Thomas Jefferson once said – never put off till tomorrow what can be done today, thus launching centuries of stress-filled freakouts.
I’ve just been reflecting on my workload for the past eighteen months, and when I look at the list of completed tasks I’m a little surprised my brain still works at all (don’t say anything).
For as long as I can remember, “today” has always been full. Things had to be done now now now. Even if they didn’t.
I didn’t have any sort of tool for determining what really had to be done now, and what could be slotted into another day. I could make lists of things to do, but despite planning my mind was not ready to switch off.
I think having a mental illness puts pressure on you to perform beyond simply adequate. Because I have been terrified of being labelled incompetent, I often drove myself to overdeliver.
This is a vulnerable position to be in, because others potentially can recognise it and take advantage of you.
It wasn’t until I came across a simple little coding system in a book called “Work Less, Achieve More” by Fergus O’Connell that I started to see that I didn’t have to live life at 150%.
O’Connell starts out by asking us to picture ourselves sitting at a desk inside a giant silo. It’s open to the sky, and everything gets dumped in top of us.
“It seems to me that for many people this is daily reality,” he writes. “They are trapped inside a world where they have to continuously deal with an endless (and probably increasing) stream of stuff dropping onto them.”
Next, he asks us to replace the silo with three filters. The filters are designed to stop all the crap landing on you:
You can think of the three funnels like this:
- We’re not going to do some stuff at all (saying ‘no’ nicely)
- In fact, we’re only going to do the things which align with our priorities (prioritising viciously)
- And anything we do do, we’re going to make sure we do it with the least amount of effort (a little planning is better than a lot of firefighting)
This took a lot to get my head around. All three of these things went against my nature.
First of all, I find it very hard to say ‘no’ to things. Even nicely.
Second, doing things which align with *my* priorities? That sounds an awful lot like putting myself first. Jesus, that’s selfish.
Thirdly, “least amount of effort”? That sounds like laziness. No, effort must be expended in order for anything to be worthwhile – such ran my all-or-nothing mantra.
Examining all three of these roadblocks, I saw they each had something in common. They were all based in living my life around the wants and needs of others at the expense of my own.
A happy life is built around reciprocity, and if you’re not getting back what you give in roughly equal measure then you are going to suffer. And when you’re unhappy, you’ll ultimately end up doling that out to others, probably those in your life who least deserve it.
So with that cleared up, onto O’Connell’s coding system.
He suggests in making a daily list of tasks, you add the letters A, B, C and D next to each. Here’s what they mean:
A: I have to get this done today. Planets will collide, stars will fall, bosses will be grumpy, share prices will nosedive if this thing isn’t done.
B: It’d be nice to get it done today.
C: Realistically I’m not going to get this done today.
D: Delegate it. I can get somebody else to do this.
After making your list, O’Connell says to get the Ds done first. Then do the As. And then:
“Go home. Go on – go! Away with you! Off you go! What about the Bs and Cs? The answer is forget about them – they’re for another day.”
This was sound simple to some of you, but to me it was revelatory. You mean, I can actually not do things, and it’s ok?
Although written as an “extreme time management” tool for work, I think the system works just as well for our daily lives.
Take D for example – what are you currently doing on your own that it would be nice to have some help with? Not only is this an opportunity for you to lighten the load, it’s a chance for you to connect with another person, an essential part of wellbeing.
It took some doing to stop myself from going on to Bs and Cs after finishing As, but I trained myself to do it. I still have to check myself every now and again, but the main thing is that I am checking myself, instead of carrying on till midnight and running the red line.
O’Connell’s words in describing an A were also very important. By using hyperbole, he drives home the point that you should critically evaluate everything you’re doing.
Writer Tim Kreider put it even more witheringly in a recent opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “The Busy Trap”:
“More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”
The last sentence is sobering. We all need to feel like we matter. Are you filling your life up with ultimately meaningless activity because you’ve yet to work out a better way of feeling as if you do?