At least since David Allen’s Getting Things Done it’s been widely advised that to-do lists be specific to “context”: You have a list of things to do at the office, a list of things to do when you’re at the phone, a list of things to do when you’re in the car, etc.
Trying to make this work with a to-do list is crazy:
It is not at all clear what must be done and in what order; in fact, it becomes ever more clear that most of the tasks we execute don’t make much of a difference, while a tiny percentage randomly and dramatically influence the course of our work and our lives. It makes sense to invest more and more resources in making that distinction, because the absolute fastest way to complete a task or reach an objective is to realize you don’t have to.
The article goes on at some length with tips for figuring out what state of mind is best for what tasks. And more to the point, figuring out what tasks are best suited to be completed given your current state of mind. And, even more to the point, how to break up your larger tasks into pieces that can be effectively worked on by you in different states of mind as you happen to find yourself in them. There’s also some suggestions on how to learn to enter states of mind that you’ve found to be useful.
I visited my dad in Kalamazoo last week, and managed to establish a bit of a routine for both of us:
I’d get up around 6:00 AM and spend some time on-line, checking my feeds and email, and doing the Jumble with my brother and my mom (and anyone else in his household who was available).
My dad would get up around 7:00 AM and we’d each fix our breakfasts and eat them.
Around 8:00 AM we’d each settle down to do a couple of hours of writing.
Around 10:00 AM we’d stop for a coffee break.
After coffee we’d go to a natural area and walk until we got tired or hungry, at which point we’d break for lunch.
After lunch we’d put some time in on our assigned non-writing task for the week (getting as much as possible of my dad’s old papers and junk gathered and sorted for shredding, recycling, or taking to the dump).
That was the end of the productive part of the day. After that was cocktail hour followed by dinner, typically followed by streaming a Cardinal’s game.
It was a pretty satisfying schedule—productive, but with plenty of time to be social, both with my dad in person and with my other relatives on-line, and plenty of time to be outdoors in nature. (My dad has been keeping up on the latest research on how being in nature is good for your mood, as well as many other aspects of your health.)
Because it was so satisfactory, I’m going to try to maintain a version of this schedule going forward. One complication is that Jackie’s work schedule has her breakfasting very early on days that she needs to be at the bakery early, but not necessarily that early on other days. Still, that’s just a detail that can be worked around.
The picture at the top shows a buttonwood plant that my dad and I saw while walking in the fen at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum near where my dad lives in Kalamazoo.
I’m making steady progress on my novel rewrite. Since getting back to work on it back on the solstice, I’ve put in a nice block of time nearly every day. (Besides Christmas Day, which I took as a holiday, I think I’ve missed two other days.)
The first third had already been rewritten back in the summer. I spent the first couple of days reading through that part and making minor edits. Happily, the edits were in fact minor. I fixed typos and minor sentence-level errors like poor word choice. I fixed the sort of scene-level errors that can only be spotted on a close re-read, such as saying something that I’d just said in the previous scene.
Once I got through that first third, progress slowed down quite a bit. The middle third of the novel had some serious structural problems. It had too many locations where too little happened. I’d already figured out that I needed to collapse that into two locations, and I’d taken a first pass at identifying which things happen in location A and which in location B, but now I had to make all that work.
That turned into kind of an odd mix. Sometimes I could just fix the name of the location and otherwise leave the scene alone. Other times the scene needed to be completely rewritten, because the action was only appropriate for a location that the characters no longer visited. (The latter was more work, but the former was worrisome in its own way—if the exact same thing could happen in the exact same way, perhaps my characters and locations were overly generic.)
Just yesterday and today I’ve been working on a bit that had (in an earlier draft) been written to be chapter one, to be followed with the story running along in two alternating threads, one present and one a flashback. I was pretty pleased with the chapter as a first chapter, but here in the middle, it’s all wrong. In particular, it has several bits written to establish the characters and their relationships. Those bits need to go, which is hard because they’re pretty good bits. Worse, they really ought to be replaced with references to stuff that happened earlier in the book—except that some of the bits they reference never got written.
