tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
[personal profile] tim

Brain Hacks

Almost a year ago, a friend and I had an offhand email exchange that led to me saying I wanted to write a blog post about what I've discovered so far in re: managing myself and getting myself to do things in a way leading to more happiness for myself. These tips apply to both work and personal goals (whether it's a hobby, household maintenance, making art, or keeping up friendships); I suspect for many people like me, the lines between can be blurry.

"Time management" is the best phrase for what this post is about, I suppose, though it's a phrase that has bad connotations for me (as I'll explain later). Though it's less succinct, I could also say it's a post about how to hack your brain in order to get what you want. (Are you not your brain? It's been a while since I took sophomore philosophy, but to a very rough approximation, I'm going to assume each of us is made up of communicating subprocesses that sometimes cooperate and sometimes conflict. An example is when part of you knows you have to get up for work at 7 AM tomorrow and that you need 8 hours of sleep per night if you're not going to feel awful, but you stay up until 2 AM looking at cat macros anyway, beccause another part of you needs to be soothed with something silly and familiar.) I could also describe it as self-organization or as being your own project manager. I suspect a lot of people know what I mean, though, and it certainly hasn't gotten any easier to deal with distractions and focus on what's important now that lots of us have the Internet next to our butts all day and night.

I feel a bit silly giving advice on self-organization, because I still feel pretty disorganized and that I'm pretty inefficient about how I do a lot of things. But this post isn't really advice so much as my notes on a collection of ongoing experiments. If these notes give you some ideas you can use, great! If not, well, science isn't always useful.

So here's what I've learned about getting things done. I only because willing to learn about it in past 5-6 years or so. That was about when I read the book Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen; it wasn't super helpful to me (partly because of its orientation towards using physical file folders rather than a computer, but maybe there is an updated edition now), but I did take away three good points from it:

  1. Keeping one's email inbox zero -- the book may even have been talking about a literal physical inbox, but it's the same zero. The author says that whenever you have an item in an inbox, that's something screaming out for your attention, and it causes anxiety because you don't know what the next step is towards addressing it. That's certainly true for me. So I've made more of an effort than I did before I read the book to keep email not in my inbox, and, if something is complicated, to make a to-do item to address is as opposed to just leaving it in my inbox. To-do items are better than emails in my inbox since they're attached to a particular day, if not a particular time (more about this later).
  2. GTD talks about knowing what the next step is rather than just having a huge, vague item on your to-do list; and also identifying the next step anytime you stop working on a given project to go rest or to work on something else. For example, if my to-do list says "start working on rustpkg", I will put that off, because it's a huge task and I don't know where to start. If it says "write a unit test for the install command", that's a much more approachable step, and will probably lead to more work beyond just that one little sub-task. I could make the first step even more specific than that, but get the idea.
  3. This is a bit like the first point, but: GTD talks about the importance of writing everything down. I'm still working on this, but it's one of the major principles that has allowed me to become a more functional person. I don't know if my memory is unusually bad, I just know I forget things if I don't write them down. This applies to both week-by-week schedules and, sometimes, just to sequences of tasks I do regularly. For example, a year or two ago I made a list of everything I do to get ready in the morning, and another one of everything I do before I go to bed at night (the latter one starts something like "take meds, brush teeth, use neti pot...", though actually I've even broken up some of those into more steps). This is because I noticed that I would forget to do things, as well as put off getting ready for bed because there were too many things to do and it was easier to be on the computer. It seems silly, but just having these lists has helped me a lot when it comes to going to bed when I'm actually tired (as opposed to staying up late because I'm too tired to coordinate getting to bed) as well as not sitting around for hours in the morning doing absolutely nothing because again, thinking about getting dressed and ready is overwhelming.

I'm pretty sure I have some sort of executive function issues; when people who are on the autism spectrum talk about executive function issues, it strikes a chord with me (though I've never been diagnosed with autism and many other aspects of being autistic don't seem to be things I've experienced), though I've never been formally diagnosed. I was provisionally diagnosed with inattentive ADD once, as an adult; unfortunately, the meds had no effect on me and so to me, there isn't much point knowing whether I have ADD, anxiety that acts like ADD, or something else. In any case, maybe it doesn't matter (for me), if I can find the right accommodations to make for myself and learn to be okay with making those accommodations for myself, with taking specific action to make things easier that might already be easier for a lot of people. But so what -- I'm not a lot of people.

