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Incomplete Acts, Everyday Anxiety, and Getting Things Done

Four strategies to reduce everyday anxiety.

If you open it, close it
If you turn it on, turn it off
If you unlock it, lock it up ...

So begins a list of commandments by Miriam Hamilton Keare that I first read in an Ann Landers column more than 40 years ago.

I was thinking about those words this morning as I emerged from my bedroom into a disastrous kitchen and looked at last night's dishes, the string of broken lights I had taken down and had yet to put away, and a planter I had emptied, taken apart, cleaned, but had not wiped up after.

The other thing that came to my mind was the word anxiety.

A zillion things to do.

I am not a naturally anxious person nor a person who suffers from chronic or disabling anxiety. But all of us have anxiety in our lives. For many of us, anxiety is fed by circling back, over and over, to the things we ought to do. For conscientious, fairly planful people like myself, this list can be long. This morning, in addition to cleaning, it included writing up of a series of interviews I had done three days ago, practicing for a performance next Friday, cleaning out the chicken coop, planting some beans, finishing a scientific paper (or three), triple-checking a list of things that needed to be taken care of for a conference, and editorial duties for the Journal of Adolescence. Oh, and then there are the honors students I should be sending an email to making sure their reading lists are in good shape for the summer, and ...

Getting things done

For the last six months, I have been trying to follow many of the strategies that David Allen recommends in the book Getting Things Done. Although billed as a system for increasing efficiency, for me the primary benefit of using the Getting Things Done system has been to reduce my anxiety.

Allen argues that a major cause of everyday anxiety is that we are never really sure of all the 'stuff' we’re supposed to do, that we know we’ve got stuff we have to take care of and haven’t, and that our minds keep returning to all that stuff, sapping our energy and attention. Those ‘open loops’ take up a lot of cognitive space. We worry about them instead of (a) doing them or (b) thinking about more important things.

Implementing some of Allens' ideas, as well as the numerous strategies I’ve developed myself over the years, has, in fact, really helped me.

  • I’ve gotten lots more done.
  • Things are not late and are done well, so I feel more competent
  • I am less anxious
  • I have much more energy to plan new things and be creative in the ones I’ve taken on
  • I seem to have large blocks of time to devote to projects I want to do
  • I can be much more mindful of tasks that I engage in because my attention is where I am rather than on what I should be doing instead

Allen's system has many levels, and I would urge anyone interested to read the book (it’s quite short and could have been even shorter had he chosen to consolidate it). But the core is quite simple:

  • Write everything you have to do down in one or two trusted places.
  • Consolidate similar tasks together in blocks so you can move quickly from one to the next.
  • Do the things that take less than two minutes immediately so you don’t have to think about them.
  • Schedule blocks of time for important things that need thoughtful attention.

Write everything down

I am a listmaker, so this really resonated with me.

Writing things down has four major advantages. First, it takes all those fleeting worries and makes them concrete so you can see them and deal with them. Second, it makes it possible to see connections and consolidate tasks. Oh, I need to get chicken food and go to Goodwill and get a stapler. I can make one trip. Third, it lets you look at some of those things and let them go. Yes, I need to plan my sabbatical. But not today. I can put that off for a month or two and it will still be OK.

Most importantly, if everything is written down you don’t have to keep thinking about it. In memory research, 'rehearsal' is the process of saying something over and over so you don't forget it. (think phone numbers). One of the reasons we keep returning to things and worrying about them is that we’re rehearsing: we are returning to the same idea over and over so we don’t forget it. If we write it down and trust that we won’t forget it, we can stop rehearsing it. No open loop. No recurring thought. Lower anxiety.

Most people need two ‘trusted places’ to write things down: a calendar for time-specific tasks and some system for lists. The latter can be paper or index cards or any number of electronic apps or gadgets designed for fulfilling that purpose. Use them. Really.

Consolidate similar tasks

Allen advises organizing lists by tasks that complement each other. He has a list called ‘calls’ that he keeps by the phone. When he’s tired and has no creative energy he sits down at the phone, looks at the list, and just makes all those short calls—dentists, repair people, setting up appointments, etc. He has another for when he’s out in the car on errands. I have one for ‘internet’—times when I’m just surfing and can look up a bunch of stuff or make some purchases that need to be made. I have others that all have to do with classes or committees or boards I’m on. I have one for home, another for odd jobs for work, and one for long term stuff I’m thinking about but don’t have to do right now (planting an herb garden, selling my sewing machine). Allen suggests a list called ‘waiting,’ which is stuff that you’ve given someone else to do and don’t have to think about until it’s time for them to have gotten it done. I have found that list particularly helpful.

The point is that blocking out similar tasks can help you chose tasks that are up to your energy level at the moment and move from one to the other efficiently. I’ve just been writing and feel burnt out. I glance at my internet list and can get half of it done. I am thinking about my Research Methods class and one task leads to another leads to another. Boom. Done.

I find I have whole types of lists done when I'm waiting for my son, or a meeting to start, or when trying to avoid doing something important.

Do short tasks immediately

The two-minute rule basically argues that if it takes less than two minutes to get done, you should just do it, because coming back to it again takes longer than doing it in the first place. Example: I’m making scrambled eggs. I scramble them in the bowl, pour them in the pan. I could put the bowl down and clean it later or, while waiting for the eggs to congeal, I could rinse it right there and stick it in the drying rack and never think about it again. Allen argues for the latter.

I have come to agree, although with one strong caveat. Doing short tasks immediately has helped me tremendously with my mail and email, which I now read and sort immediately. But don’t get pulled away from important tasks for little ones. This is like the joke about ‘Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder' (not to be confused with real attention deficit disorder seen in adults.) This imaginary diagnosis is the tendency for all of us to start on one task and go from distraction to distraction and never get what we really need to get done finished.

If you sit down two or three times a day to check your emails, it makes sense to take care of all the short tasks immediately and at a go. If you are trying to work and every time an email pops up you read it, it is debilitating for your work. You lose where you are in the current big task. You do the two-minute email. hen it takes you two minutes to get back into the original task. This is bad. Don’t interrupt important tasks for small ones. Do lots of short tasks immediately and in a block.

And those little popups that tell you when friends come up on Skype or post to Facebook or send you a message? Turn them off. We, as humans, are set up to look at things that change. Take control of your attention.

Schedule blocks of time

Allen, and many other very effective people I know, schedule blocks of times to work on projects. For example, one of my old bosses used to block out Thursday morning as a time when he took no calls, scheduled no appointments, and would work on tasks that really required his undivided attention. In addition to the uninterrupted time, knowing that block was there also meant he was thinking about what was the most important task or tasks to apply himself to during that time, so helped him prioritize his work.

Setting that time aside was the hardest thing for me to implement. It has also been very helpful and, I must admit, has let me get a lot accomplished. I also found that once I set that time aside and implemented the other strategies, other larger blocks appeared in my schedule.

When things fell apart

I began implementing this system back in January and it has been incredibly helpful to me. So why is my kitchen a wreck and I'm worried about a zillion small things now? The irony is that when things get really busy I tend to stop using the system and fall into old habits. This leads to less efficiency and more anxiety. I’ve been traveling for work, my father died, and there have been many major transitions in my home.

I’ve held on like a lion to many of these strategies, but others have been less ingrained and I’ve let them go. These are the times, of course, when I should have held on to them harder. It's in times of stress that we most need those structural supports to keep us afloat.

Letting go of my good habits—even for a few weeks—has very much taught how much they had helped me keep stress at bay.

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