43 Folders

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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Mental dialogues, yak-shaving & the triumph of the 'mini-review'

From time to time in the middle of an interruption-driven week, I’ll find myself in the weeds and struggling to think where I should park an item. My brain speaks informally with itself:

Oh, man, I don’t have time for this…uh…I guess it’s a TODO so, put it on next actions….but…no, it’s really got some pieces to it so maybe projects…oh, crap, I’m too busy for this, I’ll just toss it in inbox and deal with it later.

I’ve finally learned to diagnose these odd dialogues as a symptom of a simple problem: I’m mired in seemingly important details, I’ve fallen out of touch with my “stuff," and, damn it, I need to do a quick mini-review.

My mini-review falls somewhere between the glances I give my lists throughout the day and the comprehensive weekly review I do each weekend. It’s basically a 10-minute metamoment where I stop working and just try to re-focus on my goals, and the tactical adjustments needed to get them moved forward today.

  • What is it that’s really hanging me up right now?
  • Am I really working toward a goal, or have I just become stuck on distracting pseudo-work?
  • Is it really the interruptions that are bugging me, or has my “trusted system" just gone temporarily farkatke?
  • Is everything here where it belongs just now?
  • Is there something bugging me that I can just articulate as a problem and shunt into the right shelf in my system?
  • Are any of these next actions completed, expired, or obviated?
  • Has my inbox secretly turned into a safe harbor for stuff I just don’t want to think about?
  • Can any of these freaking projects be moved to “Maybe/Someday/Later"?
  • What am I really committed to right now, and what’s it going to take to move closer to completion today?

At the end of my mini-review, I usually feel a lot better about what I really need to do, and the reason is transparent: in order for my brain to focus on creative, thoughtful work, it needs to stop burning cycles on trudging through recursive, open loops and distracting mental busy work. The only way to shut those processes down is to assure my addled but very responsible mind that someone competent is on top of things and helping to pilot the great, lumbering yacht of my life toward the right port.

My pal, Danny, taught me a great phrase: yak-shaving. It refers to the seemingly endless (and growing) skein of dependencies that lies between you and the thing you started out ostensibly wanting to accomplish. I think that lavishing yourself with 10 or 15 minutes of mini-review doesn’t just get your head in order. It also causes you to consider seriously for a moment whether a given, seemingly important yak is really worth shaving at all.

One of the best GTD... by Teri Pittman (not verified)
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About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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