Complete or Delete

It’s a new mantra I’m trying on, because I have a lot of ideas, and sometimes they get lost in the shuffle.

Between this year’s re-reading of David Allen’s Getting Things Done and checking out Cal Newport’s Deep Work, one of the recurring themes was the notion that putting to much front-and-center in a to-do list makes the doing part more difficult.

You set an obligation for yourself, and the longer it sits there, incomplete, the more weight it puts on your mind. Even if you don’t realize it, an incomplete obligation takes up space in your mental RAM, and can distract your focus.

So I’m telling myself to choose to take on less, and to get more comfortable with walking away from ideas.

If there’s a project I’ve started but haven’t moved forward on for a long time (say, a month), I’m going to ask myself a simple question:

Is there something you can and will do today that would move this forward?

If the answer is no, it gets deleted.

If I want to make sure I realize more of my ideas, I need to be honest with myself about the limits of my time and focus.

But I also need to hold myself accountable for making sure that I use what time I have for things that matter to me. If I’m saying no to an idea, I want it to be because I’m working on something I’ve decided is more important (and not because I’ve spent a bunch of time faffing around).

If I tell myself that something is important, I either need to work toward completing it, or be okay with deleting it.

Simply Set It Down

On our way to a wedding in Massachusetts, my family stopped to visit some friends at their home in Vermont.

An iPhone sitting on the arm of a lawn chair.While sitting outside in the yard, Charlie got up to grab some weed killer to spray a few problem spots on his lawn. I noticed he left his phone on the arm of his chair.

I can get caught up in fussy things. Trying to find the “best” way to do something. Creating an additional layer of routine or ritual. Sometimes it’s necessary to break a bad habit or build a new one. Sometimes it helps if I’m trying to explain an idea to other people.

But a simple act can be enough.

It might be as simple as saying, “This comes next,” and setting down anything else for later.

Wind Your Watch, Dude.

There’s plenty that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure can teach us beyond the importance of being excellent to each other.

At one point, Future Ted reminds his past self to wind his watch. Future Ted forgot to take care of this task when it was his turn, so he’s hoping this message will correct his/their mistake.


Later, Bill & Ted use a similar technique to remind themselves to set up the conditions they need to escape from a police station, lending assistance to themselves across time.

But it doesn’t take a technologically advanced phone booth or the mentorship of George Carlin to do the same for yourself.


I’ve started pausing before I leave a place that I return to frequently, like my home or my office at work, and ask the question “How can I help my future self?”

Maybe it’s printing out some paperwork I’ll need for my next day of classes. If I wash out this French press now, it’ll be ready when I want it tomorrow. If I start this writing project, even if I don’t have time to finish it, my future self will have a foothold to use when it’s their time to take over.

Taking a pause and asking that question can lead you to see that even a small action now might be helpful later.

Try it, and see if you don’t wind up thanking yourself.


Baby Steps

My wife was in her second trimester when we received the notice that our rent would be increased (again). It was time to move, even if she wouldn’t be able to help with the heavy lifting. While we were fortunate to find a better apartment quickly, there was still a catch: They wouldn’t wait until our current lease was up and we’d need to pay a month of double rent.

In an effort to control costs, and to try to turn a series of negatives into a positive, we decided that I’d try to move the majority of our stuff slowly, over the course of that month, using our Honda Fit.

And so it began. A little at a time. One or two car loads a day, day after mercifully mild August day. On a single trip down the three flights of stairs to the car, carrying a box of random kitchen gadgets or a lamp, it would feel like the task was never going to get done. The Honda Fit may be aptly named (especially when you fold down the back seat), but we had accumulated a lot of things over the last five years of living together, along with the new things for our family-member-to-be.

Any time I wasn’t busy schlepping was earmarked for working on the last sprint of a script draft. This schedule didn’t offer a chance for many uninterrupted writing days. I would get an hour here, maybe 20 minutes one day. If I completed a scene, it was a victory.

The friction was greater in both situations, because every day I’d have to go through the process of convincing myself to get started, even though I knew I wouldn’t have the time or energy to do all that much that day. I knew that to fill up the car one time, I’d need to make 10-15 trips up and down those stairs. I knew that the distance to “Fade Out.” was still a long ways away even if I saw a good daily bump in my page count.

But the jobs got done. Friction can work in your favor, too, like erosion. A persistent chipping away at a massive project produces more results than inaction. Sometimes your sense of how well your work is going doesn’t matter so long as you keep at it. You’re too close, too stressed, too scattered, or too… anything, really. You don’t always know what you’re capable of until it’s done.

And it starts this way for all of us. Learning to walk. Learning to speak. Learning to breathe. Even before we know we’re working towards something larger, we’re taking small steps.

