Freeing attention for the important stuff
A minimalist approach.
6:30am Thursday, I headed up to the Rainbow ski field with my daughter and her friends. I wasn’t up for skiing, but enjoyed the clear air and the stunning views.
Mostly though I was in the cafe, enjoying some coffee and an occasional random conversation.
I had plenty of time to think, and was inspired to do a rapid clean up of my task list app. It had become full of stuff, that with the passing of time has become irrelevant.
The core of this week’s letter is the question:
How can I maximise focus on what’s relevant?
In the letter - Taking information out of your head, I described the project-centric information system I developed for myself, and have been sharing with others. Working on projects requires us to take our collected information and knowledge, then ‘do’ something with it to produce results.
Projects with a clearly defined outcome, a deadline, and the resources needed to execute on a series of well thought out actions are a pleasure to work on.
Progress is self-evident as I tick off each task, and move the project closer to ‘done’.
It’s equally important to know what projects are the most important and relevant. It makes it easy to plan your week, observe your progress, and say no to things that aren’t important.
So what did I do up on the mountain, aside from taking some snaps of my daughter and her friends on the slopes, and revelling in the crisp 1°C air and the sometimes blue skies?
I’d taken my Kindle and dived into the next section of Tiago Forte’s book on Building a Second Brain. In it he described working in an Apple store and coaching people to get the best out of their new computer. He specifically talked about working with people who had copied across large numbers of files from a previous computer.
Following a series of failed attempts to help them organise past files into a logical folder structure, he took a more radical approach. He had them create an Archive folder and dump all the old files in there.
After the initial shock, when they realised they could still go and search for anything from the past, they felt the freedom to focus on the project(s) they had in mind when they made their new purchase.
This was an aha moment for me, and I relished the opportunity to dive into one of the few apps that I could access offline on my phone, my Things task manager.
First I setup two Areas and two Projects I wanted to focus on. That already gave me reason to let out a big sigh. What a relief!
Then I dived into the Inbox, the temporary place where everything gets dumped before deciding when to do it, or in which Area or Project it should live. If anyone had looked over my shoulder, I’d have been embarrassed at the number of ‘tasks’ I’d captured but not processed. However, that was nothing compared to what greeted me when I went into the Anytime section of the app. Here I found dozens and dozens of ‘tasks’ I’d not looked at for years, and which were now not associated with my two core projects or areas.
I went hard, and moved only a dozen of them into the current projects and areas and marked the rest as done. I can search for these in the Logbook of the app if I need to.
I felt lighter, more clear, and energised to take on the projects that I had decided are the most important and relevant for me right now!
I went out and sat on a bench that had been soaking up the warmth from the sun just before it sank over the western horizon, and enjoyed the vista, free of the nagging sense that comes with having too many things to pay attention to.
Having cleaned up my tasks app, next was the CORA Projects list, which I did midway through writing this letter.
I kept 15 projects for review in the All view, marked just two of them so they appear in the Focus view, one of them being this article, and assigned a followup date to one other.
The rest were marked as Archive, and can be found and pulled into the system at anytime in the future, if they become relevant. Another big out-breath!
When I next sit down to work this article will have been published and no longer in the focus view, so I will know exactly where to put my energy and attention!
In case you’re wondering how CORA and the Things app work together . . .
Most tasks get created while working in the project page in CORA.
This is where my focussed work gets done, and I ignore everything else. I have tried integrating a tasks database into CORA but find that I don’t use it. I find a simple list of the remaining tasks, sometimes with subtasks in the project, where the resources live, is more effective. Every now and then I’ll drop completed tasks into the Done toggle that can be reviewed if need be.
I’ve used this app for decades, and it has multiple benefits. The main one being easy capture of random things I need to do.
If something floats up into my awareness while working at my desk, I type Control-Space and a small window pops up for a new ‘thing’. I can capture this thing I want to attend to, but later, getting it quickly out of my head, and into a system I can trust.
If there is some urgency to it, I can assign a date or put it in the Today section, then forget it and get back to where I was, without losing my flow.
I will review these tasks later, but not in the prime time for powering through tasks on an important project.
If something floats up into my awareness while out walking the dog, or in conversation with someone, or in those random moments, sitting and relaxing with a cup of tea, my phone is not far off and I can grab it quickly and the Things app is on the bottom bar of the screen so I can open and capture that thought quickly.
If I’m driving I can ask Siri to remind me about something and that will route to Things with no extra work.
There is no one app to do everything, so I’ve found or created the ones that work best for me, and for each purpose. As long as I follow some regular reviews (which I had neglected in the Things app) the important tasks and projects get the attention they deserve, or can be archived then retrieved if needed.
Letting go of things is as important as capturing them.
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