Sunday, February 19, 2012

Organizing the Chaos of the Mind

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on....................."

The 'To Do' List:
One of the primary and fundamental tasks of business is "organization' - the systemic coordination of various parts so as to increase productivity, effectiveness and results.

And one of the simplest of mechanisms we all employ to prioritize and better manage our limited daily time is to make lists of things we have to do.  Some of us are very organized in our list making; some even perhaps compulsive about the process.  Some of us make daily lists on yellow pads; some use post-it notes; some use online software; others of us are content to make mental lists  every so often.

There is no shortage of advice as to how to go about making your 'To Do' list work better for you.  Some suggest keeping a "master list" from which you can cull your more limited daily list.  Some suggest you categorize your 'to do' items; many suggest you break large projects into smaller, more manageable sub-tasks.  Most suggest you organize your list in terms of priority and importance and limit the number of things to do to a realistic level (and my favorite piece of advice in this thread is to list, in order, the ten priority items you must address, then cross off everything after number three).  Others suggest you create artificial deadlines to help motivate you to get things done on time.  Still others suggest you make liberal use of memory joggers - alarms, sticky post it notes etc.

It would seem clear that many of us spend way too much time on the list making process.  Would only that the whole job was to make a list of what all the jobs were, and then we would be done.

I suppose list making is exclusively a human activity.  I doubt there is much need for any animal species to make a list.  Really:  Item #1:  find some food.  Item #2:  avoid being something else's food.  Item #3:  sleep - somewhere some other species is not likely to find you and make you their food.  Item #4: from time to time - sex.  Repeat these items on tomorrow's list.

We are more complex.  Yet I suspect our lists more often than not contain items that we really don't need to deal with at all, but somehow we have convinced ourselves of their importance.  It's possible we flood our 'to do' lists with all kinds of small, meaningless tasks as a subconscious way to avoid having to deal with the more important priorities.  I'm just speculating based on personal experience.

Most experts (and yes there appears to be a whole cottage industry devoted to list making) advise that one accept the reality that not everything on your 'to do' list need actually get done.  As a compulsive list maker my whole life (and as a lawyer for a long time I used yellow legal pads for my daily 'to do' lists), I found that certain items would just naturally appear on my list every day (and why I felt compelled to include them on a daily basis is a puzzle I have never solved).  Other items would end up on the list every day probably because I simply avoided addressing them.  As to those, miraculously, if I just put them on the list everyday, eventually, over time, they would no longer appear.  They either resolved themselves, or they simply no longer had to be addressed.  Other list making advice includes: 1)  continuously evaluating whether a given task really ought to, or need, be on your list in the first place. 2) whenever possible, delegate tasks to others to do, or if you aren't in any position to be a delegator, enlist others to help resolve items on the list. 3) avoid intrusions that eat up valuable time that might otherwise be spent addressing your 'to do' list items (and my favorite advice in this category is to avoid all meetings at all costs.)

Lists generally contain (and against certain advice - commingle) both reactive tasks (driven by others) and proactive tasks (driven by your own goals)  Some suggest separation of these two kinds of tasks helps one to do more.  And at least one piece of advice was (acknowledging that reactive tasks, over which  one has little control, tend to overwhelm most people) to spend way more time on proactive tasks.  I suspect too that if we were just a little better at saying "No", that there would be far fewer items on our lists.  Arguably we might better control the scope and depth of all those reactive tasks that invade our space.

The Zeigarnik Effect:
Of course, at the heart of most list making is that as human beings we tend to procrastinate and put things off.  List making is a reminder to ourselves of what must be done.  At least from the research I have seen, it isn't that we cannot remember what needs to be done.  Nor do we seem to be deficient in our ability to successfully (and correctly) prioritize what must be done.  The problem is that most of us simply have too many things that might rightfully go on the list.  Too much to do and not really enough time to do it.  And somehow we have all internalized the wishful concept that  "there is no good reason to do something today, that we might easily postpone until tomorrow."

One of the most interesting psychologically related phenomenons as to addressing the things that we need to get done is the Zeigarnik Effect - defined as:  "The tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an object that was once pursued and then left incomplete.  The automatic system signals the conscious mind, which may be focused on new goals, that a previously left activity was left incomplete.  It seems to be human nature to finish what we start, and if it is not finished, we experience dissonance."

In short, if we start something then don't finish it, our sub-conscious mind nags our conscious mind that we left something unfinished.  Our minds don't like that apparently.  I suppose this is some form of 'guilt'.  Perhaps we should start fewer things.

I think there is an opposite effect (but I don't know what one would call it) that when we finally cross some major item off our 'to do' list because we have successfully resolved it, our mind wants to celebrate that victory - more often than not with a little time off.  Alas, for every item we can cross off the list, two or three more seem anxiously waiting in the wings to take its' place.  In that sense, I suppose list making is the modern equivalent of Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill -- an exercise in futility.

Thinking about all of this may or may not be of any value to how we more successfully organize ourselves in the attempt to better manage our time and get things done.  Maybe we should make up a list of ways to think about it all.

Item number one on my list for tomorrow will be not to make any lists for the next week.  I wonder how my unconscious mind is going to react to that little bit of anarchy.  Then too I wonder how long I can actually do that.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit.