Getting organized used to be a whole lot easier.
As nomadic hunter-gatherers, we only had to keep track of the things we could carry because that was all we owned. As members of a tribe of extended family members, we could lean upon others for assistance with day-to-day tasks and trust they had equal skin in the game. We didn’t have to shoulder everything ourselves, and the responsibilities necessary for survival were simpler. The accessible world was much smaller, the breadth of available knowledge limited by location. You knew all about the lives and goings-on of your immediate community members and which plants were edible in a 20-mile radius and where to get water and when the antelope grazed and the leopard prowled. But what happened 50 miles away was a total mystery, and a thousand miles away might well have been infinitely vast. Important info was recorded through oral traditions—stories and songs. Anecdote and analogy and parable carry weight to this day because for millennia, they were all we had to go on.
Then agriculture happened, followed by urbanization and markets and trade routes and, suddenly, we had a lot more information to process. So we created a system for organizing and externalizing information: writing. Physical writing soon gave way to telecommunication traveling along physical wires and, later, invisible data streams shooting and bouncing across the atmosphere.
Today, we are roving islands of responsibilities, duties, obligations, tasks, schedules, and information hyperconsumers. We have more “freedom” and everything’s amazing and there’s an app for that and that and that. But that just means we have more things to squeeze in and organize our lives around. It used to be if you wanted to go to Hawaii, you told a travel agent and they booked the plane, the hotel, and the rental car. Now we have the freedom to hunt for the best deal ourselves and travel-hack our way into credit rewards for extra miles and scour AirBNB for an amazing pad on the beach. There are benefits, clearly. We have more opportunities and more options, but we’re busier than ever before with fewer people to help shoulder the load. And unless you turn off notifications, your phone’s always alerting you to the existence of something else to cram into your brain.
That’s the rub: on top of the physical world we’ve laid an entirely novel world of digital information that demands even more of our attention. All those tweets, status updates, texts, emails, and snapchats need to be organized alongside our houses, spouses, closets, jobs, bills, cars, and yards. How can our pre-industrial brains stay organized and focus on the things that matter? Here are a few tips to help.
You’re answering emails. You’re checking your phone. You’re pinging colleagues. You’re working an Excel spreadsheet. You’re reading MDA. You’re bouncing around from website to app to Twitter feed to phone call to text message. You’re on top the world and optimizing your performance. After all, doing three tasks at once instead of one must be more efficient. Right? Or maybe not, since the evidence clearly shows that multitasking doesn’t work very well.
A 2009 study out of Stanford found that heavy multitaskers—people who reported being frequent multitaskers and felt they were more efficient because of it—were worse at multitasking than people who reported being light multitaskers. When the multitaskers actually tried to multitask, they had trouble switching from task to task, were more easily distracted, and had trouble organizing their thoughts. In a more recent study, performance on a single task was 83%, while trying to do two tasks at once dropped performance to 17%. Multitasking is a lie. Unless the tasks are completely automatic, like breathing and walking, performance of the primary task suffers.
If you insist on multitasking, try passive multitasking, like starting a pot of bone broth or a pot roast in the slow cooker before work. Dinner will be cooking as you work without you having to do any extra work. I also find that integrating exercise into the workday improves my ability to focus and create without disrupting my work flow. This could mean using a treadmill desk, keeping a kettlebell at your desk for occasional sets of swings, or taking pushup/squat breaks every 3o minutes. At home, I usually hop on the slack line for a few minutes when my writing hits a lull.
Phones, apps, and social media are sensory organs for our extended digital brains. They provide streams of data and information, and this information either helps or hinders us. Unfortunately, our brain can’t really distinguish between useful and useless information before we see it; it all gets processed simply by virtue of our viewing it, taking up valuable brain resources in the process.
On a free day, take the time to sit down and analyze the data streams in your life. Go through your Twitter feed and survey your “followed” list. Are the accounts you follow making you happy, improving your life, inspiring you, or making you money? Stop following the ones who you answer “no” to. Now do the same for the apps on your phone. If they aren’t improving your existence or are sucking your time away without anything to show for it, delete them. Do this for every digital outlet you maintain.
Between liberals rage-watching Fox News, conservatives gnashing teeth over Obama dancing tango in Cuba, and anyone with a pulse reading Youtube comment sections, people are drawn to opinions and news that enrage them. I call this anger porn, and I’m not sure why we insist on consuming it. At least with regular porn, there’s a pay-off. With anger porn, we just get angry and frustrated. We can’t affect the world events being reported on. We can’t change that other guy’s disgusting opinion (nor can he change your horrendous one); we can reply to comments, but that just turns into a flame war without victors.
Anger consumes you. It depletes you. It’s a huge waste of time and attention.
Our memories are fluid—more written in sand than etched in stone. Even our recollections of significant events morph over time until we’re not even sure we’re remembering them correctly. And sometimes they just disappear. How many times have you had a great idea, think “I should write this down,” don’t, and forget all about it? You’d never know because you’ve forgotten all about it!
