Beat overwhelm, decide sooner, calm the monkey

Does this sound familiar?

You get an email asking you to do something, but you don’t deal with it just now. You put it off, and put it off, until…

Aaaaah, I have to do something about this now or else!

An animated gif of a Muppet running towards the camera with mouth open and eyes wide in panic.

There’s a better way.

Most of the time, how far do you get before you finally decide?

A graph of "amount getting done" over time. In the beginning, you notice an email or something else you need to deal with. You put it off, and it bugs you more and more until your brain is screaming to do something about it.

What if your process looked like this instead?

A graph of "amount getting done" over time. In the beginning, you notice an email or something else you need to deal with. After a short time, you decide what you need to do with it: what's the next action?

The difference between these two is deciding sooner. Not always doing sooner — just deciding.

Don’t do everything right away. Decide right away what to do.

This is critical for email and anything else that comes your way: notes, assignments, ideas, instant messages, and more.

What happens when we decide later

Emails pile up. Ideas accumulate. Notes cover your desk. Your mind goes wild.

In the words of David Allen, “Your mind is great for having ideas — but terrible for holding them.” What makes it terrible? For one thing, your brain turns into a monkey, constantly reminding you of what you haven’t decided.

An image of a nervous monkey clutching a smartphone.

Do this! Do this! Do that! Do that! Remember X? You forgot Y! Working on A? You forgot B! Aaaaaaaah!

Your mind does this because, on some level, it knows it can’t let go of that thing. You have something to do about it, and that’s what your brain is terrified of losing.

Important or not, timely or not, your brain doesn’t care. It has only two modes: on your mind or off your mind.

What happens when we decide sooner: beat overwhelm

In a word: calm.

Look again at the second graph:

A graph of "amount getting done" over time. In the beginning, you notice an email or something else you need to deal with. After a short time, you decide what you need to do with it: what's the next action?

You see something, you say what it means to you. Processing email? What does each one mean?

  1. What do you need to do?
  2. Where do you store that action so you’ll see it at the right time?

That’s the basic process of getting things off your mind. This allows the monkey to relax and get off your back — so you can focus (or rest).

A picture of a Japanese snow monkey relaxing in a natural hot spring.

The idea is to eliminate hurry, frenzy, and stress, so you can focus hard and rest well.

The foundation of deciding sooner

Before you decide what to do with that email, you need an organized system. The essential components are:

  • Places to collect inputs (e.g. your inbox)
  • David Allen’s essential lists:
    • Committed Actions (a few steps)
    • Committed Projects (many steps)
    • Someday/Maybe (no commitment, review regularly)
    • Waiting For (answers, actions, etc. from others)
    • Calendar
  • Reference filing, for info you’ll want later

Creating an organized system may take minutes, hours, or days. What never changes is its value. When you have a system that works for you, it lets you do your best work. In other words, it’s always worth it.

How to decide sooner: calming the monkey

To actually decide what to do with that email (or note, or idea), you need a process for deciding.

Again, I can recommend no better that David Allen’s GTD Workflow. The short version is:

  • Do you need to do something about whatever this is?
    • YES:
      • Do it (if 1 minute or less); OR
      • Delegate it; OR
      • Put it on a list (see above)
    • NO:
      • File it; OR
      • Add it to Someday/Maybe; OR
      • Delete it!
  • Repeat

This is the basic process for getting things off your mind.

When to decide

Research says multitasking is a myth. There is only “switch-tasking:” rapidly switching between things and doing all of them worse.

So? Do one thing at a time. That means time for processing (deciding) and time for doing — not both at once!

My clients and I have found great success setting aside dedicated time for processing email and other things (usually two or three times a day). The rest of the time, we make ourselves as unreachable as possible (except for true emergencies) so we can focus.

A close-up image of a man facing the camera with his finger to his lips, making the "shush" sign.

Sidebar: reduce incoming volume

We live in a world of over-communication. Tools like Twitter and instant-messaging create a sense of immediacy. We can message people now, so we rarely think about whether we should. Yes, we just get it off our mind and get a little relief! — but this quickly comes back to haunt us.

Not only that, we create a culture of hurry that hurts us all.

Here are a few tips to get fewer alerts and calm the chaos:

  • On your phone and IM, use Do Not Disturb
  • In Microsoft Teams and other apps, use status icons and messages to let others know when you are and are not available to respond immediately
  • Turn off alerts
  • Customize which conversations and people ping you
  • Use email for non-urgent items only
  • Send and answer emails during business hours only
    • If you’re processing outside hours, use the “delay send” feature
  • Take more time to respond: messages beget messages!
  • Turn off email alerts!

