Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

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starting to break out of the sand

Thus far I've been doing an awful lot of namby-pamby self-helpy "CARE ABT YR STUFF" writing here, but it's time for the rubber to meet the road. If you're buried in tiny tasks, organizing meetings, and action planning, it can feel an awful lot like waking up buried in sand on the beach: how did all this stuff land on me? How did I not notice that I'm stuck? This is a warp-speed set of tips to get you thinking about how--and more importantly why--you want to get better at managing your time and energy. This isn't a step by step how-to, but a framework for thinking through the ways you might be able to make room in your life for the machinery required to get the shit done that you need to get done.

In the next few posts I do I'll be breaking these out and expanding on their purpose, relevance, and implementation for people trying to do work that matters.

Adopt a set of rules for dealing with incoming stuff

Eliminate the 'what do I DO with this?' problem

Some people will say you need a "productivity system" like David Allen's Getting Things Done. I like GTD, and there are lots of great lightweight introductions to it available, but it can take time and work to get started with. If you're looking for something you can adopt quickly so you can begin to see results and decide whether or not it works for you, I'd start with something simpler, like the Do/Defer/Delegate framework of Inbox Zero. In essence: if you see a thing, and it can be done in less than 2-3 minutes, do it. If not, put the time required to do it on your calendar. If you have someone in your life or circles or team who can help you, see if you can farm it out.

Then, maybe try GTD for more control.

Make (and keep!!) commitments to yourself

When you put something on your calendar (the 'defer' part), do it.

If you're hitting the end of your calendared time for Item 1 and it's time to start Item 2, stop item 1 and do item 2. You'll probably quickly discover that you aren't budgeting yourself enough time to do the work you need to do. That's ok. You're making progress, you're getting a better sense of the true time costs of what you do so you can plan more effectively going forward, and you're strengthening your discipline by moving from one kind of focused work to another kind of focused work on your own terms.

Guard your time like it's your last slice of bacon

People. will. walk. all. over. you. If you let them.

To whatever extent you can, you have to guard the commitments you make to yourself. Obviously if somebody with a fancier tie and a longer title than yours comes in and drops something heavy on your desk and says "I need it a week ago," you have to make allowances and tradeoffs, and maybe shift the commitments you make to yourself. The key is that you make people--even Manager Fancy Tie--aware of the relevant tradeoffs: "Sure, I can get on this--I'm workin on the TPS reports now, so those will have to be a little late while I handle this here hot potato. Is that ok?"

Keep a Journal

Capture, Review & Reflect

Throughout the day, as you make notes, add them to a running journal. As the day goes on, review items you've "captured" and (as in 'do, defer, delegate') and either put them on to-do lists for the projects they're relevant for, find a place on the calendar to put it (affinity group meeting at 4!), or send the necessary communications ('hey john, how's the dooblybop coming?'). As you accomplish things, move them from to-do lists to my Completed list. In the last few minutes of the day I like to look at my journal to see a list of the things I've gotten done that day. I use that list to generate about 75-100 words of reflection on the day. It lets me clear my head, think through the progress I made and opportunities for improvement, and jogs my mind to get thinking about tomorrow. Here's a sample of what I'm talking about. I highly recommend it.

Think About Tomorrow Today

Get A Framework Down & Review It AM

The last thing I do before I leave is be sure I have time blocked out tomorrow to work on the things I know--from my daily review, my reflection, and my overall understanding of my day--will be important tomorrow. Transfer that skeleton schedule to a place you'll be able to look at it in the morning, on your way in to work. I like to put it on my Google Calendar so I can review it on my phone as I ride the train in to work, but maybe just jotting down a little list on paper works for you. Whatever you need to do, the important thing is that you A) have a sense of what you'll do tomorrow and B) look at it in the morning to remind yourself of what you've decided is important.

Bonus Tip

Jumpstart Critical Thinking

Here's little bonus brain hack-y thing to get yourself sharp in the mornings: before reviewing your calendar, read something short that you disagree with. Cognitively speaking, the act of mentally questioning and interrogating something ("wait a minute, that's BS!") is connected to the critical thinking lots of us have to do in our daily work. By massaging your brain out of the fog of sleep into the act of thought, you'll be prepared to look at your calendar for the day and examine it critically, so that when you get to the office you'll be ready to hit the ground running, deal with stuff effectively, strengthen your discipline, and generally wreck shit. That's a technical term.

