Taming The Beast Inside Of Me

by Derrick Bostrom

About a year ago, when national treasure Merlin Mann took a brief hiatus from his blog, 43 Folders, he recruited a selection of substitutes to post in his absence. Much to my amazement, I was one of his recruits (due no doubt to Merlin's love of the Meat Puppets and not anything he might have encountered in these pages). Time permitted the completion of only two pieces, and I fear neither revealed much in the way of useful tips and tricks for his life-hacking hungry readers. I was more interested in poking fun at the whole idea of "productivity strategy" than I was in actually being "productive."

As it turns out, I wasn't as far off the mark as I thought. Merlin's return to 43 Folders has seen him take just the same kind of turn. His rants against "fiddling," of allowing "tools" to get between you and your work, have become increasingly shrill, as he twists somewhat publicly in the wind, trying to kick his message up a notch. I guess fatherhood will do that to you. I've noticed that getting older certainly does. I myself have begun to enter serious re-evaluation mode about the current state of my own "creative work."

What better time, then, to "reblog" one of my 43 Folder articles. This particular piece was never promoted to the front page, so hardly anyone read it anyway. And after all, Christmas is coming, and daddy's got to get out there on the street corner and hustle a flower or two. If a filler post helps give a man some badly needed breathing room, well, so much the better:

It's the central contradiction at the heart of our all-too-finite existence that we cannot reconcile the uncontainability of our dreams with the futile limitation of our resources. It's no wonder we've come rely on strategies to get through the day. In David Allen's world, the metaphor is the overloaded information-driven workplace. For Merlin, it's the in-box. Much like baseball, which employs elaborate rules to 'score' the uncontrollable moment when pine touches horse-hide, or Civil War reenactments, which apply a comforting tactical grid to our nation's most chaotic psychic trauma, GTD derives its power from our need to impose our will on random events. No matter what fate has in store, all we have to do is write it down and throw it in a box.

But some situations require us to think outside the box.

I've never been very good at handling demands from the outside world. I haven't answered my telephone in decades. When it comes to something like getting a haircut, visiting the dentist or changing the oil in my car, I'll either lie awake all night worrying about it or forget about it altogether. So I desperately wanted to believe in any strategy that could help me dispatch unpleasant tasks without the need to obsess over them. Once I made that initial leap of faith, the rest came surprisingly easy. Sure enough, I was amazed to discover how quickly I could swat down those hated chores with my very first trusted system.

As self-loathing abated, I looked forward to the promise of projects that might actually cause me personal satisfaction upon completion, and not merely relief. But external obligations sprout all by themselves, like weeds. I found myself spending far too much time whacking tedious projects off my plate and not nearly enough on the ones I truly loved. I came to understand that if my only motivation was avoidance of the pain from open loops, I'd do nothing but battle these impositions for the rest of my life. I knew I'd have to rethink my system.

Some stubborn projects defy the equation: the pain of doing them far outweighs the pain of leaving them undone. For these tasks, I've created an entirely new type of context, which I've set just above and slightly to the right of 'deferred.' I call it 'punishment.' Tasks falling into this category include certain home plumbing repairs, financial drudgery which I haven't figured out how to automate yet, or anything that tends to remind me of my inevitable demise (such as pruning photo albums of recently deceased pets or trying to read anything set below 12-point type). In other words, this context would include any task that would tend to ruin my day if attempted.

I save those tasks for when my day is already ruined. Whether I've overplayed my hand somehow and allowed my demons to surface, or just simply made the colossal miscalculation of allowing myself to 'believe' (whatever that means), that's when I pull out the punishment list. Suddenly, the tasks on this list don't look so foreboding -- that's when I know its time to jump on them. The benefits to this approach are threefold: first, I receive my self-administered comeuppance, second, I move a dreaded project forward, and third, if the project truly belonged on the list in the first place, then it's likely I'll get the opportunity to bang my knuckles against the pipes hard enough to restore emotional equilibrium.

This may sound a little extreme, but it works. The last time I tried this method, I was hoarse from screaming at my tools and there was a pile of broken pipes and kitchen paneling out behind the house. But my newly-installed under-the-sink reverse osmosis unit worked like a charm! Furthermore, I'd completely forgotten whatever was bothering me in the first place.

Give it a try, but make sure you have plenty of band-aids on hand.