Most knowledge workers think of this notion of information overload and associate it with having less time and more to do. There is no such thing as information overload, but potential meaning overload. The problem isn’t in the number of inputs per se coming at us (although that’s part of the problem), but the frequency and speed of inputs coming at us and that might be potentially meaningful to us.
Potential Meaning Overload is the number of things we come across every day that might be potentially meaningful to us later in some way, shape, or form, that we would like to capture now, knowing and trusting that we’ll clarify what it means later.
So, why does this problem exist? Why now?
Well, with the advent of the Internet and the shift from post-industrial to knowledge-driven economy, the demands for our attention have increased in terms of the number of things to do, but our capacity to do things has remained largely unchanged. Until recently, the demand for our attention was never greater than our capacity to do things. This is unprecedented in the history of mankind.
With such a high number of potentially meaningful inputs coming at us, it’s difficult for us to be doing things in the present without worrying about what we are not doing. There is now more to do than we can possibly do, yet we somehow believe in this fallacy that we can do it all. We can’t. We can either accomplish a few things well or do many things poorly. You can do anything, but not everything. So, the question becomes figuring out those few things that you want to do well. Once you’ve figured out those things for yourself, then it’s about having and using a trusted system to help facilitate the thinking and the doing of all those things. Everything in your life is important. If it’s not important, it should not be in your life. Period.
The primary challenge now is to stay present, focused, and engaged with whatever we’re doing in the moment without worrying about what we’re not doing. This harkens back to doing one thing.
You can only feel good about what you’re doing when you know what you’re not doing. There is clarity involved. So, how can we stay present and focused in whatever we’re doing without worrying about what we are not doing? In other words, how can you put off what you can’t do right now in a way that you can feel a sense of being complete about what is unfinished until you have the time to focus on it?
How do we best manage our commitments with ourselves and with others in a way that allows us to stay present and focused without having to worry about what we’re not doing? Having and using a trusted system consistently might be the answer. I first learned about the value of having a trusted system a few years ago from this book. Here’s what I learned.
A trusted system is a tool that helps us facilitate thought, park the results of those thoughts, and help us do those things at the right time. It allows you to manage all of those commitments with yourself and others. Although it can manage those things for us, it’s still up to us to decide what we want to work on at any given point in time. When we feed our system with the right things as a result of that finished thinking, only then do we have any chance of doing the right things. In other words, we lead by providing inputs and the system manages them for us.
Chances are you’re already using such a system in your work in the form of a calendar and/or list manager of some kind. Your calendar is for managing your “hard landscape” events that are day- and time-specific. A list manager is for keeping track of things that you are going to do when you have any discretionary time, unless of course those things are scheduled or due, in which case you might do them as and when they are scheduled, due, or both. A list manager is what I call an external brain to what I’ve delegated all of my project- and/or area-related actions or tasks. It’s like having a personal assistant who you check in with from time to time to find out what you want to do (output) based on certain criteria (input).
Your calendar events will always take precedence over your list manager because it has “hard landscape” events that must be done at the times you’ve scheduled them. Please read Daily Review for more on this.
There’re a few reasons why you need a trusted system:
- We think we can keep everything in our heads hoping it’ll all work out, but it never does. That only results in more stress and more incomplete thinking. The problem isn’t in the doing of the things you have to do, but about finishing the thinking required in order to do those things.
Our minds are designed for having ideas, not for keeping them. Try keeping more than a few things in your head; you’ll know what I mean. That’s why we tend to make lists when we know we can’t hold it all in our heads. So, we write it down and instantly feel a sense of relief even though nothing has changed in our outer world. I believe the scientific word for this is distributed cognition. Our mind doesn’t have a mind of its own; if it did, it wouldn’t need us.
- We need a way to keep track of all those things in our heads that we haven’t made a decision about. The more things we have on our minds, the less they are getting done.
Only when you have a system (process) in place can you stay appropriately engaged and present to what has your attention. Only when you’re present and focused can you have the freedom and space to be truly creative (outcome).
Unless we have and use such a system consistently, it’ll be hard for us to do our work effectively and efficiently in this knowledge-driven economy.