While I'm talking about diagnoses, I'll also note that a lot of anxiety and maladaptive coping mechanisms come from having been treated very badly in the past. It's helpful to talk about these past experiences, but at least for me, that on its own doesn't make me able to function as an adult. I want to say this in as simple words as possible: I think the story that is often told about depression and anxiety as "chemical imbalances" is wrong or at least misleading. There is no doubt some amount of truth to it (though possibly not as much as we've been thinking) but the neat, tidy story that such illnesses are the result of random brain misfirings shifts blame from a society that enables systematic abuse of children and everyone else placed in a position of lesser power, onto individuals who can be deemed as defective and disregarded. Politically, I would feel dishonest if I didn't mention this, but on a pragmatic, day-to-day-survival-so-you-can-pay-the-rent-and-not-get-fired level, at least sometimes I have to occupy a mode where I'm just working with what I have.

How To Do Things

So here's what I've figured out about how to do things. I present it here not assuming that it will necessarily work for anyone else, but in the hopes that some of it might be adaptable or at least inspiring. I certainly wouldn't want to try to generalize, since then I would just be making stuff up, so I'm sticking to what specifically has worked for me.
  1. Deal with underlying issues. Specifically, issues like depression, anxiety, and/or PTSD (not a complete list). In college and grad school, occasionally people would suggest I "improve my time management" or "strengthen my organizational skills", but actually, it's impossible to take advantage of those tips when you're afraid to do a task because you think you'll be judged or rejected for asking a question or for doing things wrong. Especially in college, I thought I was a procrastinator, and I thought in turn that I was one because I was lazy and didn't like to work hard. It was only by seeing a good therapist that I was able to recognize that anxiety is literally intolerable and if the thought of doing a task causes it, I'll do anything -- even something not very fun -- to avoid it. I was also able to recognize that there were reasons why I had developed this set of reactions. I can't say that I've been able to totally unlearn it, but I am saying that therapy with the right person can be incredibly helpful in realizing how much guilt and shame you've accumulated over issues that are essentially not your fault, and starting to put that burden down so you can really function. For a long time I didn't want to go to a therapist because I thought I was getting plenty out of talking to my friends and posting on LiveJournal. It turns out, though, that therapists are trained to be neutral and to patiently ask the right questions until you start noticing the self-defeating parts of your own thought processes. Friends can do that, sometimes, but they aren't objective about you and it's too much to expect from them to listen to your self-defeating thoughts and debug those thoughts for an hour at a time.

    Being trans and not knowing it (hi! That was me... 15 years ago, anyway), having unresolved issues involving past abuse, or for that matter, experiencing ongoing abuse, are all distractions -- often the kinds of distractions that eat up all your brain's processing time without you even knowing it. There are lots more types of big distractions that aren't even occurring to me because they're further from my experience. But trying to get better at time management without dealing with distractions of that nature is like watering your plant while the house is on fire.

    So the rest of this is what I've discovered while trying to learn how to function like a normal person (again, what I imagine most people start learning in elementary school; oh well, I've never been punctual).

  2. Make a list of everything you want or need to do. Years ago I started using Google Tasks, which is simply a to-do list with boxes you can check off, and overlays itself over Google Calendar so you can assign tasks to days. It's not perfect (for example, you can't schedule repeating tasks, so for things like "do laundry" -- and yes, I put that on my to-do list -- I have to keep moving tasks from week to week by hand and don't get the satisfaction of checking them off), but it's good enough. If I make a Google Tasks item for, say, "write a blog post about brain problems", I know that I'm going to look at that reminder again and I don't have to keep thinking about it. The more things I have to keep track of in my head without writing them down, the more anxious I am, because (and this is also an insight from _GTD_) I can't possibly do more than one task at the same time! So whatever I am doing, I'll feel bad about not doing the other n - 1 things. On the other hand, if it's on the list, I know I won't forget about it and I can put it out of my mind for now. If you want to, you can have separate lists for "things I want to do" and "things I need to do" (I define "need" as someone else expecting me to do it, like work-related things; or something bad happening if I don't do it, like running out of socks if I don't do my laundry). I find it less complicated to just have one list and keep track in my head of which tasks are actually necessary and which are just things that would be nice to get done. (Ideally Google Tasks would have some sort of color-coding or something so I wouldn't have to track that in my head, but meh.)