If your supervisor says they expect you to respond instantly, and that’s not a critical part of your job, tell them (calmly) you can be “on” some of the time, but all the time will damage your focus on your important projects. If that’s what they want, figure out how badly you want to stay there.

After deciding sooner

To make your decisions effective and follow through with them, you need at least five processes, implemented effectively:

  1. Collecting
  2. Processing
  3. Organizing
  4. Reviewing
  5. Doing

The first three are outlined above. Together, these five make up (once again) David Allen’s essential workflow.

Beat overwhelm: keeping up in the digital world

In this post, most of what I’ve given you so far is essentially GTD, which has been part of my foundation for work for over 30 years. In our digital age, however, I’ve found knowing GTD alone isn’t enough. Though its principles are powerful, I must continually adapt my GTD practice to the changing demands of the workplace.

“If I were to even process everything coming at me, I’d have no time for work!” I hear that a lot. In fact, many of the people who come to me for help are in the same situation. I show them how to integrate what they already know with smart work methods (including GTD) with smart decision tactics and powerful software. The result: systems that work for the people who use them.

That’s something else I help my clients achieve, but that’s a post for another time!

How about you? What difference has deciding sooner made for you? How do you keep up in the digital age?

Image credits:

Graphs: Scott Moehring

Monkey with phone: Yago1. License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. “Scared Ape with Samsung Smartphone.”

Relaxed monkey: PxFuel. Free for commercial use under DMCA. Link to original.

Shushing man: Camera Eye Photography. License CC BY 2.0. “Shhhh…

How I eliminated unconscious resistance using folders to organize papers

Picture of a stack of neatly-organized papers, arranged in groups, clipped together with different-colored binder clips.

Despite our digital age, I still use paper every day.

After all, it has some real advantages over digital:

  • Paper is tactile, which helps me remember what I’ve collected and written
  • The physical filing creates spatial memory, which helps me find what I have
  • Paper is far more versatile for capturing visual information — diagrams, doodles, flags, and more — right alongside text

But digital and paper have something in common: they can easily make a big mess.

Paper: how I don’t make a mess

The point of a good filing system is that you can find things quickly. The more effort it takes to find things, the less you want to use the system. This is one form of unconscious resistance, or friction — terms David Allen coined to describe resistance to using one’s own systems.

Thinking about this, I’ve found ways to reduce the friction in my paper system. I have a U-shaped desk that wraps around on both sides. I’m right-handed, so I have a shelf just under my right desk surface. This way, I can reach essential paper (and related supplies) without looking at/for them.

Here’s my view as I look to the right and down:

A picture of what I see when I'm sitting at my desk and I turned to my right and looked down: my tape, stapler, labelers, and folders on a shelf under the top surface of my desk, all neatly aligned and ready for me to use.

And here’s a look at the shelf from the front view.

Picture of the shelf directly under the right-hand top surface of my desk. This holds my tape, stapler, labelers, and folders on — all neatly arranged and ready for me to use quickly and easily.

This is the front view of the shelves I added below my desk surface. When I let my arm hang from my chair, the lower shelf is right at the height of my hand. This makes it quick and easy for me to grab a labeler or folder!

To further reduce friction, I have three labelers. This lets me quickly and easily create labels in whatever size I need (most often ½”).

The three label printers are also wireless, so I don’t even have to pick them up — I can print a label right from my computer or iPhone!

And of course, I keep a fresh stack of 1/3-cut folders, pre-sorted, and ready to use. I’ve cut off the end of the box so I can slide the next folder right out without looking for it.

The cost and the payoff

Box-cutting, labeler-arranging, wireless printing setup — did all this take time and thought to set up? It certainly did! But that time has come back to me at least 10 times over as I’ve used this super-easy system.

These are just a few of many small work friction-reducing improvements I’ve built into my desk over the years. As a result, I find my workspace very inviting 😊 — and in it, I get things done.

How did I do it?

How did I make over my workspace? Simple. I asked myself:

  1. What do I typically do at my desk?
  2. How do I typically do it?
  3. How could this take fewer steps?

You can do it too!

Re-see your workspace

Look at your workspace. Do you find it repulsive? Or inviting?

I hope this post gives you some ideas how to move towards the latter!

Welcome to the Intentionally Productive Blog! There’s not much to see here yet but I have big plans to share the principles and practices I’ve been working on over the past many years. My goal is to have a discussion about these topics. I’m interested to know what you think, and I hope you will find these topics interesting.

P.S. If you haven’t already done so, please take a moment to subscribe to updates so that you’ll be notified of my coming posts. I promise to keep your information private, and you can unsubscribe at any time with just a click.