Salamander Asks?

  My friend writes to me:

you know, i’ve been getting more organized over the past few months too – and it’s been pretty effective, in terms of keeping track of things I have to do.

I’ve been using “Tracks“ – a web-based GTD written in Ruby on Rails. I have a copy running local on my laptop; it’s very useful! http://www.rousette.org.uk/projects/ if you want to try it but don’t want to install it yourself (which would involve running a webserver on your computer) let me know and i’ll install a copy for you on one of my domains.

The thing is .. i still have problems actually DOING the work. sitting down and slogging through tasks. Assuming the organization is there… How do you solve the motivation challenge? 

You seem to have a great deal of “output“, between your teaching, poetry, game writing, etc. are you just naturally motivated, or are there good tricks you can pass on to keep the bus rolling productively?

Yeah, I’ve got several tricks to help you get the bus moving productively.  Here’s an executive summary:

1. Keep your to-do list on paper.

2. Chunk your to-do items into 15-30-minute blocks of time; do shorter tasks now.

3. Write down almost everything.

4. Projects are better than tasks.

5. Creativity, not escape or trivia.

6. Sharpen the Saw weekly.

7. My mother says…

Here’s the broader explanation.

1. Keep your to-do list on paper.

Computers, palms, iPods, whatever… they’re gadgets.  I’ve used them, never effectively.  They’re fun, they’re cool, they’re prestigious.  But they take twice as long to use as a pen and a piece of paper.  You can buy binder rings and a stack of index cards for $5 at the local office supply store, and suddenly you have a budget program, a graphing program, a tip calculator, an address book, a to-do list, and all the other functions you might need, right at your fingertips.  There’s no learning curve, and it’s totally replaceable in the event of data damage.  A Moleskine notebook is equally portable and easy to use; Miquelrius makes similar jacket-pocket sized notebooks.  And paper-users kick ass and have time to take names before a computer is even done booting.

I use two Moleskine notebooks: a red date book, with pages for each week; and a black graph paper book for the to-do list and notes on various projects.  I divide the graph-paper book into rough thirds, with a 3M adhesive tab at the beginning of each section.  The first tab is to-do list, the second tab is notes and projects; the third is master lists.  I use master lists to track websites, specific equipment or tools I need for projects, lists of books I want to read, and wish-lists of gear I want or need.  Currently I have about 12 master-lists, ranging from class-specific equipment to websites I want to check out, to gear I want to ask for the next time the PTA offers to fund underfunded programs at school.

2. Chunk your to-do list into 15-30 minute bites. 

I find that 15 minutes is the minimum amount of time I need to get some small thing done.  It takes me 15 minutes to grind out a worksheet for a class at school, or to write a page of text, or to e-mail a parent, or to calculate grades for one class section.  If I think a task is going to take me more than two such periods of time, I chunk it into smaller pieces.  For example, rather than write, “write comments” in my to-do list (and I know that writing comments is a 6-9 hour job), I’ll break it down by class section (1.5 hours each), to the ‘general paragraph’ (15 minutes), ‘checklists’ (30 minutes), ‘individual student paragraphs’ (30 minutes), and ‘proofing’ (15 minutes).  Now I have reasonable amounts of time for every project.  If a project needs uninterrupted time, I’ll make a heading in my to-do list, with all the individual chunks listed out underneath it.

3. Write down almost everything.

If I’ve written it down, I’ve taken ownership of that project.  It has to get crossed off sooner or later, and sooner is better than later.  No one else is going to “pick up dry cleaning” so I write that down, of course; but no one else is going to “write manual for proctors”, so I have to write that one down too.  Taking ownership of something means that you’re going to shepherd it through to the end of the project, whenever that is.

4. Projects are better than tasks.

You’re always going to have items like “pick up dry cleaning” or “wash car” on your list.  But you get more satisfaction from projects completed than from tasks.  So, I always try to have a couple of big-picture items on my to-do list, that I’m going to get private satisfaction out of doing, and public recognition for doing.  The more such things I have on my list, the happier I am.  Yesterday, I spent most of the day helping lovelies with her big project, seeding her garden.  It made her happy that I was helping her out in that way, and it wasn’t MY project, but I felt like I was contributing to something bigger than just getting the house cleaned up.

5. Creativity, not escape or trivia.

This one comes from Stephen Covey.  It’s based on the following punnett square.  I don’t really want to spend my time in crisis, where I’m exhausted, running scared and at risk of losing my job, my honor or my life all the day.  Likewise, I don’t want to feel like I’m doing make-work, or that I’m avoiding responsibility.  I want to feel like I’m contributing to the world in important and useful ways.  But I can’t do that if I’m working on unimportant things or spending my time in front of the TV or memorizing baseball statistics.  So I have to be creative, and use my time in such a way that I’m doing important things without being burned by them.

