Note to Self: I Still Can’t Multitask

Just yesterday I was working on something and received a call from an old friend. I forgot to turn on my Focus Mode so the call came through. At that point, I had two good options and one bad one. I could have politely asked to reschedule the call or stepped away from my computer and just talked to my friend. I also could have decided to multitask. I chose poorly. I said to myself, “Self, you can totally talk to this friend and continue this work. You got this.” So off I went for a while, multitasking.

Then I hung up and thought about the advice I gave my friend, that wasn’t as good as it could have been … because I was multitasking. Then today I discovered that the work I was doing at the same time had some errors in it … because I was multitasking.

I think the next time I catch myself multitasking, I’m going to slap myself.

Important and Urgent

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my work. One of the advantages of journaling is that it gives you a way to check in with yourself and find out what’s on your mind. Sometimes that feedback isn’t all positive. A few months ago, I went back and read several journal entries. What surprised me most was the sense of urgency that seemed to permeate nearly all of my recent journal entries.

Somehow, I’d drifted into a mindset where every day felt like a race for my life, and my journal entries reflected that. The Eisenhower Matrix explains that we can put most things in a two-axis grid.

Eisenhow Matarix.jpg

If you ever go down the rabbit hole of productivity literature, this is one of the first things you’ll stumble across. The critical point here is that the Important/Unimportant axis is entirely separate from the Urgent/Not Urgent axis. Indeed, one of the big lessons of the Eisenhower Matrix is that doing important work that is not urgent is one of the best places you can spend your time.

Eisenhow Line.jpg

I knew and understood this, but looking back at journal entries, it became clear that I’d turned the Eisenhower Matrix into the Eisenhower line in my head.

I got in the habit of thinking of all critical work as urgent and all unimportant work as not urgent. This mindset led to all sorts of bad habits on my part:

  1. I was looking at all my important work as urgent. That’s silly. Most of my important work is not urgent at all. Nevertheless, I’d been adding a level of anxiety for no good reason.

  2. With the increased anxiety, I felt more stress than I should. That made me think I should back off so much “urgent” work. Think about that for a moment. I told myself to do less critical work because of this urgency/important trap I’d laid for myself. I was tying myself in knots over that because I’d forgot to separate urgency from importance.

  3. I had some small personal items fall through the cracks. They were not essential tasks, but they had some urgency. My linkage of priority with urgency worked in the opposite direction, too, at my own peril.

The truth is that there is no relationship between importance and urgency. Those are two attributes entirely separate from one another. So I’ve taken steps to disabuse myself. Specifically, I’ve added to my journal prompts the question, “Where have I created false urgency?” Forcing myself to answer that question daily has helped, and things are more in balance again. I’ve turned the line back into a matrix.

So often, we get hung up on little things like this that wreak all sorts of havoc. The difficulty isn’t usually course-correcting once you find the problem; the difficulty is noticing and identifying the problem in the first place.

Useful Complexity

I’ve been thinking about the many emails I have received about my recent posts about my status board. I wrote about this on Monday, but that only spurred another round of email from folks that can be summarized as a concern for useless complexity.

In summary, I already have systems to manage projects and tasks, but recently I’ve been using a personal status board to give me an overview of what’s on my plate and its current status. This is all data already in my existing systems but not as accessible to my visually-biased brain as a big diagram.

All of these folks writing to me are not coming from a place of criticism so much as legitimate curiosity. Why would I add one more thing to managing projects rather than spending that time doing projects? From my perspective, this status board was born out of frustration (and underlying anxiety) that, despite my systems, I didn’t have a way of quickly seeing everything and where it stands. I have many oars in the water, and the various threads of my life are very different. I added the complexity of the board to address this problem. The status board is, for me, what I would call ”useful complexity”.

I understand the drive for simplicity. A simple solution is, nearly always, superior to a complex one. But at the same time, a simple solution can also only get you so far.