    I don't know why it took me so long to come around to the importance of making a list, but at least for me, there's something really powerful about it. Instead of the terrifying specter of "omg so many things to do I can't even remember them all!", there's a list of items, each of which I can actually do.

  3. Two kinds of lists At least for me, I find it useful to have a running schedule -- in my case, tasks attached to days on Google Calendar -- as well as, sometimes -- usually on weekends -- to make a one-off to-do list for a single day, usually containing the day's Google Tasks items as well as perhaps a few things I thought of on the spur of the moment, like buying groceries or cleaning the kitchen.
  4. Strategies for doing the things Suppose you have a block of time and you have one of those one-shot lists that I talked about, "things I want to do today". Now, how do you choose what order to do them in? Again, maybe this is obvious to some people, but I don't find it obvious; I also don't like doing things in order of importance, because my habit is to do the least important things first and then feel bad about myself for doing that. So here are stratgies I've tried:
    • The Random Strategy: This is the one that works best for me. I number the list and generate a random number in between 1 and the length of the list (you can either do this with a program on your phone or computer, or flip an appropriate number of coins if you're bad-ass). Then, whatever number I pick, I do that item. I've found this surprisingly effective even for making myself do the things I'm dreading the most. Repeat the process until either you're out of time, or the list is empty. I think this works well for me because it bypasses my decision paralysis, and because it adds some excitement into my life, like gambling except in a productive way instead of a wasteful one. It's still exciting even if all my list items are things like "do laundry" or "file taxes" (actually, those are bad examples for me because I enjoy doing both those things, but you know what I mean.) I guess it also works for me because I have a submissive streak and there's just something about surrendering control to a random process that helps me get unstuck.
    • Triaging: This is borrowed from the idea of bug triaging as practiced in medium-to-large software projects; it requires somewhat more executive function than the random strategy. One simple way, though, is to break down the list into "want to do" tasks and "need to do" tasks; when I do this, I usually try to finish the "need" ones first, though arguably I could motivate myself by rewarding myself with a "want" task after I do 2 or 3 "need" tasks. A different way is to sort the list into quick tasks (e.g. "answer that one email") and long ones that you won't finish in one go (e.g. "write my dissertation proposal"). I've been influenced in a pretty good way by working with bug trackers or issue trackers for software projects at various companies I've worked at, as well as for open-source projects.
    • Time estimation: I haven't used this one as often. After I make the list, I estimate how much time it will take to do each task, then sort the list in ascending order of estimated time. Then -- in an example of a greedy algorithm -- I do the quickest one first, then repeat. I also write down how much time each task actually took (using a stopwatch app on my phone, but a kitchen timer works too) to see if I'm getting better at estimating time. I don't do this is often because the random strategy just feels more fun.
  5. If it's not in Google Tasks, it won't happen Before I used Google Tasks and Google Calendar so assiduously, I used to worry that there was something important I was forgetting, either an appointment or some really important tasks I had to finish. In fact, I got through college while basically never writing down when I was going to finish a particular class assignment, or planning out what hours on what days I was going to spend working on bigger assignments like research papers. In retrospect, I don't know how accomplished that, but I know it involved a lot of late nights, stress, and that I probably could have learned more from a lot of my classes if I didn't always feel like I was struggling to meet the next deadline. In any case, now that I write things down when I think of them, I know that if something isn't in my calendar, it will either occur to me later (and then I'll write it down), or it's just not important. And now I have confident that when I look at my calendar, I can actually predict what times I'll be busy and when I'll be free. Scheduling in time-to-just-relax is really important, too, though it's the thing that I'm worst at.
  6. Assign deadlines to tasks Google Tasks helps with this since it's much easier to keep the list organized if you assign dates to tasks. Usually, these are soft deadlines: if I don't finish something, or run out of time on the day it's supposed to happen, nothing terrible happens; I just attach it to another day, in the future. I find it much more comforting to know I'm going to, say, "make an outline for that talk" on Saturday the 11th instead of just thinking "huh, I need to do that sometime". Of course, some deadlines are hard deadlines; if I'm going on a plane on May 4, "pack" has a deadline of May 3 that I can't miss. Unfortunately, Google Tasks doesn't have a way to distinguish between soft and hard deadlines either, so in general I can just remember. For soft deadlines, though, I don't cry if I miss them; I just shrug and know I'll do it another time.
  7. Daily scheduling This is a more advanced technique that didn't work for me when I tried it the first time (by the way, that was an idea I got from the UCSF Depression Management Project, basically a do-it-yourself cognitive behavioral therapy toolkit that you can do at home, alone, for free), but for whatever reason started being really helpful when I started it again at the beginning of March. Every Sunday night, I sit down and, in a text file, write out what I'm going to do all week, hour by hour (while I'm awake). One thing that's great about this for me is that it tells me when I should strive to go to bed. It was pretty hard for me to not stay up doing nothing if I was just thinking, "Hmm, I really should go to bed soon..."; it's still hard if I know "okay, I have a meeting at 9 AM tomorrow and it takes me an hour to get ready and an hour to get to work, so I need to get up at 7 AM and go to bed at 11 PM at the very latest", but it's not as hard.

