With the new millennium a paradox has materialized: the quality of life has improved, but at the same time people are more stressed, because they take on more tasks than they manage to manage with the resources they have available.
Furthermore, the work itself no longer has defined boundaries: while in the past it was evident when a task had been carried out – plowing the fields, building a machine – today for certain jobs the boundaries are blurred. Information that could, for example, improve a search or enrich a blog page, may continue to arrive over time, requiring constant updates.
As if that were not enough, the new communication technologies have broken down the limits defined between our professional commitments and our private lives: being “always connected” for many translates into “always being at work”.
Having “a mind like water”
In the last seventy-two hours, most of us have been joined by a quantity of inputs aimed at producing changes, creating projects or changing priorities, far greater than what our parents received in a month.
It is no wonder that traditional time management and personal organization systems, based on the calendar, on the creation of priority codes and daily lists, are no longer sufficient. The ability to stay relaxed and focused while maintaining control of the situation requires new thinking patterns and work organization.
Focusing on objectives and values considered of primary importance is certainly a useful exercise. It provides the necessary criteria to make choices – even difficult ones – between a myriad of alternatives to select what we must stop doing and what, on the other hand, really deserves our attention. Unfortunately, the prioritization method no longer seems to work, due to two factors:
- too many daily tasks do not allow you to focus on wide-ranging goals;
- ineffective systems of personal organization create strong unconscious resistance.
In karate there is an expression that is used to define the state of perfect readiness: “having the mind like water”. Imagine throwing a pebble into a pond, how does the water react? Appropriately to the strength and mass of the object that hits it, it then returns to calm. The water does not react neither too much nor too little. The power of a karate stroke comes from speed, not from muscles, the secret lies in a flicker at the end of the lash.
Many pay too much – or too little – attention to things, do not act with “a mind like water”, ready to react exactly as necessary and able to quickly return to a state of calm.
What it really means to do things
To survive in these busy times, we must learn to “really do”, in order to release attention and ease the pressure. We are often overwhelmed with commitments that we are not managing properly, which we are tremendously aware of.
We suffer from constant concern for the things we know we have to do: many “should”, “could”, “would like” are relegated to our minds, ready to keep us under pressure 24 hours a day. These are precisely “internal commitments” , these things left in a stalemate, generating most of the frustration and stress; it is stronger than us: recent research has shown that it is very difficult not to memorize and not continually return to thinking about the issues that we leave open.
Unfortunately, this mechanism does not help us solve them, but rather distracts us from anything else we want or have to deal with, decreasing our ability to act.
The art of doing things is based on two fundamental steps: defining what “done” means, that is, setting the goal, and clarifying what “doing” means, that is, establishing what actions to take. To effectively manage the flood of commitments that you have made or are imposed on you, you must first of all “identify and intercept”, that is, write down every question that somehow requires your attention, clarify what meaning it has exactly for you and then establish the most appropriate way to act to resolve it.
Let’s see the step-by-step method.
This type of organization of activities is based on “horizontal” attention, it will serve you in most situations and you will get it by taking 5 steps:
- intercept all the things that require our attention;
- clarify its meaning and understand what to do with it;
- organize the results;
- reflect on all possible options;
Start by asking yourself: “When do I need to think about this thing, and in what form, so as not to think about it anymore?”, Remember to build a system so that it is functional, not just to have one: the more it respects your needs , your way of being, how much easier it will be to make it part of your way of living and working.
The tools you need to “intercept” are containers where you can collect both the things that come to your mind and the information that comes from outside. You can choose to adopt physical containers, use paper or audio media, emails or text messages.
The essential is that all outstanding issues are in a “container” external to your mind. You have to make sure that you no longer hear the inner voice that reminds you to make a certain phone call or pay a newsletter or complete a job. All these activities will be correctly scheduled and placed in the container.
Attention: it is important to have as few containers as possible for the incoming elements, and they must be emptied regularly.
When you empty the “inbound” container, you have to examine one item at a time and choose between three possible actions:
- trash: it is information, a note, which is no longer needed;
- save: there is no need to take action at the moment, but perhaps we will have to deal with it in the future;
- archive: the element is potentially useful information.