Here’s how you can begin using a Trusted System. Please note that I’m writing about the process of using a trusted system with Things in mind. You may be able to apply this process in other applications. I’m assuming that you’ve never done this process before. Even if you have, this will be a nice refresher.
- First, you need to do what I call a “brain dump” to capture everything that has your attention. Dump it all in the Inbox section, which is for anything that you might consider potentially meaningful and haven’t made a decision about. If you’ve never done this before, it will take you a few hours to capture everything that has your attention.
Once you’ve cleared your head by capturing everything that has your attention, then it’s about deciding what each of those things mean to you. You can choose to either do it, defer it, delegate it, or delete it. I prefer the order: Delete, Delegate, Defer, Do. Delete it if it can be eliminated. If not, can you delegate it to someone else? Do it if you can do it quickly, or else defer it for later.
Once you’ve decided to keep this item, you have to decide if it’s an Action (or a To Do in Things), a Project, or an Area of Focus.
The important thing to note here is to keep the thinking separate from the doing.
An Action (or To Do in Things) is a physical step that you must take in order to complete something or move the overall project forward. It starts with a verb. For instance: Call Sam about ABC report.
A Project requires more than one action to complete. Put simply, it’s the result you want. You can’t check off a project; you can only perform the actions that will lead you to finishing the project. For instance, “Plan Mom’s birthday” isn’t one action, but a collection of actions that produce a result: Mom’s birthday party.
An Area of Focus (or Responsibility in Things) is an ongoing activity based on the roles you’ve taken both in your personal and professional life. It can include Actions and/or Projects. For instance, Health can be an Area of Focus, and a recurring Action associated with it could be to use a new toothbrush every quarter.
Actions and Projects can have Due dates, but an Area of Focus will not.
You will assign each Action and/or a Project a Category (or Tags in Things). A Category can be a physical location (like home or work) with a list of things you can only do there, amount of energy you have at a given point of time (high, medium, or low), amount of time you have available to do a certain task, or a Work Mode (see Getting Work Done).
A Category can also be a list of things you’re waiting for from those to which you’ve delegated the task (like a “Waiting for” list), an Agenda list for people you work with most (so when you see them next, you can bring up your application and discuss it with them instantly), and so on. Of course, this all requires you to think about it beforehand.
You’ll have to create other categories based on things you do. Examples could include: calls to make, emails to send, errands to run, etc. That way when you have a list of calls to make, for instance, you’ll simply use the Calls list to make those calls. Create as many categories as you need and as few you can get by with.
Below is an overview of different kinds of lists you’ll want to use:
An Inbox is where you put things that you haven’t made a decision about but you think that might be potentially meaningful later. This is based on the principles of divergence and convergence.
The Today list is for doing things you want to do today. You can mark actions you want to do today either on the fly or you can set them up to appear in the Today at a certain date in the future (see Scheduled list below).
The Next list is for moving your projects forward one action at a time by doing the next action on them when you have any discretionary time at all. This list contains items that don’t have a Start or a Due date. So, when the time comes to doing the relevant Action, I don’t have to think about it, I’m just doing it in the time I’ve allocated for it. This harkens back to Thinking and Doing.
The Scheduled list is for starting Actions or Projects on a specific day in the future. For instance, if you want to pay a credit card bill on the same day every month, it makes sense to set up a recurring action in this list.
The Someday list is for maintaining a list of those Actions or Projects that you might want to do some day in the future.
Let me walk you through the process I use in Things to give you an idea of what a typical workflow might look like.
- You capture an item first.
- You decide what to do with it.
- You decide to keep it (by choosing not to delete it or to delegate it).
- You ask yourself: is this an Action or a Project?
- You put it in the Next list if it doesn’t have a specific Start or Due date, or
- You put it in Scheduled list if you want it to appear on a specific day/date in the future, or
- You put it in Someday list if you want to park it for now because you’re not sure when you’ll get around to it.
We need a trusted system to effectively manage our agreements with ourselves and with others. When we have such a system, we can be present and appropriately engaged in whatever it is we’re doing without having to worry about what we’re not doing.