So, that’s my task for tomorrow—spot those references, then go back and make sure that there’s actual text that establishes that aspect of the character’s relationship. Then decide which of the references should be edited to refer explicitly to those events and which should just be plucked out.
Writing this pass is weirdly different than writing a first draft. I spent a lot of mental effort trying (and often failing) to resist the urge to go back and edit as I went along. Now that I’m in the edit phase, my problem is just the reverse: each time I come upon something hard like this, my urge is to say, “Oh, I’ll leave that for the next pass.” Except that there is no next pass, at least not until my first readers come back with comments.
Still, steady progress is good. I’m about half-way through the middle third.
The final third, where the text draws heavily from the previously existing short story, will no doubt be yet another different experience. I’ve already gone through that part fixing stuff in the sequence of events and adjusting for how the characters had evolved in the writing of the novel-length work. At this point I really have no idea if I got most of that right, and that (having already been rewritten once) it will be like the first third, or if it will be like this middle third, needing major work. I know there’s be some significant new writing that needs to be done—I have a list of scenes that I’ve realized are missing—but beyond that I really have no clue how much work is sitting there needing to be done.
I’m can say that I’m happy with the draft up through this point. If I’m as happy with the second half, I’ll have no hesitation about sharing it with my first readers.
I’m a student of daily routines. I like to imagine that I’m looking for good models for my own behavior, but that’s only true in an oblique way. By now I understand pretty well the structure of a productive routine; no new routine will be enough better than the routines I’ve already studied to justify the effort of examining them. The value in studying daily routines, for me, is as a reminder to follow my own routine.
For a while there was a great blog called Daily Routines that was very nearly pornography for this inclination of mine to ponder new models. It was there that I found the daily routine for Charles Darwin, which is probably the best model I’ve found so far.
And it is in part because of its similarity to Darwin’s model, that the daily routine of Vestricius Spurinna caught my eye:
At the second hour [after waking] he calls for his shoes and walks three miles, exercising mind as well as body. If he has friends with him the time is passed in conversation on the noblest of themes, otherwise a book is read aloud….
Then he sits down, and there is more reading aloud or more talk for preference; afterwards he enters his carriage [for more private conversation].
After riding seven miles he walks another mile, then he again resumes his seat or betakes himself to his room and his pen. For he composes, both in Latin and Greek, the most scholarly lyrics. They have a wonderful grace, wonderful sweetness, and wonderful humour, and the chastity of the writer enhances its charm.
When he is told that the bathing hour has come—which is the ninth hour in winter and the eighth in summer—he takes a walk naked in the sun, if there is no wind.
Then he plays at ball for a long spell, throwing himself heartily into the game, for it is by means of this kind of active exercise that he battles with old age.
After his bath he lies down and waits a little while before taking food, listening in the meantime to the reading of some light and pleasant book. All this time his friends are at perfect liberty to imitate his example or do anything else they prefer.
Then dinner is served…. The dinner is often relieved by actors of comedy, so that the pleasures of the table may have a seasoning of letters. Even in the summer the meal lasts well into the night, but no one finds it long, for it is kept up with such good humour and charm.
The consequence is that, though he has passed his seventy-seventh year, his hearing and eyesight are as good as ever, his body is still active and alert, and the only symptom of his age is his wisdom.
Of course, Spurinna was retired, so one writing session of just an hour or two is probably enough for him. His work when he was younger was as a magistrate and governor, and so probably took place in those conversation sessions that are now just for pleasure.
I think there’s a lot to emulate there. Three walks per day adding up to five miles seems just about right—as long as you include another hour or two of vigorous sport. Of course, he’s in his late seventies. Us younger folk should probably get in a little more than that.
You know the sequencing problem. You want to bake cookies, but you don’t have any eggs, so first you have to go to the store, but you don’t have any cash, so first you have to the ATM, but you don’t have enough money in that account, so first you have to transfer money from another account.
So, there’s the solution to this sequencing problem: Transfer the money, go to the ATM and get cash, go to the store and buy eggs, bring them home and bake cookies.
I mention the sequencing problem for two reasons.