Keep a notepad handy or download an app like Evernote for your phone. I don’t use Evernote myself, instead preferring to jot stuff down on paper or in my phone’s default notepad, but I’ve got friends and colleagues who swear by it.
Humans are voracious data hounds. We just love information snacks, little bits of news and gossip that flit across our brains and prevent us from doing what we know we should be doing. And willpower is cool and all, and it’s easy to tell someone “just don’t visit that website,” but in reality? You’re gonna slip up and give in. Don’t rely on willpower. Use one or some of the dozens of tools and apps that block distractions. I’m a big fan of Self Control, which lets you choose which websites to “blacklist,” and for how long. Once a site is blacklisted, you won’t be able to access it for up to 24 hours. Delete it, restart the computer, it’s all in vain. Any and all attempts to bypass the blacklist will fail. For PC and smartphones, Freedom is a similar app.
Time and attention are finite. We only have so much, and it’s all we have in this life. After that, it’s gone. If we reject this fundamental truth and attempt to take on more tasks than we can complete, we’ll have no time for any of the stuff we care about and our lives will descend into stressed-out ruin. Derek Sivers has an ingenious way of deciding how to allocate his time and energy. If a potential opportunity doesn’t excite him, he doesn’t take it. If it “sounds kinda cool,” that’s not good enough. He’ll only agree to things if they make him say “hell yeah!”
Mind wandering is our natural state: where we aren’t engaged and focused on a task, we daydream. And it’s not frivolous. It’s essential. This is when our brain recharges and we stumble upon new avenues of thought. Next time you’re in line at the DMV or strolling along the beach at sunset, resist the urge to pull out your phone and occupy your mind. Let it wander. You need the break.
We all have to pay taxes and die someday. Beyond that, rules descend into varying degrees of arbitrariness. Self-imposed rules are the most arbitrary, like finishing every book you start. What if the book is terrible?
If the book doesn’t grab you in the first 40 pages, stop reading it. This isn’t school. You don’t have to suffer through boring (im)material.
If you “want” to meditate every morning for 20 minutes but can’t seem to do it, stop beating yourself up. You don’t want to meditate, actually, or else you would. That’s okay. There are alternatives. Worrying about not meditating is worse than not meditating.
I’ve written on decision fatigue before. It’s a pernicious first-world problem that can sap us of willpower and resolve to do the tasks that matter. Read the post and consider what it says.
I don’t care what the task is. Entertainment, writing copy, doing spreadsheets, TPS reports, welding, dog walking. Just focus. You could be watching the Walking Dead; actually watch it. Don’t have your phone out. Give yourself fully to the task at hand.
You’ve heard about the rich and measurable benefits of reducing wanton consumption and getting rid of unwanted, unused items cluttering your home. There’s less to worry about, it’s easier to keep clean, you’re more mobile when you don’t have lug hundreds of heavy boxes around, and you spend less money. And as far as organization goes, tidying offers obvious benefits; you actually know where things are kept! But there’s even evidence that your physical space mirrors your mental space and makes it easier to organize your thoughts and complete tasks. Research shows that trying to complete a task in a messy environment is harder than completing it in a clean, neat one. Physical clutter literally inhibits the brain’s ability to focus, process information, and avoid distractions.
Get all your to-do lists out. First, throw out the items that aren’t really important. If they ever become important, they’ll resurface later.
Next, separate them into two groups: big jobs and easy jobs. A big job is something that takes planning, time, devotion, and probably money. An easy job is something you can crank out in an afternoon.
Then, rank each item in each group in order of importance.
Finally, start cranking them out. Go down the line of easy jobs and do them as quickly as you can. Go down the list of big jobs and take the first step to actually start. Never have more than two (one from each list) going at once.
There are of course times where you might have multiple things going on. That’s fine. Using the to-do rankings helps you focus, though. It’s a good rubric for getting things done, far superior to a big floating list of things you kinda have to do, sometime, somewhere.
Allowing large items and responsibilities to pile up is an obvious impediment to organization. Remodeling that bathroom, painting that kitchen, applying to that job, and deciding what you’re going to do about school for your toddler weigh heavily. We acknowledge as such. Everyone does. But what about digital “bits,” like unanswered emails and articles you’ve bookmarked to read later but never do? Because they’re digital, we tend to discount their effect on our focus, but they occupy real space in our lives.
Because our brains are set up to deal with physical things, and the impact of the digital realm isn’t obvious, a big part of getting organized and focused in the modern world is recognizing and acknowledging the obstacles. Now, it may take months or years for this to become second nature. It may be a constant battle. And perhaps several generations down the line, when human biology interfaces directly with tech, we’ll have adapted. Not yet, though.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care, and I’d love to hear how you stay organized and focused amidst all the distractions and temptations. What tips would you add?
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