For a year and change, I’ve been using a home-grown, constantly evolving task-tracking system I call Impulse. Part of the deal with Impulse is this: when I think of something I need to get done, I write it down immediately and get back to whatever I was doing.
Later, the thing I wrote down gets merged into a workstream. A workstream is list of tasks in the order I intend to start them. My two main workstreams are work (stuff I’m getting paid for), and personal (stuff I’m not getting paid for).
Impulse’s central principle, which is both obvious and, for me, life-altering, is that the more time you spend doing a thing, the more of that thing you will get done. Sure, there are other variables that play a role in determining output – focus, effectiveness of planning, and a match between your skill set and the work you undertake, to name a few – but time spent working is the most important.
Consequently, I try to arrange my life so as to allot some time every day to working through the tasks in my workstreams. I work from top to bottom, in whatever order the tasks are in at the time I start.
Among the myriad benefits this system has brought to my life is that it mitigates the effect of Ugh Fields.
An ugh field is a flinch response to thinking about a given domain of life, conditioned over time through repeated, self-reinforcing negative associations.
For example, I’ve long had an ugh field (or, as I’ve called it before, an attentional sneeze) around replying to texts from my family. I won’t go into how this ugh field developed. It wasn’t my family’s fault; they’re great. Point is, every time I thought about family texts I needed to reply to, my mind would flinch away. Over time, this flinch came earlier and earlier, and with less of a connection to any real source of discomfort. It grew through a feedback loop: think about the texts, flinch away, accrue consequences for ignoring them, think about those consequences, flinch earlier and more forcefully next time.
By succumbing to this ugh field, I’ve done significant damage to my relationship with my family. But the damage is not irreparable, and Impulse is helping me repair it.
Attenuating the ugh field
How can a simple task management system help repair years’ worth of self-conditioning? The key is to decouple the commitment to do a thing from the doing of the thing.
Time was, I didn’t have anywhere in particular to keep track of my plans and obligations. When it occurred to me that something needed doing (e.g. “read that my friend sent me”, “paint the railing on the back steps”, “reply to Dad about getting together in August”), I either had to do the thing right then, or remember to do it later. Thanks to attention deficit, this choice constitutes a dilemma. If I do the thing now, then I’ll lose track of what it was I was doing right beforehand. But if I decide to do the thing later, I’ll almost certainly forget to do it.
Now I have a third choice: record the task in my “inbox.” No matter how trivial it seems, just record it for now and get back to whatever I was doing. Later, on a recurring basis, merge the inbox into my personal and work workstreams.
Right off the bat, this helps. When I think of something I need to do, I don’t need to act on that thought right away. In fact I shouldn’t: that would distract me from whatever I’m already doing. I don’t have to feel bad about putting the thing off, so I don’t have so much of a flinch response.
Then, when it comes time to merge the tasks from my inbox (which is a Google Keep note) into the personal and work workstreams, there’s no longer an ugh field to overcome. I just put each task somewhere on the list, depending on how soon I want to get around to it. Here, another benefit kicks in: I’m forced to compare any new tasks to the other tasks I’ve committed to do, on equal footing.
Work’s just work
Because I’m comparing each task to all the others on a single dimension (i.e. where in the execution order to slot it), instead of a flinch-inducing dreaded obligation, I now just have another piece of work that will take a certain amount of time and create a certain amount of value. Like any other task, there are only 2 ways to get it off the list:
- Spend time doing it, or
- Decide consciously not to do it.
Either outcome is fine. What matters is that, instead of flinching away from even considering a task, I end up having an explicit conversation with myself about whether and when to do it. This lets me make better decisions.
This benefit is compounded by the way I burn down the workstreams. Somewhere in my day plan, there’s always some scheduled “heads down time,” during which I will execute tasks in a given workstream. For example, starting at 3pm today, I’ll do personal tasks. Always starting from the top of the list.
This means there’s no time to dread the ugh tasks. I don’t have to worry about whether I’m choosing the best thing to work on at a given moment, or what’s next afterward. I just have to trust the commitment I’ve already made to myself and do things in the order I’ve agreed to do them. The deciding is decoupled from the doing, which is an enormous help.
If you’ve come up with a similar arrangement, or if you’ve solved this problem for yourself in a different way, I’d love to hear about it! Hit me up in the comments.