Respect Your Decision Pipeline
Adopting A Set of Rules for Incoming Stuff
We all know what the symptoms of being overwhelmed are: chronic lateness. The feeling of being overwhelmed. Missing crucial meetings. Being behind on supply grabs, and irritable to our friends. Tasks that are supposed to be done by Thursday slipping to Friday, then Saturday, then "hey it's the weekend, wait til Monday"--but isn't it hard to get anything done on a Monday?
It's key, though, that we not mistake the symptoms of the problem for the problem itself. There's a kind of disease buried under your symptoms of stress, ball-dropping, tardiness, and being overwhelmed: stuff.
If you've got more than a few projects happening in your life--school, organizing work, your day job, your passions--the single biggest source of your troubles is likely the sheer amount of stuff flying directly at you.
If you want to have any hope of treating the symptoms that are slowing you down and keeping you from operating at your best, it's best to know exactly what steps you'll follow when something new enters your life. It's crucial to making sure that the things coming in get handled (not forgotten!) and resolved.
Fighting Decision Fatigue
Why do we get so tired at desk jobs anyway?
Part of the exhaustion and stress you're feeling is a byproduct of decision fatigue, the slow breakdown of your ability to make good decisions with every new decision you make.
This isn't some granola positive thinking BS--there's real science here that's been replicated. We know today that decisions are a kind of mental work, and that just like any other work, doing lots of it can wear you down over the course of a day.
The evidence even suggests that often the more decisions you have to make, the worse your critical thinking and decision-making gets. Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg, and Obama have at least one thing in common: they limit the number of outfits they choose from, because they understand that decisions are a kind of work, and they have more important decisions to make.
Having a process in place that you can follow--eliminating the need to make decisions about what you'll do with The New Thing in your lap--will cut down on your stress significantly.
Building A Decision Pipeline
So you're sold, I know: make fewer decisions. A process for dealing with all your incoming stuff can help you do that, because it gives everything a predictable pipeline to go through. The pipeline I like is pretty simple, and you can see it at the top of this post. It's a slight alteration of Merlin Mann's classic Inbox Zero workflow.
Anything that comes into my life becomes an item on a running list. When I hit one of my three Review Points throughout the day, I take half an hour to look at all the latest items on my list and run them through this decision pipeline.
If I can do it in less than two minutes (e-mail replies, quick cleanings, outgoing text messages), I do it immediately.
If it will take me longer than a few minutes, I defer it by finding a specific place on my calendar where I know I can devote the time to work on it.
If it belongs on a to-do list related to a project, I append it to the appropriate list--where appropriate, I'll delegate it.
If I can't do any of the above with this piece of information, I probably don't need it. I'll get rid of it, or file it somewhere so that it's no longer on my mind.
Working this pipeline helps me stay sane while I fight the other pipeline.
Don't Miss The Point
This sounds simple. It sounds stupid. It sounds obvious. It definitely sounds like Merlin Mann. All I can say is: try it.
Instead of letting things rot in your head or on post-it notes or in ink on your hand, capture your notes in one dedicated place, and then process those things through whatever decision pipeline you like. Maybe you like something fancier, like the canonical Getting Things Done. Maybe you like sticky tabs in reporter notebooks. Maybe your cat is covered in butcher paper that you review thrice daily. It doesn't matter how you do it, and if you get caught up in fiddling with the accoutrements of your ~meta-work about your productivity system~ you're missing the point.
The key is that you adopt some set of rules, a process, and then respect what you've adopted. You'll cut down on your decision fatigue, have more emotional energy, and have a constantly updated better sense of how you're spending your own time.
Now--it goes without saying that having a process in place to make committments to yourself is useless if you don't keep those commitments. That'll be the next post in this intro series, so watch out for that shortly. Have you adopted a process already? What's worked for you, or hasn't? Does all this whinging about 'systems' make you want to go smash a window? Get at me.