Takeaways: managing attention with stacks

Last week I wrote about a system I’ve been using to manage my attention. It’s inspired by the call stack, but it presupposes no knowledge of computer science. Since I need a name for it, I’ve been calling it Impulse.

Since that post, I’ve been using Impulse more seriously. It has been super illuminating. My practices are in rapid flux at the moment, but the core workflow has more or less solidified to the following:

  • Each line represents a task.
  • A task can have child tasks, which appear above the parent task and indented.
  • The top line is always the thing I’m currently working on.

At first, I thought Impulse was just a to-do list flipped upside down. But now I think it’s more than that.

Making a to-do list involves writing down all the things you need to do, and committing to do all of them. There are many who find this comforting! The list represents a finite sequence of discrete steps, and once you’ve gone through all the steps, you’re done. You can relax.

For me, it’s quite the opposite. I get paralyzed thinking about all the possible activities I could potentially do that might be valuable. If I let myself, I’ll sit there for an hour just silently panicking about what should be on the list. Should I tidy up my desk today? Should I clean the bathroom? Should I put my DuoLingo on here? Should I add a task to reply to that email from my Dad? Should I add breaks? Now the list is way too long to get done before lunch. Should I cut some things? Which things are most important? Which things are most urgent? Oh shoot, I also need to get groceries today. Which means I don’t have time to… and so on. It’s exhausting and it doesn’t get me anywhere.

With Impulse, the focus is always on the top line. That’s always the thing I’m currently doing, no matter what. I don’t have to worry so much about whether everything important is on the list, or whether it’s in the right order. I can just bang away at the thing on top, abiding in faith that if I simply spend time doing things, things will get done.

Here’s another way to look at it: with Impulse, the process of choosing what to do is decoupled from the process of doing it.

This makes work much less overwhelming. When I’m working, I never need to worry about how my current task fits into the big picture, or whether I’ve skipped a step, or whether there’s something more valuable I could be doing instead. There is only one thing to do: the line at the top of the stack.

I’ve been using Impulse for a whole bunch of purposes. As a to-do list when I’m puttering around the house:

dishes
fold laundry
throw out coffee cup
fold baby laundry
clean roomba, put back
outline followup blog post on impulse

To break down a task into pieces and make it more manageable and help keep track of where I am:

        wire clipper
        new strings
        something to put under guitar neck
        tuner
    get equipment together
        loosen all strings
        cut all strings
        throw old strings away
    take off old strings
    ...
restring guitar

To keep track of things I want to follow up on later:

write widget function
    reply to RFC comments
    tidy up desk
    order thai food
review at end of day

And I use it in many other ways that are less well defined but no less intuitive.

Current implementation

Right now I’m just using Vim and Git. The stack is a text file in a Git repository, and I also maintain some buckets as auxiliary text files. Here’s a snapshot of the buckets I’m currently using:

  • pink: (called “pink” for historical reasons) Tasks that are ready to start, which don’t demand sustained focus, and which can probably be done in under 15 minutes. Examples: check whether there's a better time for that weekly meeting, fix dead link on website, read that Stephen Malkmus interview I saw
  • blue: (called “blue” for historical reasons) Tasks that are ready to start, which do require sustained focus, and which will probably take longer than 30 minutes. Examples: read RFC that Tom sent, connect anti-tip kit to bookshelf, watch latest Philosophytube video
  • ongoing: BIGGER projects that are currently in flight. I try to keep this limited to 2, and I’ll pull tasks from ongoing into the stack when I have time. I use ongoing to think through the next few steps of a project, and those steps are organized in the same way as the stack. Examples: write impulse followup blog post, document disaster recovery testing procedure, prepare slide show for shitposting Zoom
  • project: Projects that are not in flight. I pull these into ongoing as it empties out.

In addition to the files listed above, I have a few templates, which I can pull into the stack to represent tasks that I need to do repeatedly. Some of these templates are:

  • matins: A sequence of activities I do every morning when I sit down at my desk: personal email, work email, work slack, and planning out how I’m going to spend my day.
  • vespers: A sequence of (much less structured) activities I do at the end of work.
  • restring_guitar: The process for restringing a guitar, organized into an Impulse task. It’s a thing I do so infrequently that I always forget how to do it. So Impulse is a nice way both to save that information, and to learn the process more thoroughly.

This Vim/Git approach works… okay. There’s definitely some friction. Sometimes parent tasks get separated from their children because I’ve made a mistake moving things around. Syncing is a pain, because I have to remember to pull and commit and push. But despite these and other difficulties, I still find it super helpful to work from a stack.

The software angle

As soon as I started using Impulse consistently, I ran into the age-old problem of consensus. I have both a work laptop and a personal laptop, and I use Impulse on both. It immediately became clear that the whole thing falls apart as soon as there’s more than one stack.

So the biggest challenge I can foresee in building a software implementation of Impulse is distributed consensus. I have some ideas about how to handle it, which may one day come to take the form of an eventually consistent object store built on top of Git. But I think I need to ignore the consensus problem for now.

Instead, I’ll try to hone a super streamlined ncurses-based UI for a single, in-memory Impulse instance:

--- Moving the Cursor

j ↓     move cursor down
k ↑     move cursor up
h ←     move cursor to parent
l →     move cursor to child
t       move cursor to top

--- Moving tasks

J ⇧↓    move task down (among its siblings)
K ⇧↑    move task up (among its siblings)
H ⇧←    move task left (make it a child of the task that's currently its grandparent)
L ⇧→    move task right (make it a child of the sibling directly above it)

--- Changing tasks

c       add child task(s)
s       add sibling task(s)
d       delete task
Enter   edit task name

--- Etc.

?       help (this message)

This should keep me busy for a while. Then I’ll see where I’m at.