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Psychotherapy for the Chronic Switcher

There's an obscure rule in baseball for a situation that rarely occurs, when an ambidextrous pitcher faces a switch-hitter. The pitcher has to declare which arm he's going to throw with before the at-bat and stick with it, else the batter could keep jumping back and forth to either side of the plate in an endless game of one-upmanship that would make Tony La Russa's head explode. The intent of the rule is obviously to keep the game moving, but it also saves the pitcher from himself; it forces him to pick his weapon given the challenge he faces, and just go with his best stuff.

I need a rule like this when it comes to picking the tools I use to manage my system for getting things done. I know my last post gave the impression that I'm almost proud of changing my system more often than Barry Bonds changes hat sizes, but deep down I'm rather ashamed. I need something to force me to go with my strengths, and just throw strikes the best I can.

Someone suggested that I think about what causes me to monkey around with my system as much as I do, and what, if any, elements stay the same. Then maybe as a means of public psychotherapy, the hive mind can help me identify my best pitch.

To start, let's look at the reasons why I switch:

  • I'm an impressionable lad, and I desperately want to fit in - When I read through the forums here and see someone describing their system, especially some magnificent homegrown index card job, I can't help but think that I'm missing the boat. And because I fancy myself as a writer, I have a weakness for those damned Moleskines. Those guys knew what they were doing when they used Hemingway's name in the marketing copy; they hooked a whole generation of black-rimmed glasses-wearing, wannabe aesthetes like me. Any excuse to carry one around is good enough for me.
  • My work lets me get away with it - I call myself a writer, but my real job is taking care of my son. I need a system for my freelance work and household duties, but most of the time, the only tools I need are patience and a high tolerance for hearing "Old MacDonald" 400 times a day. Plus, my senses, not a formal to-do list, usually tell me what needs attention: the smelly diaper, the telltale thump and screech from upstairs, the mysterious red liquid seeping from under the couch. Thus, I only ever have a dozen or so projects and tasks that need to be moved at any given time, so it's not a major undertaking to switch.

Now with that in mind, here are some of the pieces of my myriad systems that always stay the same:

  • The paper inbox - No matter how I process them, I always have a paper tray on the corner of my desk for catching all the receipts, mail, and stray pieces of paper that flitter into my life. Whenever I'm feeing overwhelmed by my work, emptying this baby is the quickest way to Margaritaville.
  • Some sort of paper for capture - Even if I'm committed to a Byzantine, quadruple-syncing, all-digital solution, I still use paper for capturing ideas and jotting down new to-do's. It's quick, easy, and eminently flexible, which is what usually leads me to try a full-on paper system. These usually fall over after about a week though, because my fierce minimalist streak hates having to shuffle through piles of cards and rewrite messy notebook pages.
  • iCal - I know a lot of people have serious beefs with Apple's default calendar, but I've always used it for keeping my appointments. It's easy on the eyes, and it's good enough for my less than hectic schedule. In the systems that I've stuck with the longest, I also used iCal for my to-do lists, but they seem to fall apart when my writing workload gets too busy and I have trouble matching projects and actions.
  • An in-your face set of reminders or daily agenda - I always build in an obnoxious series of chirping and blinking alarms, or an easy way to produce a short list of things that must get done on a given day. Usually the best method for this is to sit down every morning, look at my whole list , and write down the 3-5 most important ones on a piece of paper.

So there you have it, a list of symptoms and the few tried and true potions and balms that always seem to soothe them. Now I ask you, my internet shrinks, to help me figure out the best way to put my shifty ways behind me. After writing this, I think I see a way out, but I want to hear which patterns and behaviors really stand out to you.

dominiquejames's picture

On-The-Spot, All-The-Time Review Thinking

Cloud Thought Number One
It's good to think about tools and methods of productivity, but along the way, we end up focusing more on the tools and methods, rather than on productivity itself. We mislead ourselves to thinking that if we fiddle hard enough and long enough with the tools, and the methods, we are being productive. Or, at the least, we eventually become productive. Well, this is one of them. Fiddling.

Cloud Thought Number Two
A friend and colleague couldn't decide on a camera system. The past 5 years, he switched from one to the other, between Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Sony, and Pentax. Switching to a new camera brand is not as simple as naming the brand. Any professional photographer knows that switching means changing the entire system. From the camera body and all lenses, and all accessories that goes with it. And it's an expensive proposition not only because the cutting-edge models cost a lot more, but because he had to sell his old stuff at a very low, discounted, throw-away price. Plus, the learning curve to put the new system to work adds a certain degree of difficulty to switching. My friend is so focused on switching that he ended up not being productive at all. He couldn't think of anything else other than keeping up with the Joneses, in digital SLR terms.

Cloud Thought Number Three
The first time I took the leap to the new-fangled technology of digital photography from the traditional film photography, I chose a camera and brand that uses the same kind of lenses system that I used for my film photography. I've always been a Nikon guy, and I was happily using up to the F4s camera before digital technology jarred our world. And I know I have to switch. And so, I chose to go with Fuji's FinePix Pro S1 because it uses the same kind of lenses as the Nikon (since the body of the S1 was licensed from a design owned by Nikon, and using the same Nikkor mount). I ended up counting the numbers through the years, remaining loyal to Fuji, and hence Nikon, from S1, S2 and then S3. I was looking forward to switching to the S5 when Nikon finally caught up, and I was motivated enough to switch back, to the Nikon D2Xs. And now, I'm about to switch again, to the Nikon D3. And through the switches, I feel that my decisions have been logical, unified. It just makes sense. There is that thing that holds them all together. In reality, it's the Nikkor lens system that holds it together. But even now, when Nikkor have decided to introduce all sorts of variants to their lens line, it's still as unified as ever. Neat.

Finally, A Convoluted Conclusion
I don't know and why I end here, but the conclusion to me seems obvious. Every single time I lose track of real productivity, I know because an internal alarm goes off inside of me that says: "Uh-oh ... This is not how it's supposed to be!" And so, I stop. And I think. And I think some more. And I go into the balcony, and smoke a stick of Marlboro (though you know it's not politically-correct, and I won't recommend smoking). The point is, it gives me time. On the spot, I review. I assess. I give myself the chance to sort, ramify, and even justify, whether whatever it is that I've been trying to be busy with, is the one that I like to be busy with, and is the one that will give me the outcome I expect it will or I'm hoping it will. This method, more than any other productivity tool, gives me a chance to assess how I'm doing. And I can do it all the time, any time; in 30 seconds, in 1 minute, in 5 minutes, in 30 minutes. And off to the race I go. Taking the time to think is like a pitstop "moment" in a NASCAR race, there's nothing happening but it is the time devoted to regrouping one's talent, resources, motivation and all. (I don't know anything about racing, by the way.)

And Last, But Not The Least ...
Every time I get lost, which can happen quite often, like, right now, particularly when I unwittingly fall for aimlessly padding through the river of life, I end up thinking about the old great navigators of the high seas during the 16th to 18th century. To get to where they need to go (and so they won't get lost), they used in their time a high-tech and perfectly calibrated instrument, a compass called the astrolabe. Let's look inside our own astrolabe and set or reset the direction we have willed upon ourselves, and, as an aside, not those dictated by others.

Dominique James




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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