It’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the fear of missing out, or the fear of moving too slowly. While on my way to teach the other day, I saw an investment company advertisement with a picture of a baby which seemed to scream at commuters: “If your baby is already born and you haven’t saved enough for their college education, you’re a failure, and they will be, too.” It’s a message designed to reinforce the idea that it’s impossible to keep up with life, but you should still break yourself trying.

Right now I’m working on taking satisfaction from finishing what I start. Setting goals and making progress toward them, even if it may not move as fast as I want. I’m working on taking satisfaction from the doing. If I can do that, then the friction of moving in smaller increments could become the joy of persistent meaningful effort.

It just may take a little longer than I expect it to.

Run in the Rain

Don’t check the weather to see if tomorrow might be nicer outside. Lace up your shoes. Cut through the grass and feel the soft, wet earth cushion your stride. Run through puddles. Hop over puddles. Let the rain cool you off as you push forward.

Don’t worry about not using your headphones or electronics. Listen to the sound of your feet against the pavement. See how quiet you can make yourself. Listen to the patter of droplets falling through the leaves above you. Smell the flowers.

So many things we want to do wind up not getting done because the conditions aren’t right, or we don’t think we’re prepared enough.

You can’t always change the environment to exactly suit your needs, but you are always capable of not caring if things are perfect.

Living With Attention Debt

I’ve started referring to any dishes left in the sink or on the counter overnight as dish debt. Not only are they just left for my future self to do, but they accumulate interest in the sense that they’re in the way of other things I want to do the next day (i.e. make coffee), or they’re just a little bit grosser than when they were left to sit overnight.

Debt isn’t just monetary, although that kind can loom over a person. Student loan debt. Medical bill debt. Credit card debt. The kind of monetary debt that can follow a person for months, years, or even decades.

There’s attention debt, too. When you add a new person to your Twitter feed. When you make Facebook friends. When you start reading a new blog, or decide to watch a new TV series. When you add an app to your phone that uses push notifications. Actions that you take in one moment that make a commitment toward further actions in the future.

An aspect of all of these forms of debt is that they prevent you from living in the moment. It can aggressively follow you, like knowing that you have a payment to make at the end of the week, so you’d better be careful on what you spend your money on today. It can shift you out of the present moment and make you question your previous choices; make you wonder if you could have done things differently instead of accumulating that debt. Or, in the case of attention debt, you can slip into distraction for periods of time and come out wondering where all the time went.

Attention debt is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The way that you pay off your attention debt can mimic paying off a monetary debt in some ways. If you make small installments, checking your feeds frequently throughout the day, each payment on that debt seems small, but you’re also paying more interest in the time you’re taking away from focused work. If you set aside time to focus on those feeds in a larger, less frequent chunk of time, you do less harm to your focus. You pay less interest.

But sometimes it’s not easy to avoid those impulses. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to try and breeze through everything in a set amount of time and resist that sense that you’re missing out on something. Again, attention debt is taking you out of your present moment by making that sense of missing out even more acute. It’s not merely a sense that there’s more going on outside of your view, but you have a specific list in your head of what you’re not keeping up with. Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t just about appearances and conspicuous consumption now, it’s about keeping pace with your neighbors’ updates. And our neighborhood is ever growing.

I’ve been thinking about how to create a payment plan for attention debt. Things like Email Bankruptcy and Quitting Twitter are just crash diets for the brain. Living debt-free in this sense also means reducing your connection to other people, and that’s not really my goal. We take on debts because there are things of value attached, but with attention debt there’s more room to negotiate the terms.

Productive Things

I have a task list. I have goals, large and small. But even though I know there are things that I want to do, and results I want from my effort, with some goals there’s no clear Final Action.

With writing as a career, the goal isn’t just based on your effort. No matter what, you have to do The Work, but it’s not just up to you. You can only control your effort, and a problem can develop when trying to decide how to focus that effort.

You can’t divide your time into Productive Things and Unproductive Things, because as soon as you start seeing the world that way, you devalue the Unproductive Things. Your definition of Productive Things narrows. Your ability to see the value in the Unproductive diminishes.

If you’re worried about if what you’re doing now is going to help you with something in the future, you’re not focused on what you’re doing now. If you beat yourself up over how you didn’t spend time doing something to get you closer to your goals in the past, you’re not focused on what you’re doing now.

The thing is, you can never be completely certain of what’s going to be helpful down the line. Case in point: In middle school and high school, I was required to take Computer Skills classes that were mostly about how to type using the home row. In these classes, I would finish my assignments with most of the hour to spare and spent that time playing games and talking with my fellow students about how useless the class was.

Guess what? Now I can type accurately and quickly without looking at the keyboard, which is a helpful skill to have if you want to spend your time writing.

Does everything help you along the way? No. Some things really are dead ends. But by assuming that something is Unproductive you’ve eliminated any chance of learning something you can apply elsewhere, or having an experience that gains meaning upon reflection.

Stay calm. Do something. Don’t worry too much about what it is.