2 beers in, a moment of distillation hits me

What it really comes down to is that I believe sane task management is so important to leading a full life in the struggle for justice that it in fact qualifies as a form of self-care, and as such it's a crucial component in the toolkit of an activist or organizer. Not only that, it's in fact part of leading an *examined life* in the Socratic sense--we must examine and understand the contours of our life to appreciate it to its fullest, and to have the time and energy to build not only the world we imagine, but the life we're capable of leading.

mental shortcuts that can wreck you, or save your ass

There's a term in psychology called 'heuristics.' In essence, when we talk about heuristics, what we're really talking about are shortcuts your mind takes on the path to understanding something in the world. In the instant classic Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman calls heuristics "simple procedures to help find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions." He notes that while we can intentionally apply a heuristic in the service of trying to solve a difficult problem--"if you can't solve a problem, but you see a solution to another problem, solve that"--our mind is constantly using other mental shortcuts of which we're completely unaware. They can be helpful--you can make instant evaluations--but they can ruin work too: what if your evaluations are wrong?

One of the most frequently used heuristics in day to day life is the availability heuristic, and I'd like to lay out it's advantages, pitfalls, and opportunities presented by awareness of its existence when you need to get work done in an affinity group, or a small team of any kind.

Is it "a little too easy?"

Kahneman defines the availability heuristic as "the process of judging frequency by the ease with which instances come to mind." Like the other mental shortcuts under the heuristic umbrella, you're answering a hard question ("how many people will come to this march?") by solving an easier problem ("people come to marches we put on.")

When the availability heuristic has kicked in--which is most of the time, unconsciously--what you're really reporting as an answer to the hard question is just how easy it was for you to remember other things that are similar to what's being asked about.

This holds true more or less across the board:

  • Notice how the incidence of 'suspicious packages' skyrockets after a dangerous event?
  • Do you have trouble convincing people with arguments from history, data, and even your own lived experience if the person you're convincing has life experience that contradicts your point?
  • Do you ever feel like 'you do all the work' on your team?

These examples represent the availability bias in action. When examples that support a viewpoint are more readily available to our immediate memory, we tend to believe that viewpoint without fully considering the most robust data available.

Now certainly the availability heuristic has its uses--there are instances when the conclusions our shortcuts lead us to are right, after all. But it's important to be on guard against the dangers of ignoring the information that matters to making your planning decision, or to playing a role on (or leading) your team. If you don't take caution at moments where an easy answer to a hard question presents itself--in other words, when your availability bias might be influencing your thinking--you run the risk of trusting instincts that are based on the past, instead of the reality of the world around you.

Otherwise, the resentful logic of 'I'm doing all the work' will start to sound like the truth.

Short-Circuiting the Shortcut

You can get around this. As Kahneman helpfully writes, "the proof that you truly understand a pattern of behavior is that you know how to reverse it." Norbert Schwarz, a German psychologist, found in the early 90s that availability bias can be disrupted when the ease with which we remember instances that support our point is called into question. Put another way: to disrupt the unconscious bias the availability heuristic can give us, we have to be willing to question the conclusions we jump to by checking them against the available data.

If you feel yourself instinctively answering a hard question in the midst of 'going with the flow,' it's useful to double-check your thinking by carefully following and verifying your own logic, questioning at each step.

Being willing to question your own conclusions rigorously can seem like an obvious suggestion--but when the shortcuts that take us to those conclusions are so often unconscious, and the conclusions we come to can be so damaging to planning and team health, it's important to short circuit the shortcut as often as you can.

That way you'll know you're making the most justified call, and you can move forward on solid ground to carry on the work that matters.

your dreams have to grow up too

"We grow up listening to records and jumping around our bedrooms air guitarring and dreaming stadium-sized dreams. Through no fault of our own that dream stays in our hearts like a spark, way on up into the lives of our adult-bands, and it can cause confusion and sadness--not because it exists, but because it never evolved and grew up with us. And clenching on to that dream can even keep us from growing up. Let that not be the case here. It's time to grow your dream up, friend."

--jessica hopper at Fan Landers

courage is a muscle. build it.

Lots of the most worthwhile things in life carry a high risk of failure. Will your direct action succeed? What's the boss going to say when you ask for the raise? Is this campaign going to work? Will this fundraising plan reveal you as a leader, or make you look silly?

To make ourselves vulnerable to failure requires courage. Courage is one of those weasel words that can mean something very different to different people. It's often understood as a mysterious thing that comes out in moments of great drama, and that can certainly be true. It's been usefully described as "not action without fear, but action despite it." But what if we approached courage from a slightly different angle?

What if, for the sake of argument, we thought of courage as a muscle that can be developed? How might that notion change the way we approach moments of fear and vulnerability, big decisions that we may very well get wrong? And what habits and thought processes might we adopt to do a thing like develop courage?

