Often we must come full circle –to return to the very beginning– in the efforts to renew ourselves. To do this, the years of rubbish accumulating in our minds need to be emptied periodically, lest we find ourselves with little room to move and breathe.
This is a little post about Zen. I’m not talking about the clichéd trend of recent years to denote every little amusing bit of human nature as Zen, nor the smug satisfaction of thinking one’s excellence in a particular area is Zen, nor am I referring to the misconception tied to the existential angst of nothingness and futility as Zen. These are ridiculous, and only demonstrate one’s ignorance of the philosophy. While I don’t wish to define Zen here (and it defies verbal description anyway), I want to mention an important way it can help folks whose minds are cluttered by years of intellectual analysis. (Well, it helped me.) I’m talking here about the beginner’s mind.
In response to my Simpleton and the Grail post, I’ve gotten a few email like the following, asking exactly how I went about “reducing” my system from one of inherent complexity to one that worked in its simplicity:
You mentioned you’d write about your system later on — but I’m more curious as to how you approached the process of it figuring out. I’ve been productivity tweaking since Jan ’04 (my first read of GTD ), and have tried all sorts of things. Frustrated, I occasionally engage in the exercise you describe, but always end up more frustrated and muddled than if I’d stuck to my 17-step, 4-system, daily-review process.
What was your mindset? How much time did you devote? How did you pare down to the essentials?
Many people, myself included, get caught up in over-analysing everything. If you’re creating a top-notch piece of software, or a bridge, or a space shuttle, this isn’t a liability, and is often preferable. After all, you want to account for every usage, process and contingency when so much is on the line, when so many people are involved in the equation. To many, the mental challenge is exhilarating, and to see one’s well-ordered and well-thought-out plan being implemented is a far greater reward than simple financial gain. And so, many of us attack every issue in our lives with the same sort of intellectual gusto, thinking that there’s nothing wrong with applying complex flow charts, cutting-edge technologies and detailed quality assurance methods to every proposed solution.
Last summer, I realised I had to do something about my time management problems. I had stretched my days to the limit, I was losing track of bills, I constantly forgot tasks from one hour to the next, and found my stress levels approaching critical. No problem, I thought. I’m an IT professional, and like most of the breed, I’m wont to fantasize about ways of increasing my efficiency using a powerful and systematic series of tools. Having recently finished Getting Things Done, I was inspired to leap into the fray and somehow come up with a technical system that could revolutionalise the time management arena (which –I believe– many of us geeks see as a completely feasible undertaking).
Uh-oh. You see the problem coming, don’t you?
Well, to make a long story short, I got caught in the “must track everything” mindset. I got trapped in a never-ending circle of figuring out the ultimate methodology for containing the ebb and flow of each and every little bit of information, and I involved every tiny byte of technology I could wield, cajole or duct-tape together. Not only was the sheer complexity of the system overwhelming –and thus not likely to be used– but my constant rejigging (including weekly replacements of core applications) meant that nothing was stable or long-lasting enough to be useful. The downward spiral of productivity tweaking wasted my precious time, drained my energy, decimated my efficiency, consistently distracted me, and consequently drove my stress levels to soaring heights.
Fifteen years ago at university, I did a whole lot of soul searching. While things like existentialism, behaviorism and various shamanistic concepts soon staled the neurons and trickled out of my brain, I did find Zen Buddhism interesting enough to pursue. One day this past fall, I was rummaging through my boxes of books and stumbled across a book on the subject (Zen for Beginners, to be exact — an excellent and easy-to-digest introduction). I flipped through it in an amused sort of way, remembering the years of study and meditation, and then it hit me: I needed to leave behind the complexities of my thinking and return to the “beginner’s mind.”
The beginner’s mind is one of clarity unencumbered by the years of ego, rules, social experience, worldly knowledge, bad habits and other baggage that accumulates and weighs us down. It is the original face, the one we each had before we were born. It is primordial, and free of imposition. It heeds no resistance, and is aware only of the natural flow of things.
