Get Everything Done by Mark Forster

I’m feeling evangelical today, so let me tell you about my experiences with two very different books in the self-help organising/time management genre.

I read Getting Things Done by David Allen at the end of 2008 and found it full of great organisational ideas. I particularly liked the one about getting all your mental to-dos out of your head and into some centralised list so you don’t forget anything. This frees your mind from the stress of trying to remember all these bits and pieces, and allows you to focus on whatever your real tasks are.

Good idea, I thought. Must try that. If using a paper-based system rather than a computer program, he advised getting a diary big enough to fit weekly lists. So last year I had a lovely big diary with lots of room for writing lists and notes as well as my appointments. I’m a stationery geek and a listophile (if that isn’t a word, it should be!), so it should have been a great system for me, right?

Sadly, no. The beautiful diary, which I really did love – so many extra features! – was too big to fit comfortably in my handbag, so most of the time I left it at home. Can you say Diary Fail? I never had it with me when I needed to check or add appointments. So this year I’m back to my usual small, un-beautiful diary.

The other big problems with the system, for me, were:

(a) I’m a procrastinator; and
(b) I’m a procrastinator.

I’m sure there are people for whom the system works beautifully, and I’m not knocking it, per se. I’m just saying I’m not one of them. I loved making the lists, but as the year marched on I grew more and more depressed about how few items I was crossing off. Nor was this a new experience for me. See (a) and (b) above.

What I needed was not a system for planning and organising what I needed to do. Being a listophile, I’m quite good at that part already. What I needed was a way to make myself do the things on the list.

Enter Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play by Mark Forster. Who could resist a title like that?? I read this one towards the end of last year, and have since reread it, highlighter in hand (which felt vandalistic and shocked my children, but there were so many passages that seemed to be written just for me it was like a religious conversion. Praise the Lord, I have Seen the Light!).

Written by a procrastinator, for procrastinators, it points out what I had already discovered from my list-and-diary fail of 2009. Organisation systems, priorities, schedules, etc, are great for people who have no problem getting stuck into action, but they don’t really help people whose main problem is with the actual starting.

So instead of these, it offers strategies to help you actually do the things on your list. One that is working really well for me helps with that perennial problem of having so many things to do that you don’t know where to start and instead do something else, so none of them get done and they’re still hanging over your head. (I used to think I was the only idiot who sabotaged myself like that, but after reading this book I realise I’m not alone here!)

I pick three or four main tasks and set the oven timer for 15 minutes. Until the timer goes off I work as hard as I can on the first task. At the end of the 15 minutes I stop immediately, reset the timer and start work on the second task. I go on this way, rotating through all the tasks. It sounds daft, and I do feel a bit stupid setting and resetting the timer, but it really does work.

It’s the power of the deadline. I can do an enormous amount of work if I have a deadline. Make a quilt for someone’s birthday next week? No problem. Write 50,000 words in 30 days? Sure thing. Yet without a deadline I flounder around and fill up the days with busyness that doesn’t achieve anything.

In three days, my trusty oven timer and I cleaned out the pantry, a horrendous job I’d been putting off for six months, just by alternating that job with working on my revision of Man Bites Dog, making a quilt and a couple of other big tasks. Knowing that time is literally ticking away motivates me to focus on the task, so I get much more done in these short bursts than if I just allowed myself to work on it till it was finished. Plus I don’t get bored. This trick also helps with that panicky feeling of being overwhelmed by all the other jobs that are still hanging over your head, by allowing you to make progress on several things at once.

And this is just one of the helpful strategies in the book. If you’re a procrastinator like me – and I think there are a lot of us out there! – this is a truly useful book.

I’d tell you more but the oven timer is ringing …

“Should” is a dirty word

Yesterday was my blog’s first birthday. Way to go, little fella! Can’t believe you made it!

