43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

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

Jeff Covey: Running a _Progressive_ Dash

Reader Jeff Covey shares how he’s started beating procrastination with a dash. Jeff’s system features a very fast daily start-up and a clever way to make sure every to-do gets touched first thing every morning.

Running a Progressive Dash

by Jeff Covey

The recent post about running a dash gave me an idea which has turned out to be a good way to get myself in motion. It's something like a train pulling out of a station, with a lot of force and effort at the beginning leading to smooth gliding through the long haul.

One of my gtd scripts is named "tenmins", and I've used it to make sure I put at least a little time into each of my next actions lists each day. As the name implies, I picked ten minutes as the arbitrary amount of time to give each category of work. tenmins would look through my lists for any which had items waiting to be done. Then it would say, for example, "work on phone calls", display a timer counting down the time remaining, and pop up a message saying "stop" when the time was up.

Last week, I decided to try putting tenmins on a loop which starts with one minute for each category and adds another minute on each iteration. I start the day with an all-out sprint through my work landscape with a minute for each actions list, then stretch out with two minutes for each, then three and four and so on. I'm finding a number of benefits hiding in this simple trick:

  • Since all bases are touched at least once, my whole workload becomes fresh in my mind after just a few minutes (1 minute * the number of active next action lists). There are no worries that there's something waiting in hiding to bite me.
  • I rush at the beginning of the work day when I'm fresh, and at a more leisurely pace later, instead of spending a lot of time on one thing (not necessarily the most important thing) and facing a panicked race to get through everything else. I have progressively more and more time to get things done, instead of less and less.
  • As I add items to my lists, they get done more quickly, or at least started sooner (the next time that list comes up in the cycle).
  • I feel my load lightening as I dispatch everything that can be done in one minute, then two minutes, etc. By the time I get to something that's going to take an hour, I know there's really nothing else I should be doing.
  • Chipping away at a project one minute at a time, then two, then three, I find projects starting to be finished today that I thought would take the rest of the week.
  • The reverse psychology described in The Now Habit comes into play. I take something I don't want to do at all and limit myself to only spending a minute or two on it. By the end of that time, I wish I could continue and get more done. Pretty soon, I'm wanting to get back to it and finish it instead of procrastinating about it.
  • Since I only have a minute to get started on something, sometimes I just use screen to create a new screen, name it after what I'm doing, and open a document or start a program or do whatever it is I need to get started. Then, when it comes around again, the work material is already laid out, and it's much easier to get started and do something even in just two or three minutes. When I have a screen dedicated to a certain project, I'm more likely to want to get that project done and close the screen than to close it undone.

I’ve liked this so well that I’ve added three more notices to the end of the tenmins loop:

Incoming mailboxes
Once I’ve gone through all the next actions lists, tenmins checks for any non-zero-sized mbox files that procmail has placed in ~/mail/incoming/ (general inbox, work mail, mailing lists, etc.), and asks me to spend x minutes on each. If I get done early with one of them, I grab the next one and the next until time’s up. By the time tenmins is through finding ones I haven’t already emptied, I’m often back to zero.
Postponed mail
tenmins then checks whether I have any draft messages in ~/mail/postponed and bugs me to work on them.
When everything else is done, tenmins asks me to spend some time on my list of things to read (articles, books, RSS feeds, etc.).

I wouldn’t recommend this as a regular means of working; constantly changing from one project to another can break your chain of thought. It can frustrate you when you come back to something and have to spend time getting back into the flow of it, trying to retrace where you were headed before the last interruption. But though it may not be the best way to choose how to use your time all the time, it can be a good trick for getting you moving on all fronts, especially if you’re not sure what to do next.

Jeff Covey

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


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


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »