Brain HacksAlmost 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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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-