While in law school, I had one job: stay in the top 20% and keep my scholarship. I thought about it every day. I didn’t have a job. No wife. No kids. Really no commitments except testing in the top 20%. To make things even more interesting, in law school (at least my law school), there was only one test at the end of the semester. Particularly at the beginning, I had no idea if I was any good or bad at being a law student. None of us did.

So with a single goal every day, my system was pretty simple. I wrote three things down on my napkin each morning. I stuck it in my pocket. I didn’t go to bed until they were done. Trust me, I came to appreciate the benefits of simplicity during those years.

Now my life is much more complex. I have clients that rely on me, customers that buy things from me, partners and team members that depend on me, and a family that needs me. Complexity in obligations begets complexity in management.

Ultimately, that led me down the road of creating one more bit of complexity in how I manage my projects. It was not some desire to fiddle, but a genuine need for another tool to make sure I don’t blow it.

Whether something like a status board makes sense depends entirely on where you exist on that spectrum between 1991 and 2021 Sparky. I think the real lesson I’ve taken from all this feedback is not to be afraid to add useful complexity, provided it is actually useful. So long as the bang is bigger than the buck, you‘re okay. I probably spend less than 30 minutes a week managing the status board, and in exchange, I no longer feel that where-the-hell-is-everything anxiety.

Maybe one day, things will slow down for me, and I will be able to turn the complexity knob down with some of these tool. But for now, they are making me better, not worse. My lesson is not to be biased toward simplicity or complexity but instead to be intentional about where I draw those lines for myself.

Where are you drawing those lines? Are you always looking for the most complex solution? Are you worshipping at the church of simplicity only to fail at your commitments? These are both slippery slopes and only something you can manage if you pay attention.

Project Status Board

I recently read Cal Newport’s A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload . One of the things Newport talks about in the book is finding alternatives to email for different kinds of work. He explained that as a college professor, he manages graduate students using a Trello-based Kanban board.

While it has nothing to do with email or collaboration, this got me thinking about how I’m managing my various projects when wearing my lawyer, podcaster, blogger, and field guide producer hats. Traditionally, I keep lists of active projects in a text file (currently in Obsidian). I tag all active projects in OmniFocus as an “Active Project” and then set a custom perspective to surface only active projects.

But I also know that I think visually, and the idea of a Kanban-style status board for my projects does have a certain appeal to me. So over the weekend I went down the rabbit hole of the current crop of Kanban-style apps. There is a lot out there. Trello, monday, and Notion all look like they’re up to the job. But in this case, I’m looking to make something that only I’ll be tracking. (I do my team-based stuff in Basecamp.) Because I don’t need it to collaborate, it doesn’t need to be a web service.

One of the Newport book stories was about the copper works at the Pullman railcar factory and how, in the early 20th century, they made what could be considered a big spreadsheet on the wall of the factory to track projects and labor. Again, because I don’t need to share this with anyone on the Internet, I considered doing something like this with a whiteboard in my studio, but I also wanted to figure out if my solution could show up on mobile devices and link to my projects. Also, I have this gigantic monitor, so I figured I could use all of that screen real estate. I experimented with Pages and Numbers but ultimately built my project status board using OmniGraffle.

Box Image.JPG

OmniGraffle has a great set of alignment tools. I made a standard rounded rectangle box in which I can list the project’s name and, if there is a related OmniFocus project, I included a small OmniFocus icon. Using OmniGraffle’s linking tools (and some contextual-computing-style linking), I added a link directly to the related OmniFocus project on the OmniFocus icon. Then the full project rectangle gets a separate link to the project document in Obsidian. I can re-arrange the blocks as needed and, when done, I put the OmniGraffle document in preview mode (Option-Command-P). This blows the diagram up to full-screen size, and all of the embedded links are live so that I can jump from there to any specific project or OmniFocus document. On the macro level, I’ve also included links to the specific locations in Obsidian, OmniFocus, Basecamp, and Airtable, where appropriate. Here is the final product with a lot of confidential data blurred out. You can still get the idea.

Click to enlarge.