Urgent Not Urgent
Important

CRISIS

CREATIVITY

Not important

TRIVIA

ESCAPE

6. Sharpen the Saw weekly.

Do something every week that expands your capabilities: mentally, physically, socially and spiritually.  Read a book, learn how to do Sudoku, take a foreign language class.  You were hired by your current employer to do some task, and you will keep doing that task and that task alone for as long as it’s clear that you don’t have any new talents to offer.  So you sharpen yourself mentally, so that you are a suitable candidate for a new job.  Lately I’ve been sharpening myself physically, and it’s so hard, but it’s rewarding.  I’m down about 20 pounds over the last two months (two and a half if you count dietary changes), and I feel great.  By interacting with people socially you build a network of people who may think to call on you as a solution to their problems.  And with spiritual work — meditation, dancing, drumming, prayer, poetry, art — you’re building your ability to cope with disappointment and failure in productive and useful ways.

7. My mother says…

Finally, my mother says that YOU ARE YOUR PROJECTS.  And it’s true.  I am a scholar and a teacher because I’ve spent so much time getting master’s degrees and practicing teaching and doing stuff with students.  is working on becoming a fiddler, which she does by practicing.  is working on becoming a neuroscientist.  is a gardener, because she’s working on a garden.  Numerous readers of mine are poets (cf , , , and ), because they write and edit poetry.  We are our projects, and the projects we choose help define our lives and give them meaning.  I think that’s my biggest motivator — do I want to be a couch potato or a fit, happy human being? Do I want to be a TV-junkie or a poet? Do I want to be a drug addict or a teacher?  Sure, the choices are never that stark or that obvious, but how you invest your time says a lot about who you are and what you wish to be.

I hope this helps.

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8 comments

  1. Re: fixed!

    Only that it’s not very fun to go racing around trying to get things done at the last minute all the time.

    My biggest task this morning is to go through a gaming text and cut all the unnecessary words from the text. The whole thing is supposed to be about 15,000 words, and the “fluff cutting” will cut my first draft from 15,000 words to about 12,000. Then I have to write 3,000 words to make up the difference. It’s always a scary process.

    It also has to be done, and it has to be done before deadlines arrive, so that I can feel comfortable and secure with the idea of moving on to the next thing, whatever the next thing might be.

    Oh! the other thing I do with personal productivity is that I’ll attach rewards to certain completions. So I have it in mind to buy some things, but I’m waiting on buying them until after a certain project is completed. It’s frustrating, sometimes, but it’s also much nicer to be able to say, “Oh, yeah, this new toy was my present to myself for finishing project Y.” And then the item is that much nicer because of its associations with something big that’s also DONE.

  2. Re: fixed!

    thanks 🙂 not that i would mind being a neurogist, but i think medical school would grind me down too much.

    and ya – lots of good advice on structuring for productivity.
    got any for slaying the procrastinatory dread monster?

  3. fixed!

    Updated it from neurologist to neuroscientist. So that’s ok. 🙂

    and I’m glad that it sounds like 43folders… that means I’m on the right track, too.

  4. thanks very much.
    feels like i’m reading a page on 43folders – that same sense of things strking home.

    although i’m working on becoming a neuroscientist, not a neurologist. 🙂

  5. thanks very much.
    feels like i’m reading a page on 43folders – that same sense of things strking home.

    although i’m working on becoming a neuroscientist, not a neurologist. 🙂

    • fixed!

      Updated it from neurologist to neuroscientist. So that’s ok. 🙂

      and I’m glad that it sounds like 43folders… that means I’m on the right track, too.

      • Re: fixed!

        thanks 🙂 not that i would mind being a neurogist, but i think medical school would grind me down too much.

        and ya – lots of good advice on structuring for productivity.
        got any for slaying the procrastinatory dread monster?

        • Re: fixed!

          Only that it’s not very fun to go racing around trying to get things done at the last minute all the time.

          My biggest task this morning is to go through a gaming text and cut all the unnecessary words from the text. The whole thing is supposed to be about 15,000 words, and the “fluff cutting” will cut my first draft from 15,000 words to about 12,000. Then I have to write 3,000 words to make up the difference. It’s always a scary process.

          It also has to be done, and it has to be done before deadlines arrive, so that I can feel comfortable and secure with the idea of moving on to the next thing, whatever the next thing might be.

          Oh! the other thing I do with personal productivity is that I’ll attach rewards to certain completions. So I have it in mind to buy some things, but I’m waiting on buying them until after a certain project is completed. It’s frustrating, sometimes, but it’s also much nicer to be able to say, “Oh, yeah, this new toy was my present to myself for finishing project Y.” And then the item is that much nicer because of its associations with something big that’s also DONE.

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