The Pilcrow

A WordPress developer's thoughts on professional and personal development. Written by Karin Taliga

I’m still working on this

Can I make a confession? I suck at sorting and putting away things.

I recently had a conversation with someone that told me I seem to have all my shit together and wondered just how perfect my life was. In order to not turn into a Facebook-like perfectly filtered reality, I’m sharing with you some of the things I struggle with. Do not think for a moment that I am not human 🙂

I love the concept of the inbox, because then I have somewhere to put all the things I don’t want to think about for the moment. I am very good at staying on task thanks to it.

An idea, something I read that I might want to come back to later, or something I remember I need to do but cannot do right now. I recognise immediately that a thought or a thing has nothing to do with what I’m currently doing so I quickly capture it and throw it in the inbox – most often my digital task manager.

The inbox is an excellent tool to be able to focus. The problem is that you need to go back and process it. And I suck at that.

I am pretty good at pinpointing and sifting out actionable items from the rest. So in my weekly review I tend to do just that – pick out the actionable stuff and place them in their respective project and context.

But the rest? All the ideas, the interesting things to save, the someday-maybe’s? They stay where they are.

I have been thinking about why this is. Why do I do this to myself?

A tiny backlog turned into an avalanche

In a way, it’s a matter of efficiency. There were a couple of weeks a while back when time was tight and I didn’t have the luxury of sitting down and doing a whole empty-all-inboxes kind of weekly review. No time for sorting.

I could only quickly scan the projects and inboxes, make sure all the things I need to do is captured and organised, get clarity on what’s coming up next week, and that’s it.

The ideal is of course that at some point in time when time is less scarce, I will go back to that inbox and clear it out. But I always keep finding more important stuff to do.

Once that little backlog of non-urgent non-actionable stuff entered my inbox, it all escalated from there. Like a snowball adding more and more mass to it. I am just waiting for the avalanche to happen.

By now, my task manager’s inbox is over 250 items. Even if I spend no more than 2 minutes on each one, GTD style, it’ll take me over 8 hours to clear it out. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

I tried the baby step approach with making a regular daily task to spend 20 minutes clearing the inbox. That didn’t work (as in – I got the reminder and dismissed it without doing anything. I’ve got an impressive unbroken streak of ignored iOS reminders by now).

By not doing something I dislike right now, I am delegating it to my future self. But my future self dislike it too and find every excuse to avoid it. In the mean time the pile just keep on growing.

And the truth is this tendency of mine is all-encompassing, not only regarding my digital inbox.

Disliking the maintenance time between tasks

If I work on something and get interrupted, I want to keep everything out in the same state as when I leave it, ready to be picked up when I get back. I hate what is called “changeover time” – the time between tasks when you bring out the tools needed for the task and put away the stuff that you just used before moving to the next task.

Getting the workspace ready. Removing all traces from previous work session. So boring. I want to just go from thing to thing, without all the hassle in between.

By keeping everything where I left it, I eliminate some of the cost of context switching. At the expense of having what others perceive to be a tidy environment.

Bringing stuff out is less of a problem, because the reward of getting to start is close at hand. But putting things away has no intrinsic reward for me. There’s only annoyance, and the feeling of wasting time that I could spend on something more valuable.

I know other people seem to thoroughly enjoy empty and cleared spaces. Some kind of deep satisfaction of the empty surface and empty inbox. Marie Kondo promises that the feeling of a cleared space will magically change your life.

And while yes, when I got to inbox zero in the past I did kind of like it, the slight positive feeling of it is not enough for me to take me over the hill of dislike of the task itself. I have yet to experience any magic of tidying up.

It translates to other parts of management too. My Projects folder on my computer is littered with finished projects that just need their loose ends tied up and get moved to the Archive. I simply have a hard time getting to the wrap up phase in which things are put away.

Looking for a permanent solution

It’s easy to fall into only looking for the solution in the practical plane. See what I can do to minimise all friction, create some kind of reward for when I do it etc.

But I think any lasting solution will need to involve the emotional plane too. To somehow upgrade how I value the cleared space and make the time spent on these activities feel less wasted.

I am getting annoyed and distracted by all the loose ends lying around, and I know with my head that it’s a Good Thing to take care of it. But my emotions disagree, and it’s easy to rationalise to only do the Most Important Things – making these undesirable activities low priority in the process.

Right now, I’m still figuring out the most effective solution to my problem. I just want to swing a magic wand and all the piles of stuff will magically sort themselves.

I simply have to bite the bullet I guess but ugh, I don’t like it. I need to figure out how I can make this more fun, because right now I’d much rather read or write than fiddling with this kind of maintenance.

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