When I told the ducklings it was my blog’s birthday, Baby Duck asked, “What’s a blob’s birthday, Mama?” He couldn’t understand why his sisters cracked up. That child is just made of cute.

I hesitated for a long time before starting this blog. I was afraid that I’d lose interest and it would go the way of so many – initial posts full of enthusiasm, gradually petering out into silence. But I cleverly got around that problem by being a slack poster from the beginning. Such forethought!

I wondered if I could think of enough things to write about. Fortunately I have the ducklings to help there – they provide plenty of inspiration with their funny ways.

I used to be a mad keen scrapbooker. For a few years there our lives were obsessively documented. The ducklings couldn’t sneeze without me shoving a camera in their face to capture the moment forever. These days I’ve gone back to quilting and writing, but at least if scrapbooking gains the ascendancy again I’ll have plenty of readymade journalling from the ducklings’ bloggy exploits.

Not that those exploits have been comprehensively covered by any means. I remember one of my goals at the beginning of the year was to blog twice a week, and that certainly hasn’t happened. No one could accuse me of being a speed demon.

I’d like to blog more. I feel I should blog more, though it’s just something I do for fun. Why do I feel like that? Life seems full of worthwhile things that it should be easy to fit in, like brush your teeth for three minutes, exercise at least 20 minutes every day, wipe down the shower and sink after your morning shower so it’s not such a big job later. Yet if you added up all these “just a few minutes” activities you’d need about 40 hours in every day. And so we all seem to run around, perpetually behind where we think we should be up to, doomed to feeling like slackers forever.

I set some writing goals in January. Assessing my progress so far, I can see it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I haven’t gone back to the revision of Man Bites Dog, and I certainly haven’t completed the first draft of Dragonheart. I have written more short stories and even submitted two. Yes, a whole two. Please try to contain your excitement.

I was also hoping to establish a daily writing routine. It wasn’t going too badly till personal things reared up and threw my concentration into disarray. Still struggling with that one, but hoping for improvement soon.

Note that I cleverly didn’t include “participate in Nano 2009” as a goal. Much as I love Nano, I’m starting to think another Nano this year might be a bad idea. I can see a classic “non-finishing” pattern emerging: Nano 2007, start first draft of Man Bites Dog, but don’t have time to revise and complete before – Nano 2008, start first draft of Dragonheart, but don’t have time to revise and complete before – Nano 2009, start first draft etc, etc. You get the picture.

I blame my three-second attention span. My life is filled to bursting with unfinished projects, and it drives me nuts. Three seconds? Who am I kidding? That’s waaaay too generous.

One of my non-writing goals was to declutter the house, but I think first I need to declutter myself. All this incompleteness is weighing me down. I wish I could get a working attention span. Would anyone care to swap? Mine’s quite cute, so tiny and decorative. I need a big honking industrial-strength model to get through all the stuff I’ve left hanging over the years.

In recent years I’ve even had trouble finishing reading books, let alone writing them. There’s been a pile of half-read books on my coffee table for over a year, often as many as a dozen books high, all with bookmarks shoved into them. One had been there so long that when I removed the bookmark I discovered it had changed colour. The part inside the book was still dark green, but the part sticking out had been bleached by the sun for so long the shade was half its former strength.

For months I’d looked at that stack of books, thought, Nah, don’t feel like reading any of those, and gone and started another one. Sometimes I finished them. Often they just joined the growing pile. When the guilt got too much, or the pile threatened to topple over, I might finish one, but it never made much difference. The pile had almost achieved sentience, it had been there so long.

I knew I didn’t want to read them, but I couldn’t bring myself to give up and put them away. They were unfinished projects, clogging my mental to-do list, depressing me every time I saw them. Just one more thing I knew I should do.

I know a mother’s work is never done. Jobs waiting to be done everywhere you look is pretty normal in most people’s lives, I guess. But how silly is it to let your leisure activities become a burden of guilt, to see the books you read, supposedly for enjoyment, as a chore hanging over your head?