So now I have three screens on my Mac. The left screen is Fantastical in full-screen mode showing the week view with 14 days. This is where I block time and plan future days. The center screen has no full-screen apps. Instead, it has all my windows from my working apps. (How I arrange that is a post for another day.) And the third screen, to the right, is my OmniGraffle generated project status board. I’m only a few days into using this status board, but I can already tell I’ll be keeping it. Another nice benefit of doing this in OmniGraffle and storing it in iCloud is that I’m equally able to view and edit the status board on iPhone and iPad with the mobile version of OmniGraffle.

The Never-Ending Inertia of Habits

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about habits. I think most of us have it wrong about habits. We think of habits as these little behaviors we intentionally build into our own selves when the need arises.

While we may think that habits are intentionally formed, habits are more often unintentionally formed. Things like getting french fries on the way home from the office, planting yourself in front of the TV for hours at a time, and hitting the snooze button are all habits unintentionally formed. The unintentional ones are the most insidious because they check all the habit boxes (cue, craving, response, reward) without the human being conscious of them arising.

Then one day, you wake up and realize you can’t stop eating french fries. You waste way too much of your time in front of the television. You can’t get out of bed in the morning. And you don’t know why.

Put simply, habits are always forming. The train never stops. Perhaps even more important than being intentional about forming new habits is being aware of all the habits you have already formed, many of which are self-destructive. I have tried to pull this intentionality to the front by making a list of all habits I’m observing in myself (some good, lots bad) and then trying to rewire myself where appropriate. This will take a while, but awareness is definitely the first step.

Leveraging COVID Constraints

I can’t help but feel things will be a lot more normal-leaning in the next six months as the COVID vaccines make their way into arms, and we, collectively, finally get the upper hand on this damn virus. Kids will go back to school. People will go back to work. We’ll be more social with one another. At least one can hope.

Assuming that is true, I’ve been taking stock lately of all the changes I’ve made to my life throughout the pandemic due to the constraints it brought. Once life gets back to life as normal, I don’t want to necessarily abandon all of the changes I made during lockdown. Maybe you shouldn’t either.

Several of the changes I’ve made to how I work have turned out to be substantial improvements over how I was getting things done pre-COVID. For example, having my kids and wife back home 24/7 means I had to be very particular about scheduling when I record podcasts, screencasts, and videos. This actually resulted in me getting more consistent recording work done than when I had free reign to do it whenever I wanted. I’m now making a list of the positive changes I’ve made during lockdown and figuring out how to keep those parts when things get more normal.

As far as tech, this is not rocket science. I’m just doing it in a text file. I’ve got the idea to build this list in the back of my mind and, as I go through the days and encounter changes I would like to keep, write them down. Ultimately, I’ll incorporate check-ins for myself to make sure I keep up with the new habits in the future via OmniFocus.

The Essential Weekly Review

Lately, the Focused podcast has been covering planning, goals, and roles. I think, overall, we don’t spend enough time checking in with ourselves. This is true on an emotional basis (which is why I think journaling and meditation are a great idea). It’s also true on a more strategic level, which I is why I do a weekly review every week.

As you go through your days, it is easy to get lost in the weeds with your task lists and calendars. You need to take a step back and make sure that the windmills you are tilting at actually relate to what gives your life meaning. It is so easy to get off track.

I like to think of weekly reviews as compass checks. If you’ve ever been hiking, you know how important it is to make sure you are actually going in the direction you intend. For that, you’ll need to check your compass. The more frequent you check that compass, the more likely you are not to stray.

So once a week I sit down and look at the roles in my life and how I’m doing. I write down a few words, but more importantly, I force myself to do that compass check and make sure I’m actually marching in the right direction.

I also do monthly and quarterly reviews, and maybe I’ll write about those another day. But one of the best ways to keep yourself on course is to adopt your own weekly review. Put simply, once a year (or twelve times a year) isn’t enough. Fifty-two times a year is much more helpful. Moreover, once, you get rolling with a weekly review process, you’ll find it doesn’t take an extraordinary amount of time. My weekly review takes about an hour. Think about all the dumb things you do in a week that take an hour and give one of those up. I guarantee you a weekly review will be worth it.

So here are a few tips if you are interested in trying it out for yourself:

  1. Set an Appointment

    Schedule the time, and treat it as you would an appointment with someone else. The weekly review is way more valuable than most meetings. By putting it on the calendar, you are dramatically improving your chances of actually doing it.

  2. Have an Agenda

    My weekly review starts with an audit of my roles (as discussed in this week’s Focused episode). How am I doing as a dad, a brother, a MacSparky, a healthy human? I take each role and look at how I’m doing and how I could improve. I also ask myself if I’m generally making progress on that role.

After that, I have some weekly prompts that I ask myself generally. It’s a long list, and I don’t answer every question every week, but instead use the list as a jumping off point when something strikes me. A few of the questions, to give you an idea, are as follows:

  • What was the best use of my time this week?

  • What was the worst use of my time?

  • What’s my biggest challenge right now, and what should I do about it?

  • What can delegate this week?

  • What frogs will I eat in the next week? (This is a reference to the Mark Twain quote, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”)

  • What am I looking forward to?

These questions have changed over time, as has everything else about my weekly review. Once you start doing a weekly review, you’ll find ways to change and modify it to your needs. You just need to start and go from there.

Most importantly, when doing a weekly review, take on the role of a supportive friend and not overcritical parent. It is so easy to beat up on yourself in this process. A few weeks ago I fell into a news-cycle doom-scrolling hell and got almost nothing done. I acknowledged that in my review and made plans to turn things around the following week … and I did! Don’t be hard on yourself, be supportive.

I find it interesting that, for me, most weekly reviews are helpful in clearing out all those background processes in my brain and setting me up for a successful week. But once in a while, a weekly review becomes much more when a prompt question unlocks a problem or issue that was lurking just below the surface. You won’t get to those sorts of problems until you specifically look for them.

If you haven’t tried weekly reviews, I would ask you to commit to a ten-week experiment. Ten weeks isn’t a long time, but will be long enough for you to see the benefit of a weekly compass check.

Boxing in the News

I have always been pretty good about not letting social media get in the way of being productive. For whatever reason, I don’t easily fall into the Twitter infinity pool. I discovered in 2020, however, that this super-power does not apply when it comes to the news. Between COVID and everything else 2020 brought, I found myself spinning into multiple hours of reading and consuming news coverage too many times. I thought I had it licked by the end of the year, but last week relieved me of any such delusion.

The Trouble with the News
A certain amount of knowledge of current events is important and can be helpful. From watching the news, I have been inspired to donate money and time to worthwhile causes. I also think it is important, on a personal level, to understand what is going on in the world. When I was growing up, the news was typically a half-hour program viewed by networks as a civic duty more than a profit center.

That has changed however. Now there are fully 24/7 networks on whatever band of the political spectrum you want. These networks are built around the premises of sucking you in and keeping you there. It is very much a profit thing, and they are good at winding you up to stick around for that next segment/hour/day.

While some news is good, too much news is bad. There comes a point where you stop learning about current events and instead become zombified by them. Too much news can poison you.

So I’ve started taking steps. First, I put a box around the news. I try to keep news consumption down to 30 minutes a day. There are lots of ways to do this, but one way I’ve found useful is the Reuters app on the Apple TV. You can log into it and get the day’s news boiled down to as little as 10 minutes. It then gives you a summary of national and world news, and once it finishes, it finishes. It doesn’t ask you to stick around.
Another practice I’ve been working on when watching the news is to do a little internal check-in once I turn the news off. “How am I feeling right now?” “How agitated am I?” “If I’m wound up, is there anything I can do to make a difference?” I also try to disconnect after watching the news. I’ll go make some music, pull some weeds in the garden, or take the dog for a walk. Then I can get back to work with a clear head.

If you’re like me and susceptible to the news infinity pool, take some times to build your own box for the news.

The Hustle Is Dead to Me

For the longest time, I proudly considered myself part of “the hustle”. I always kept many oars in the water, and they were all paddling, seemingly at once. Time for reflection or rest was for wimps.

