An Ingenious New Strategy for Staying on Task
The Concept: Everything that requires your attention should find its way into one of three holy places—your email inbox, your calendar, or your to-do list.
Please note that I said "everything that requires your attention." This symbolic triangle becomes your trusted, look-no-further place for every current responsibility in your life. While it can include things you'd like to get done, it absolutely must include all the things you have to get done.
Now, don’t get scared. This doesn't mean you have to actually do everything on your to-do list or reply to every single email. We both know you’ll probably never get to every item; no one does. The Triangle concept simply means that if there’s something to reply to, a place to be, or a task to handle, you’ll be able to find it in one of those three places. And in a world where we now have a thousand different things vying for our attention each day, having three places to count on is a decluttered and realistic number. You can decide whether or not to delete, reschedule, or ignore—later.
Most people, in my experience, have a decent relationship with their email inbox and calendar. Not necessarily in the sense that they're well-cared-for, but in the sense that you basically know how to interact with these two things. Even if your inbox is still a cluttered cesspool, it’s still your cluttered cesspool. You know how to keep it functioning at a basic level. Likewise with a calendar. But most of my clients do not have a functional system for keeping track of tasks and projects, or could mightily improve on their current one. The goal of the Triangle is to treat your inbox, calendar, and to-do list as equal partners. Mindset change: GO.
Three Friends, Working Together
If you're keeping an email active in your inbox to remind you of something, and it doesn't need a reply, add that task to your to-do list and archive the email. Then, when it comes time, simply search for the email to look at any pertinent info. Use this trick for social media inboxes—like your Facebook messages—as well.
If you're keeping an email active to remind you of a specific event, add the event to your calendar immediately and follow the instructions above. Same holds true for invitations you receive from other sources, like social media.
Or maybe it's a combo platter. You receive a Paperless Post invite to a wedding shower. Within 30 seconds, you can:
1. Follow the link and RSVP
2. Add the event to your calendar (often as easy as clicking a link in the invite).
3. Add "buy wedding shower gift for Hal & Bob" to your to-do list.
4. Archive the email so it’s out of your inbox.
Here's another example: Your friend has emailed you a link to an article you want to read for inspiration on your next creative masterpiece. Instead of the email getting pushed farther and farther down in your inbox, you can:
1. Cut and paste the link into a task on your to-do list, along with "read this article for masterpiece research" and set it to pop up a reminder on Saturday at 10:00 a.m.
2. Create an event to "start masterpiece research" for Saturday from 10:00 to 10:30 a.m. on your calendar.
3. Archive the email so it's out of your inbox.
Cracks avoided. Clutter gone. Happy explosions.
Your calendar is for scheduled events only, not to record the things you might do that day. However, feel free to schedule specific errands from your to-do list. For example, you’ll run to the hardware store at 2:30 right before your 3:15 doctor's appointment. Putting specifically timed tasks on the calendar will help you actually do them.
To that end, scheduling creative tasks for specific times of day, and then treating them like real nonnegotiable appointments, is imperative for productivity. And for many people, mornings are best to work on anything you are likely to procrastinate on. Knock it out first thing, and that sense of accomplishment and joy will follow you throughout the day. Decluttering the garage this weekend? Building your new website? Put it down for 9:00 a.m., not 3:00 p.m.
Productivity is not a perfect science. Two steps forward, one step back is the name of the game. Soon it'll be five steps forward. Then eight. Then eighty.
Reprinted from New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks (and Everyone Else). Copyright © 2016 by Fay Wolf. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.