So I finally took my attention span aside and gave it a good talking to, woman to woman.

“Admit it,” I said, “you are never going to finish reading those books.”

“I might,” it whined, giving me those big puppy-dog eyes. “At one stage I really wanted to read them, and you never know when that feeling might come back. Could be any millenium now.”

“Don’t give me that crap. Look at this one – the bookmark has changed colour, it’s been there so long! And what about this one? You can’t even remember what the book is about any more. You’d have to go back and start at the beginning anyway!”

“But I really enjoyed the first one in that trilogy. I’m sure I’ll get into again if I just … Hey, look over there!”

“What? Over where?”

“There! Look – new! Shiny!”

And that was about it for my attention span. But I refused to admit defeat. Time to bite the bullet, turn over a new leaf, take the first step on the long road to Organised Me. Or at least Slightly Less Maddening Me. Time to wean myself away from should.

So I did it. I took all the bookmarks out of those books. Oh, the pain! Then I lumped those suckers downstairs and banished them to the bookshelves, never to be guilted over again. And it was ridiculous, what a feeling of release such a tiny act gave me.

So, we’re trying, me and the teeny tiny attention span. Trying to let go of so many shoulds, to make more time for the ones that really matter. Trying to make easier goals. My new writing goal is to write only 500 words a day on school days, instead of 1,000. Yeah, I should be able to write 1,000 words in a day, but so often I don’t and then I feel all hopeless and disappointed with myself. So time to be kinder and more understanding of the teeny tiny attention span.

I doubt we will ever metamorphose into a frequent blogger, the attention span and I, but then, I’ve decided that “should” is a dirty word. And I never thought I’d be wishing you happy birthday, dear blog, so you never know.

Many happy returns.

Writing routines

I haven’t done a post about writing in a while.

Don’t get excited. This isn’t going to be one either. More of a thinking-about-getting-ready-for-writing one. And if you think that sounds like procrastination, it’s juuuust possible you’re on to something there. Nevertheless …

With Baby Duck starting school in a month, I’ve been contemplating the vast amounts of time that are about to open up for me. Well, maybe not that vast, but life will certainly be different. It will be strange and wonderful to have several hours to myself every day. Just thinking about it makes me excited, like Christmas all over again – only without all the shopping. Much better.

I want to establish a routine of writing every day. There’ve been some interesting posts on routines and organisation lately, such as Jeff Abott’s series on the organised writer, starting with this one: The Creative Habit and the Organized Writer. Over at Murderati JT Ellison has written three posts on The Writer’s Life, starting with this one. Both of them enthuse over the Getting Things Done system created by time management guru David Allen, so I bought his book (and a couple of others on time management and decluttering, which for me go hand in hand).

Yes, I’m conscious of the irony in adding to the clutter of my house with more books on decluttering. Still, I figure there are worse things to spend your money on, and they make me keen to get started. Not that getting started on new projects is usually a problem for me. It’s more the finishing I find tricky.

The idea I like best from it all so far is to have one central place to keep all your mental notes to yourself, all the flotsam of daily life – be it work, social, school or writing-related. Getting it all out of your head gets rid of the nagging worry that you’ll forget to send the money to school on the right day, or pay the Visa bill or buy flowers for Great Aunt Desdemona or whatever. And if it’s all written in the same place, whether it’s electronic or paper, you know you’re on top of it all and you can free your mind from the stress of trying to remember all these bits and pieces, and focus on whatever your real tasks are.

I’ve certainly missed my share of deadlines, only to discover the relevant piece of paper at the bottom of a pile on the kitchen bench a week later, so I’m familiar with this vague feeling of unease that I’ve forgotten something. Some things I write on the calendar, but not all, so starting tomorrow my new diary will be getting a workout. Onward and upward and all that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

If anyone else has some good organisational tips, particularly writing-related ones, I’d love to hear them.