I grew up with that work ethic, and I never questioned it. Over the last several years, I have thought a lot more about how I spend my time and what are truly my priorities. As a result, I find myself spending a lot more time on the things most important to me and a lot less time on everything else. I am no longer a rowboat. I am a speed boat with comfy chairs.

It’s only recently, with this new insight, that I have come back to this idea of “the hustle.” With a little wisdom and understanding, I now realize that “the hustle” is dumb.

The rules, as taught to me, were wrong. It is not he-who-works-most wins. It is he-who-focuses-on-what-is-most-important who wins.

The Relationship Between Task Lists and Calendars

I’ve written about hyper-scheduling and using my calendar to keep myself in check when planning tasks. Those posts often get questions from readers about the exact relationship between my calendar and my task list. If you keep both a calendar and a task list, it can get confusing to figure out what goes where. Of course, you know the dentist appointment goes on the calendar, but if you are going to get the most out of that calendar, it should be used for much more.

Your task list should be the keeper of all tasks. It is the full inventory of things you plan to do. If, however, you’re like me, that inventory is pretty full. There is no way I’m going to wake up one day and complete every task on my list. Honestly, there are years worth of work in my OmniFocus database.

The purpose of the task list is to bring order to that chaos and give you a framework to hang current and future tasks and keep them in perspective. The goal is that when you plan your days and weeks, you can easily pull the wheat from chafe in that task list and know that out of all of those things, which are the ones that move the needle for you right now. Figuring out what is essential right now is the entire reason I’ve invested my time in mastering OmniFocus (and made the OmniFocus Field Guide). I want to get to the tasks that need my time with the smallest time investment on a daily basis.

It’s at that point that my calendar joins in the dance. Once I have picked my tasks for the day or week, I need to plan when I will accomplish them. To do this, I need to answer a few hard questions:

  1. How long will this take?
  2. Do I have that kind of time available?
  3. Exactly when will I give it that time?

Let’s break that down further.

How long with this take?

As humans, we are generally terrible at estimating how long it takes to get something done. We usually vastly underestimate the amount of time required. If this is new to you, I recommend taking your initial time estimate and doubling it. Let’s say one of your on-deck tasks is a client proposal, and you immediately think “one hour”. Make it two. You can always scale back later, but if you are using calendar blocks and they are too short, you will fail at it. If it ends up taking one and a half hour to make that client proposal and you have a one hour block, you’ve already crashed. If instead, you had a two-hour block reserved, you can take a break for thirty minutes and play with the dog or work on something else. Bad time estimates are where most people have trouble when calendaring tasks.

You may find that you also have a set of essential but small tasks that also need to get done. I don’t block time for small tasks, but I will block time to handle a pile of small tasks. In my case, I often have a one-hour calendar block called “Legal Flags”. Those are small flagged client items in my OmniFocus database that I can lump together and get through quickly.

Do I have that kind of time available?

This process starts with a small list of tasks and you setting time estimates for them. Even with a short list of tasks, you may find you run out of time. There are only so many hours in a day. If you have realistic time estimates, you may find that you don’t have enough time for all of your selected tasks. That’s okay. It happens to me nearly every week. You then have to decide what gets done now and what has to wait for later. This process is the payoff of combining your tasks with your calendar. It allows you to be realistic about what can (and can not) get done in the time you have. It’s the difference between a realistic list of tasks for the week that you can feel good about finishing and an unrealistic list that may sap all of your energy by Wednesday as you realize you have no hope of getting it all done. I guaranty you will get more done with a realistic list than an unrealistic one.

Exactly when will I do it?

The final step is to put those task blocks on your calendar. They are just as crucial as dentist appointments and will help you keep on track throughout the week in getting those most important tasks done.

So in answer to the question of what goes on my task list and what goes on my calendar, I’d say while all of my tasks are in my task list, only a select few graduate to the calendar. I’d also avoid going through this process for tasks any further than a week out. Everything is continuously in motion, and it isn’t easy to know what will be the priority more than a few days from now.

Want to see what technology I use to pull this off? There’s a post for that.