On Systems

IMG_5169Seneca once said that it was not that life is too short; rather it is because most of us squander it away. And Annie Dillard puts it beautifully – “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives”. So how should we go about seizing the day? I often spend many hours at work and at the end of the day, it seems to go by in a flash without me achieving something meaningful. This year I’ve decided to be more proactive in managing my schedule, developing a routine and consciously looked for information on the web to do so.

Cal Newport is one of those guys who I looked toward for a solution. He’s a successful writer and professor who only works a 9 to 5 every day and seems to get so many things done. From his blog, I dug out a few practical ideas:

1. Timeblocking

The first thing Cal does each day is to plot out his schedule into blocks of time. This allows him to keep focused on the tasks at hand and also to proactively manage the commitments for the day. I’ve tried it out for about a week now and I find it really helpful in managing my schedule. Sometimes I get distracted and forget what should I be working on in terms of priority. Scheduling/Planning at the start of the day helps me overcome this problem.

2. Replacing my Email To Do List with A Working Memory File

Cal also argues that context switching is one of the biggest problems in today’s email-driven world. In my case (and I’m sure it is the same for 99% of cubicle workers), our mailboxes are open because we have FOMO syndrome – the Fear of Missing Out. We need to read every email, every piece of news that drops into our inbox right away. It’s a huge disruption to a focused work and increases the time spent on the task at hand. For me, I usually have it open because I use my mailbox to track outstanding to-dos so I decided to find an alternative method.

Cal has a hack in which he uses a Working Memory File text file at the start of the day – my modified version which I’m experimenting with right now is used as a dump of the various requests I get at work into the file. So once my mailbox is cleared and empty, I will not have to keep it open or refer to it until specific points in the day. This keeps me focused on the task at hand. So far, I’ve had a bit of mixed success with this but will give it a bit more time.

3. GTD Task Capture

Not something that I learned specifically from him but something that I agree with, Cal explains that while humans are good at processing or analysing information, we are bad at remembering simple things like taking out the laundry or remembering to buy groceries. Thats why we need a thing he calls a Task Capture system. For me, this comes in the form of the Reminders app and its a big success for me. It’s so easy to use, quick to just set and forget. It has saved me plenty of lost hours and allowed me to focus and use my memory for more important work.

There’s a lot of other insightful posts in his blog but will save that for a separate post in the future.

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