, I do not believe your self-diagnosed ADD is a reason why you might not be able to do this. If you have doctor-diagnosed ADD, you are likely taking medications that make it possible for you to concentrate, and you don't need this pep talk. If you have diagnosed yourself with ADD, you need to either see a doctor about it or admit that you're just out of practice at concentrating and get with the program. If you want to get things done, there's no excuse for letting brain chemistry hold you up, and there's no excuse for pretending brain chemistry is what is standing in your way.

August 5, 2005

Dealing With Low Energy

One thing I have fought against while trying to get more stuff done and get my life in order is depression or general lack of energy. It's hard to get started, and the mess around you just makes you more depressed. So I've developed a series of strategies for coping with low energy.

Sometimes when the house is a wreck and I just want to get things tidier so I can calm down, I do one large, easy task that fits into a lot of rooms, like going around and gathering magazines and catalogs and dumping them in the recycling. It makes a uniform difference in every room. I used to clean just one small spot, but it turns out that I feel better when I see improvement on a larger scale, rather than when there's one tiny clean spot in a huge house.

On the other hand, when the mess is really contained to maybe one room, I might just want to have one clean area to start from, so I choose a square yard of space (usually my desk) and just work on that. Nothing on either side of it until it's done. Often the boost of getting that cleaned up will help me do another one. This is how I clean up after a major project, too.

Another thing I do when things are piling up and I'm suffering from great overwhelmedness is to put off decisions. If I see a pile of papers and know I need to go through them to clean an area, I'll stuff them in a box and put a date on it (at most a couple of days later; bills must be paid!), and on that date, I go through that box and that box alone. It means I can defer making decisions about everything, and move on to larger-scope cleaning without getting bogged in the details. (Of course, you have to actually go through the box on that date.)

These strategies can be generalized into something simpler:

  1. Break a large problem into several smaller problems
  2. Reduce the scope of your focus to a small problem
  3. Deliberately ignore problems outside the scope of what you're working on now

These are some basic project-management techniques for getting a grasp on a large, complex project, and they work remarkably well for households and your personal life.