    A really important thing about daily schedules is that you have to schedule in time for fun things that will make you happier! That's not optional; it doesn't work otherwise. And like I said, I'm bad at allowing enough time and at not letting "important" tasks eat up time. But the daily-scheduling technique is helping me practice making more time for myself.

    Now, obviously, life happens (see Anastasia, On Her Own by Lois Lowry for my favorite elaboration on this point) and sometimes I depart from my schedule quite a bit. That's okay, though! Even when I don't abide by it strictly, just the act of making the schedule and figuring out which things I'm going to do on each day helps me have realistic expectations about what I'm going to finish when. I find that if I'm just scheduling tasks at the day level, not figuring out what *time* I'm actually going to do each task at, it's easy for me to overload my schedule, then feel bad when I don't finish everything. If I schedule a more realistic number of tasks into my day, though, then I feel good about accomplishing them and it gets easier for me to do more things, in a virtuous circle.

  8. The train leaves on time This is an idea I borrowed directly from Mozilla's release management for Firefox. Each release of Firefox is scheduled for a particular date, and Mozilla doesn't hold up releases if a particular feature that's in the release takes longer than expected. Instead, the feature just "takes the next train instead" (goes into the next release). While I'm sure that how this really works in practice at Mozilla is more complicated (I don't work on Firefox myself, so I don't know), the general idea inspired me to try doing the same with my personal schedules. That is, at first, when I started making daily schedules, I would make sure to finish each task I had scheduled; if, say, I'd blocked out doing laundry from 6-8 PM and it takes four hours because of a laundromat disaster; then working on a blog post from 8-9 PM and watching a movie from 9-10 PM, I would finish the laundry and the blog post and skip the movie. This led to often feeling like I was behind, which is stressful. So what I would do now is just schedule the blog post for a later day and skip to the movie. I find this improves my stress level a lot (of course, I can only move around tasks that are basically-only-important-to-me at will, but I have a lot of tasks like that). Instead of punishing myself for taking too long to do something, it's a way for me to just accept that sometimes unexpected things happen and I can't control it.
That's what I've learned so far.

Looking back, I feel like I could have saved myself a lot of stress and self-hate by applying these techniques much earlier -- when I started taking college classes 18 years ago -- instead of recently. Of course, to some extent I just didn't know, and because I was a homeschooler, I didn't learn certain things that at least some kids in some schools learn about how to be organized and manage multiple competing demands.