First, I’ve learned of late that, when I’m stressed, I begin to have difficulty solving the sequencing problem. After Jackie broke her wrist, for example, there was a bunch of extra work I had to do. That would have kept me busy enough, but it was made worse by an abrupt decline in my ability to solve the sequencing problem.
I’d be hungry, so I’d need to fix dinner, but we wouldn’t have any ingredients, so I’d need to go to the store first, but also the kitchen was a mess so I had to do dishes first. And then I’d be paralyzed: two things that needed to be done “first,” with no way to parallelize them, and no clear way to decide how to sequence them.
Now, anyone with any sense would realize that it doesn’t matter whether you do the dishes first or the shopping first. (Or even decide to just go out to eat, and do the shopping and dishes when you’re not so hungry.) But, as I say, when I’m over-stressed I seem to develop deficiencies in my ability to solve the sequencing problem.
The second reason I mention it, though, is that this disability in solving the sequencing problem manifests itself in a perverse desire to go beyond solving a specific sequencing problem. I find myself wanted to produce a general solution to the sequencing problem.
This is insane. There is no general solution to the sequencing problem. It’s not just computationally infeasible: it’s a meaningless concept. A general solution to the sequencing problem would amount to an ordered list of everything I’ll ever need to do. There is no such thing.
I need to keep this in mind. All that’s possible are specific solutions to the sequencing problem. Fortunately, this is all we need.
I was pretty productive these past two weeks. I finished a major rewrite pass on a short story that the Incognitos had critiqued a while back, and passed the story on to a couple of first readers. I wrote several posts for Wise Bread. I did some preliminary investigation on a tech writing assignment.
I thought that was great, not only because it’s nice to get things done, but because it makes me feel like it’s okay to spend time on various less (or non-) remunerative projects, such as art, poetry, and Esperanto.
I’ve just come to realize, that this is a harmful way to think.
I’ve always had these recurring bouts of unproductivity. The previous several weeks were an instance of it: I sat at my computer and tried to work, but I didn’t get much done.
Back when I worked a regular job, these bouts were always terribly stressful. How do you tell your boss, “Sorry, I just don’t seem to be able to get anything done”?
I had several coping skills. Because of the kind of work I did, my managers never really could know how difficult a task was, so I could just say, “It’s turned out to be tougher than I thought.” Also, even when I couldn’t make any headway on my major tasks, I was almost always able to do something. I got in the habit of seeking out smaller, one-day tasks that I could do. That let me be productive (so I felt better) and gave me an excuse to be late with my main task (so I was less stressed).
Now that I’m not trying to work at a regular job, the stress level is much reduced. There’s no boss whose understanding of my productivity needs to be managed. There’s no job to be lost if that management goes poorly. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have these periods of unproductivity.
As I was saying, since this latest surge of productivity, I’ve felt free to spend some time on less remunerative projects, like doing some writing in Esperanto. And that brought me to a realization: It’s dumb to think that I shouldn’t work on stuff that I’m interested in, just because it’s not the most important work I could be doing.
I think part of the reason I’ve been doing it is that I thought it might motivate me to get my important work done. I know some people bribe themselves by withholding permission to play with side projects until they’ve done an appropriate amount of work on the main projects. But it has never been an effective technique for me. Maybe it helps a little when I’m just feeling lazy. But being unproductive is different from being lazy, and it doesn’t work at all for that.
More important, I think I’ve finally figured out that this behavior is actively harmful. These other things I do—drawing, poetry, Esperanto—probably help me be productive. They’re not a waste of time that I could be spending on important projects. Rather, they’re a pathway back into productivity. Being productive—even being productive on something that doesn’t earn any money or advance my career—is still being productive. And experiencing productivity after a period of unproductivity is positive. It leads to more productivity.
In the past, getting started being productive again has always been the hard part. Maybe this will help. Maybe, if I can be productive on some frivolous task (without agonizing too much over the fact that it is frivolous), I’ll be able to bootstrap that experience of productivity into productivity in other areas.
In the meantime, I’m being productive again in a wide range of areas. Go me.