If we take courage to mean decisive action in the face of uncertainty, we might begin to think about the steps we could follow to feel more confident in the decisions we make. Steps like these:

1. Ask yourself: what does success look like?

Imagine  the ideal outcome for your decision dilemma. Then, ask yourself what, from that ideal picture, you'd be willing to sacrifice and still remain satisfied. You've now got something like a goal window--an ideal state to aim for, and a set of realistic acceptable tradeoffs that will still allow you to achieve a win.

When I was Interactive Director of The Parley a few years ago, we wound up taking a risk I didn't feel ready to take. The Creative Director and I had discussed putting together a locally-focused TED-style event that was designed to bring together activists, technology & knowledge workers, and artists. I loved the idea and thought "I can't wait to start planning this, with a couple of months lead time we could put on a great event."

I arrived home after our meeting to discover that the excited Creative Director had sent out an e-mail to some of our most impressive contacts announcing we were doing this event in 3 weeks, asking if they'd like to participate. I was immediately horrified. Three weeks? Surely he was crazy. This was going to be a disaster.

But he seemed sure of himself. I sent him a gently inquiring e-mail asking him just what he thought we could pull together in 3 weeks, and his answer was short, and assured: he laid out the contours of the event as he imagined it, and said "this is totally doable."

A failure here would be embarassing for us, but I trusted him. Before I had wrapped my mind around it, he already understood what success looked like.

2. Determine the Importance of Your Goal

How important is achieving this end-state to you? Is this a question of deeply held values, or would you just *rather* have a certain outcome? Figuring out how important this goal is to you will help you determine how hard to fight for it.

The Creative Director and I had a long set of discussions about what this event could mean if it was a success. I hadn't fully wrapped my head around it, because I couldn't banish mental images of the Hindenburg. The CD laid it out: making this happen would be a splashy entrance into the world we were hoping to break into. If we succeeded, it would be by pursuing something that was at the heart of what we were about as an organization--connecting people across boundaries to make cool ideas into reality. A success here would be huge for us. And we had 3 weeks to do it. I suddenly understood: we had to get moving, fear of failure be damned.

3. Weigh Costs & Benefits

What will you have to sacrifice to pursue this goal? You don't have an infinite number of hours, and to take on new goals you'll need to make room for the work of pursuing the goal.

Before I'd come home to see the announcement e-mail there were a half dozen other ideas I was interested in pursuing, but they were all going to have to be set aside in the single-minded pursuit  of making this thing real (now we only had 2 weeks!). Still, the meaning of pulling this off successfully wasn't lost on either one of us--and the meaning of pulling it off at the speed we were doing it definitely wasn't lost on me. The CD pushed us, because he knew the cost was worth the benefit.

4. Is this the right time?

Why pursue this now? Is your interest in this uncertain project something that aligns with your longer-term goals? Are there obstacles in place now that might disappear if you wait?

This sure as hell didn't seem like the right time to me, at least not at first. We had two days to go before this event was happening, tickets were on sale and moving at a quick clip, and I was still scrambling to get us intermission entertainment and to confirm the last few prominent speakers for the event. From where I stood it seemed like the decision to put this together was impulsive, and that if we'd had more time to plan we could ensure a success.

The CD understood something I didn't: even if this event wasn't perfect, we could use it as a foundation--it would be a learning experience for all of us that we could use when we tried it a second, third, fourth time. As he knew, and as I've learned, there are benefits to just starting.

5. Backup Planning

Your 'oh shit' moment could be the most important part of your planning: what happens if despite all your planning and foresight, it turns out you've made the wrong decision? What will you do?

In our case, our contingency plan was "do it again, but better."

That's probably not the best Plan B you've ever heard of, but we were young and full of belief in what we were doing.


As it happened, the event was a huge success. The thing I didn't think was realistic to do in the time frame we'd allotted, the event I'd feared would make us look like fools when it fell apart, went off without a hitch. We got press coverage, we watched people from different worlds shake hands and plan to collaborate on future projects, and we walked away with a higher profile than we'd had to date.

Oh, and I DJ'd a minimal house music set as DJ of last resort.

This all came together because we worked hard, but none of it would have happened without our Creative Director having the courage to throw together an ambitious event with prominent guests on a short timeline. He had that courage because he had already made the calculations--this was a risk, but it was one worth taking.

Know what you're aiming for, decide how hard you'll fight for it, make sure you're ready to make sacrifices, make the time to act, and have a backup plan. When you know the contours of success and the costs of failure thoroughly, courage can be easier to find. And if it's easier to find today, it'll be easier still to find tomorrow.