But I think there was another reason why I didn't do it. When I was a young teenager, just before I ended up starting to take college classes, I discovered the unschooling philosophy. While my education before then hadn't really resembled unschooling much (except by accident), I was inspired by the idea of taking responsibility for your own education no matter what your age. And while I think some of this was my faulty interpretation rather than actually something I took from what I was reading (mainly Grace Llewellyn's book The Teenage Liberation Handbook -- which I recommend anyway and not just to teenagers, FWIW), for whatever reason I internalized a notion of structure and oppression being the same thing. (Of course, as someone a little bit older, I now know that they are not.) I truly believed that if I really wanted to be doing something, it should come naturally and easily -- I shouldn't have to make schedules or to-do lists in order to make it happen, it would just flow.

This belief of mine didn't liberate me, though. It just made me feel guilty, because I generally didn't do things I wanted to do, and nothing happened naturally for me. In retrospect, I can see that it was because of my anxiety and executive function issues. But at the time, I thought it was because I was just a boring person who lacked passion.

There's another thing I was reacting to in my refusal to create structure for myself (or accept it from others more than was necessary): the concept of "discipline". I wasn't in school when I was younger, but I did take music lessons (not really by my own choice), and if there's one thing I can remember all of my music teachers saying to me when I was six and nine and twelve, it was that I needed to have more "discipline". I concluded that discipline is a concept adults use when they want to get you to do things that will please them but that won't benefit you, and that I should reject anything that requires "discipline" in order to accomplish. Years later, I found reinforcement for this belief in an essay by Paul Graham, in which he claims that if you need discipline to make yourself do something, you're doing the wrong thing. I think there's probably some kernel of truth to this, and perhaps it's more true for people who had happy childhoods, parents who recognized and supported their desires and talents, nurturing educational experiences, and jobs at non-dysfunctional workplaces. But really, how many such people are there? Most of us find we have to adapt to our less-than-perfect circumstances and compensate for our damage in order to use our strengths. I don't like to see that process of compensation as discipline, or (one of my least favorite words in the language) "willpower", or anything fascist like that. No, I just like to think of it as self-care: making it easier for myself to do things I want to do, making it less likely that habits I developed to deal with abusive situations that I'm no longer in will interfere with me using my talents now.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-05 12:54 am (UTC)
ext_72629: (horse)
From: [identity profile] photonsrain.livejournal.com
Thanks for this post! I'm always impressed with how many things I can get done and how I like how my brain runs when I'm adhering to some sort of structure that I create. Alas, what's worked in the past isn't working so well now, but I appreciate your ruminations on the whys of all of this, and I'll see about implementing some changes here in how I structure my hours, days, and weeks.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-05 01:03 am (UTC)
sonia: Quilted wall-hanging (Default)
From: [personal profile] sonia
Thanks for the info, and for sharing your process! I found the link about depression not being a chemical imbalance pretty darned useful. I agree, it's self-care to work with what we've got in the best way possible.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-05 05:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com
This all sounds very useful. I have created a to-do list and I'm going to try actually using it.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-06 06:50 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] samth
"perhaps it's more true for people who had happy childhoods, parents who recognized and supported their desires and talents, nurturing educational experiences, and jobs at non-dysfunctional workplaces"

As someone who's had the benefit of all four of these things, and who has the job I want most, discipline is *highly* necessary for getting/keeping/doing my job.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-13 02:31 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] lgabor
This is helpful, thank you. I've been struggling with at least vaguely similar problems for a long time. For the past several years I've been thinking about getting therapy and always putting it off: is it even the right solution? Is this something they can help with? And I always wanted to solve my own problems for myself, but that's clearly not been effective. My other problem has been: How does one find "a good therapist"? Where do I even start? Can you give me any advice about that?
Edited Date: 2013-05-13 02:35 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-17 08:32 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] lgabor
Thanks a lot!

Trying to find someone by word of mouth is more or less what I've been doing, without much success (not because it's hard to talk about - everyone, or at least everyone I know has procrastination issues, so that's not really a big deal). Asking through an online community sounds like a good idea, I might give that a try if I can find anything. Otherwise I've been hesitant to just pick someone at random from an online directory and try my chances, but of course that would be better than doing nothing.

FWIW I know you have a sample size of like three, but how much of a factor do you think age/experience is? Is a younger therapist as likely (or more) to be effective?

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-20 10:18 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] lgabor
I see, thanks again! :)

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