43 Folders

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

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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.

Teri Pittman's picture

One of the best GTD...

One of the best GTD tricks (and one of the hardest to do in real life) is to separate all the stages of thinking about your work. You don't process or organize while collecting. It seems like we need to immediately assign a place for things that cross our desk. In reality, what we really need to do is note it and stick it in the inbox. Deal with it when you have time to think about what it really is and where it should go. At some point, when I have been at this job a bit longer (I've been there two months) I will tell my boss, when he gives me a time waster like the one I had today "This is not a good use of my time right now. This needs to be put on hold while I do more pressing stuff and I will pick it up at a more appropriate time (like Monday morning when the stuff can ACTUALLY be mailed!)"




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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