I released that my biggest problem was trying to contain all the information, constantly trying to shape an unnatural flow as one might attempt to contain or change the course of a river with only one’s bare hands. Time after time, this caused my tension and frustration to build to the point of needing to abandon my fledgeling systems. You see, my cherished systems were the result of my accumulated knowledge and many years’ experience in IT work; they had become a series of intellectual challenges, and not a natural way of looking at or managing my life. I had to leave this mind-clutter and baggage behind, at least temporarily, and forget about my unholy communions of wikis, web-based project management tools, PDAs, server-synced calendars, sitebars, databases and 20-step flowcharts.
But how does one return to the beginning, and forget about technology? Simple: I took out a piece of paper and wrote at the top, “Things I actually need to track and use to be effective”. How very primitive, right? Well, that was the intention.
I started listing only those things I thought I absolutely needed.
“Email”. After all, about 90% of my communication is email. Right-o, not a problem. Gmail has labels and archiving, and I can set up @Action, @WaitingFor, @ProjectName, @Review, and so on. That was easy.
Here, I stopped, though: I decided to make a conscious effort not to think yet about how to manage the information, but just discern what information was needed in the first place. Beginner’s mind, no process yet. Okay, move on.
“Next Actions,” of course. Have to keep on track, keep going forward. “Waiting For,” because I don’t want delegated tasks to stall.
“Calendar Appointments and Deadlines,” since I have to remember to do certain things on certain days. Likewise “Birthdays” and “Anniversaries.”
“Daily news.” I wanted to tote news so I could read it during my lunch hour or in line-ups.
“Contact Info.” “Logins/passwords.” “Car Loan Information.” And so on.
It took about an hour. When I was finished, I was amazed how much information I was trying to track and use that was –in the grand scheme– utterly useless to my productivity. Many of the things I had been trying to contain didn’t even make the first cut. Then I started crossing out everything I didn’t need, and minimising everything I had deployed in multiple formats. For example, why did I need to keep track of daily finances when almost everything appears in my bank statement and online banking? I only needed to track when payments were due. (Onto the calendar they go, then.) Why did I need to have several versions of a contact list, in three different forms? One is enough. Did I really need two ways of tracking projects, and did I really need a web interface for them? Why did I need four different calendar-based ways of keeping time? Did I need to make all my project files text-searchable? Was it necessary to have my IM lists tied into my contact lists?
I put each item in its proper context, attempting to simplify matters as much as possible: I needed the bare essentials only. I went through the list. Cross that out. Nix that. Forget about that. Strike that. Uh-uh, nope. Drop that. No, that isn’t needed. And so on….
I was left with about a dozen things I needed to track and/or use daily. Another Zen precept is based upon the notion of intuitive understanding. I’ve seen enough of my successes and pitfalls to implicitly understand how my flow best works (at least, with a minimum of variables). And so, based upon my list, I could see fairly clearly how to manage my time and information.
The tools were then matched to these necessities. Eventually, it came down to a Palm (for contacts, daily news, MP3s, alarms, encrypted docs, and pictures of the family), my up-and-coming D*I*Y Planner (still in the inaugral stages, but suitable for the calendar, actions, short reference lists, brainstorming and project tracking), and a computer note-taking/reference application (DEVONthink Pro is perfect for containing all my digital dribs and drabs at the moment, though I’m told Zoot is great for Windows users). To that, I’ve now added a Hipster PDA set, mainly for “on the go” errands and the like. The new system was fairly streamlined, and worked well. No resistence anywhere, just a natural flow and an obvious place for everything.
No process is perfect right out of the gate, of course. Thankfully, mine was only incremental from there: small changes —kaizen as the Japanese call it– to continually enhance the flow. For example, I’m integrating a bit more Covey for the top-down thinking, but it still fits with my basic GTD setup.
Step one, simplify to the bare essentials. Step two, seek out the flow of least resistance and effort. Step three, choose the best tools. Step four, simplify some more, and steamline.
For me, I’ve learned that the whole key to my success is in staying away from technology unless it’s absolutely necessary. Ironic, coming from an IT professional, but it saves me from from trying to systematically incorporate everything, attempting to contain too much, giving into the temptation of shiny toys, and subsequently hitting the downward spiral.
There’s something to be said for stripping off the world, facing the mirror as a newborn babe, clear of mind and thought — if only for a moment, before we face worldly matters once more.