Now move on to the organization: you need a simplified calendar, which never contains lists of daily tasks, but only specific actions to be done at specific times. For example, you can mark the call to a friend on this calendar to ask him how he is or encourage him before a difficult time, such as an exam.
The next step is to reflect: take into consideration the general framework of your professional and personal life, broaden your perspective as much as possible and evaluate the results of the individual actions that you propose to undertake. Are they taking you in the right direction? Are they in line with your goals and your values?
This reflection can be made at entirely subjective intervals, while there is one that must be carried out regularly and precisely: it is the weekly review.
It involves revising the entire system, skimming the “incoming” container, redefining the lists, adding information where possible, updating the simplified calendar. At the beginning you will have to try to find the necessary 2 hours, then the advantage will be so evident that it will become a real need.
Acting effectively: the 4-criteria model
Finally, you have to act, remembering that things to do will always be more than you can do, and that you can only do one thing at a time. The selection of the actions to be carried out must be carried out using the four criteria model: context, time, energy, priority.
The first question you need to ask yourself is this: “What can I do right now, in the place where I am and with the tools I have available?” For example, can you use the phone? Is the person you have to discuss face to face with you there? Are you in a shop where you can buy something you need? We must seize the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time, avoiding to start doing something if there are no contextual requirements necessary to “really do it”.
If in your list you only contemplate demanding or important activities, you can hardly take advantage of “those ten minutes of a hole” to fix something less complex. For this reason it is important to have categories such as “Brain at rest”, which collect those small simple activities that do not require mental efforts, or “Less than five minutes” that allow you to cancel small tasks with the advantage of obtaining small victories.
At the end of a tiring day, a budget discussion, a demanding trip, you will not be in the ideal conditions to go talk about increases with your boss or to call a potential new customer, or even to deal with a delicate topic with your spouse . Rather, focus on simple things, which are done with minimal effort, such as getting your car washed or tidying your desk.
All you need to do is answer this question effectively: “Of all the possible alternatives, what is the most important thing to do at this precise moment?” If you have carefully completed all the previous steps, the answer will come by itself.
Sometimes the planning has to be vertical
It may happen that you need to apply a different method when you need more rigor and attention because you have to keep a specific project under control or you have to find the solution to a serious problem, or even only when you have to verify that the necessary actions in a particular situation have been correctly identified.
It is in these cases that vertical attention comes into play. If the five-stage method (intercepting, clarifying, organizing, reflecting and acting) is the tool that allows you to acquire stability, natural planning, which arises from vertical attention, is able to ensure precise control over specific aspects.
Natural planning leads to the same steps that the brain does to perform tasks on the physical plane, namely: defining the purpose and principles, visualizing the goal, examining possible solutions, organizing, establishing subsequent actions.
- Defining the purpose
It pushes starting from the why. In addition to determining the result, this leads to establishing decision criteria, putting resources in order, focusing and obtaining an increase in possible options.
Determining them is simple, enough, complete this sentence: “I would give others carte blanche on this thing, as long as …” Provided what? As long as they’re on the budget? Do they make customers satisfied? Improve the quality of life of employees.
- Visualizing the goal
Having a clear image in mind of how success will be, producing an effective image of the final result. What will this project be like when it comes to life?
- Consider Possible Solutions
Established what you want to happen, and why, the how is missing. If you have a clear mental image of the goal, your mind will automatically attempt to bridge the gap with the reality you are experiencing instead. The ideas will come one after the other: big, small, good, less good, it’s time to go through them.
Plan your project to identify all the small goals, and plan them on the timeline.
- Follow-up actions
The last phase of planning concerns resources: what must be done, who needs to start the activities?
As you can see, there is nothing particularly complicated, it is mainly a matter of reflecting before acting and organizing the action in a precise way. There are basically two problems: knowing what you want, but not how to get it, and not knowing what you want.
This method provides a weapon to solve both of them, because it helps to focus the lens and translate it into reality.