The hiss of incompletion.

June 9th, 2007

Fittingly enough for the topic I’m going to discuss here, I’ve been putting off writing this post until I’m “ready” to. Ergo, this post — which isn’t exactly the exposition of the Grand Unified Theory, let me warn you — has become yet another small thing hissing at me from the void of things undone in my life.

Let me explain what I mean by “hiss”: Surely you’ve had the experience of walking into a quiet room, e.g. your own living room, and you hear a tiny, constant hiss in the background. You figure out that you left the stereo on, or the electric oven in the kitchen, or the computer in the office. When you shut it off, the hiss stops, and it’s like a tiny weight is lifted off your shoulders.

David Allen calls these “open loops”, and stresses, in his book Getting Things Done, that you must close these open loops if you want to get any peace of mind. (If you haven’t read Getting Things Done, please hasten to do so. Implementing even a quarter of it will change your life.)

Allen stresses that even writing down the things you need to do — capturing them in some system you can trust — can alleviate the burden, but for me that only helps somewhat. I have pretty good systems for capturing what I need to do (more on that in a minute), but the truth is, until I get something done, it weighs on my psyche. So things like this unwritten blog post drag me down until I just go ahead and do them. Since I have many undone things like this, their many small hisses pile up into one great sibilant drone in the background of my mind, at all times.

The solution to this drone comes in several levels. Most people — myself included — tend to drown it out, either with busywork, or booze, or television, or whatever their opiate of choice may be. Far better, of course, is to take command of your own life and do a better job of managing the tasks you have set for yourself.

At the simplest level, you need to know what it is you’ve put on your own plate. This is where Allen’s ideas on capturing open loops are so valuable. How many times have you found yourself frustrated or overbooked, and you stay flustered until you sit down and make a list of the things you need to do? If you’re like me, this is a common occurrence. The answer is simple to explain, though it can be cussedly difficult to implement: write it all down. Writing down is easy; writing it ALL down is a lot harder than you think. Allen has lots of great tips on this process, so I won’t belabor the point here.

I will make a plug for a new capture system I’ve recently implemented — one that’s helping me do a better job of staying on top of my daily to-dos: Gootodo. This online to-do system, which is miles better than anything I’ve tried, is pimped heavily by Mark Hurst in his new book Bit Literacy. (I’ll be posting a review of this book, which I commend to your attention, soon.) Hurst has a fair reason to pimp Gootodo so hard, since he and his company, Good Experience, developed it. An office mate of mine recommended the book and Gootodo, and like him I immediately found it to be worth the $3/month subscription fee. Best money I ever spent. Without going into too much detail about what Gootodo does, I’ll tell you that it enables you to e-mail yourself to-dos — very easily — and allows you to peg to-dos to your calendar. Hurst explains the merits of the system in far more detail in Bit Literacy, but suffice it to say that, while the system may not be totally perfect, it’s a far sight better than anything else I’ve seen. I’m finding it indispensible.

Okay, so let’s say you’re keeping good tabs on your to-dos. Now what? I recommend taking a step back (then another, and another) to make sure that the things on your plate are the things you want on your plate. Are they fulfilling? Are they carrying you in the direction of your dreams? Are they bringing you abundance (however you care to define that)? Are they bringing you joy?

If not . . . why do them?

Don’t just glide over that question. Really ponder it. Why do you sit through meetings that bore you? Why do you keep eating the same old bad way, or keep commuting the same old slow way? Are you spending your life making other people rich? Are you spending your life sharing misery or mediocrity with friends and family, when instead you could do a different set of things and share abundance, joy, excitement, fulfillment?

David Allen touches on these questions in Getting Things Done, but I’ve been even more inspired lately by the work of Tim Ferriss in The Four-Hour Workweek. Ferriss’s idea is that we spend far too much time enslaved to our work, putting off what we really want to do for vacations or, worse, for our retirement years. He’s made an experiment of his own life, committing himself to acting now on the things he wants to do — in his case, mixed martial arts, healthy living, and extreme vagabond-style world traveling. From his blog and from interviews I’ve heard with him, he’s having the time of his life, while creating long-term value for himself, his business customers, and his readers.

Speaking of interviews, you should check out this video interview that Ferriss did with his friend Robert Scoble. There’s a 50-minute version, which is well worth your time, or a sub-10-minute version if you’re pressed for time. My favorite line from the interview came when Ferriss said, “You need to make unproductive things inconvenient for you to do.”

This is where the rubber meets the road, and where you can take the insights of The Four-Hour Workweek and apply them to that long list of to-dos you’ve now captured. Which of your to-dos, if you simply discarded them, would have no impact on the abundance in your life or the happiness you experience? Get rid of those now. Apologize to the people connected to them if necessary, but get rid of them. Now, which of your to-dos are actually hindering you from having abundance and happiness? Get rid of them. Which of the to-dos that are left are of only marginal value in bringing you abundance and happiness? Get rid of them, too, because if you follow Ferriss’s advice, you’ll find plenty of high-return activities that can make up the new core of what you do.

What does this have to do with the “hiss of incompletion”? This: as I look over my own list of tasks to accomplish, I’m amazed at how many of them don’t deserve to be accomplished. Sure, they’re worthy projects or tasks in and of themselves, but they’re unworthy in the context of the life I want to lead. I want my life to be about abundance and joy and elegant, powerful simplicity, yet, like so many of us, I cling to habits of thought and behavior that cannot — cannot — bring me these things.

In other words, the simplest way to eliminate the hiss of incompletion is to stop doing the things that don’t carry you in the direction you want to go. Start by getting everything into one system — even if it’s just a legal pad — where you can see it all. Then think through the indidivual things on the list, ruthlessly pruning the ones that are unworthy of your time, attention, and energy — that is, that are unworthy of your best life. What you should have left on your to-do list are the things that most need doing, that most inspire you, that most reward you. When these juicy tasks are all that’s left on your list, motivation to do them is much easier to come by. Instead of hissing at you, they will sing a siren song that draws you to them. And that siren song is worthy theme music for the amazing lives that await us, when we choose to undertake them.

4 Responses to “The hiss of incompletion.”

  1. Mark Hurst Says:

    Thanks, Tim.

  2. Bryan Says:

    Fantastic…thank you.

  3. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » Information Overload: an introductory palaver. Says:

    […] This theme has insinuated itself into my thinking more and more lately, especially as I’ve read various good books like Bit Literacy, The 4-Hour Workweek, and CrazyBusy, which tackle the topic in their own ways. Information overload is, in my opinion, one of the key problems that faces us today. (Who do I mean by “us”? Chances are overwhelmingly good that, if you’re reading this blog, you qualify.) It’s not precisely a new problem — there were already far too many books to read in a lifetime in Ben Franklin’s day — but it has exploded in the past 15 years with the rise of the Web. For all its countless benefits, the Web is also an open invitation to swamp yourself in more bits than you can ever possibly process. […]

  4. What I’ve Learned So Far » Blog Archive » When in doubt, close a loop. Says:

    […] (Sample posts referring to Allen here, here, here, and here.) […]

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