An simple thought popped into my head yesterday as I was attempting to make some serious headway into my inbox of more than 250 unread items. For reasons I don't particularly understand, it actually came to me in the form of a quote that could easily be a soundbite:

The hardest thing I have to do every day is to decide what to ignore.

I thought about it for a few minutes and realized how true it was. My email inbox is the obvious example. Every time I look, I'm faced with a bunch of crap to filter through. Hundreds of split-second decisions (trash, file, respond, defer, etc) need to be made. My RSS aggregator is the same way. It reminds me of how many things I've yet to deal with. There's reddit and random links sent from friends via IM and email. Flickr. YouTube. Blog comments. Presentations and classes at work. Podcasts. The stack of unread books in my computer room. The list goes on and on.

In our culture of abundance, they're nearly infinite in number.

I need to invert my thinking. I should be starting most days with a strong idea in mind of what I want to spent the majority of the day focusing on. If there's time left, I'll tend to the other distractions.

But some habits are just hard to break.

The frustrating thing about all this is that as our electronic tools evolve to more efficiently find information, I'm a bit more aware every day of how much stuff I am ignoring. Life was easier when I was ignorant of how much interesting stuff the world had to offer.

Posted by jzawodn at February 15, 2007 07:49 AM

Reader Comments
# lauralippay said:

"The hardest thing I have to do every day is to decide what to ignore."

Thats actually a talent I loko for in new hires...

I just got down from over 800 unreads on Monday to 177 over the course of this week. Gotta love that delete button!

on February 15, 2007 11:40 AM
# Javier said:

Thinking in what to spend the majority of the day makes you consider what to ignore. That's the way our brain works, if it thinks in something in one side of the thing, it automatically makes you consider also the other side.

It's like saying, I'm going to eat meet. In that moment you already thought about not eating fish, vegetables, etc.

So, you're doomed =P

on February 15, 2007 11:47 AM
# Brian Aker said:

Hi!

Get up in the morning and write out a list, and then stick to it. This is how I make it through the day.

The world is filled with so many cool things, its hard not to be distracted by it :)

Cheers,
-Brian

on February 15, 2007 01:38 PM
# Mr 9-5 said:

"I need to invert my thinking. I should be starting most days with a strong idea in mind of what I want to spent the majority of the day focusing on."

You just perfectly described my strategy.

1. I think in the morning what I want to achieve that day.
2. The thing I chose in 1) is what I focus on during that day. Other peoples 'high priority must fix this immediately' gets put below the item 1). If it's important, perhaps it will make the next days 1 slot. Otherwise I'll slot it in over the following days. My choice.
3. I don't chop and change tasks, it's inefficient. If something important happens I'll consider making it the next days focus.
4. I write my main focus on my office whiteboard, with other peoples requests below it.
5. I wipe off tasks as I do them, clearing the white board gives me a sense of satisfaction.
6. I surf or relax while I'm compiling, I don't try to fill the gap with other tasks.
7. I go home at 5pm, I don't start jobs I know will run over 5pm, I'll choose something smaller on the job list if it's after 4pm so I don't go home late. Usually I'll spend the last bit of time clearing through emails, and choosing the following days major 'todo'.
8. I go home without half finished jobs as a result of 7).
9. I relax, enjoy my free time and don't worry about my workload.
10. If a job remains on the white board too long (weeks rather than days), it wasn't important enough to do and I wipe it off anyway.

The deadlines get hit, the real work gets done, minor jobs get done, but only if there was time. It works for me, I guess it will work for you too.

on February 15, 2007 02:06 PM
# Doug said:

Try looking into the Getting Things Done books by David Allen -- he focuses on exactly the mentality for clearing your inbox (electronic or otherwise).

Which reminds me -- need to listen to the audio book on my way home again and get back into that mindset...

on February 15, 2007 03:02 PM
# Doug said:

Here's a post along the lines of my prevous comment: http://www.43folders.com/2006/06/14/linenberger-tasks/

on February 15, 2007 03:03 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Yeah, I've read the book. But it's way harder than it sounds--at least for me.

on February 15, 2007 03:04 PM
# Chris Saad said:

I love that line Jeremy... but I do think that inverting your thinking is the right approach. It's much more productive to focus the scope of your interests than trying to decide what you DON'T want to see.

I'd rather decide who I am than who I'm not.

We are building a product that might help also - I've done a post about yours - manual trackback!

http://www.touchstonelive.com/blog/2007/02/hardest-thing-i-have-to-do-every-day-is.html

on February 15, 2007 03:57 PM
# Ugo said:

Hi.

Have you watched "The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less"? (it's a TechTalk on Google Video).

It is a nicely argumented analysis of how freedom, number of choices, paralysis, satisfaction, regret, opportunity costs etc are all correlated. And why there is a limit in the abundance of choice (and, arguably, information) that can provide benefits: above such limit, we start paying high costs that outweight benefits and we eventually end up in a situation that is worst than neutral (i.e. few choices, few info).

In case you didn't, to watch or not to watch it would add one more item to the list choices you have, I know, but...
I did watch it (on the train, on my way back home), and it was worth it.

on February 15, 2007 10:06 PM
# Daniel Waisberg said:

Hi,

great wisdom. I am finishing my M.Sc. in Decision making and I feel myself less and less fitted to decide ;-) Once you start thinking about deciding, every decision is a torture.

However, one of the strategies I have learned on my studies comes from Ralph Keeney, and it is exactly what you propose: Value Focused Thinking (http://tinyurl.com/2s9af8). Keeney is against taking decisions based on the alternatives (what he calls alternative focus thinking), since this way you cannot think out-of-the-box. He recommends us to first think about what we want and then try to find alternatives. Wonderful book, full of day-to-day examples.

And, of course, Information Anxiety from Wurman (http://tinyurl.com/2kchnu), about the information explosion. It is a long essay about the your quote :-)

on February 16, 2007 08:48 AM
# Bennett Zucker said:

Kind of like what your strategic data group has to do every day - decide how much of yesterday's 10TB of user data to throw out and how much to keep for analysis.

on February 18, 2007 12:11 PM
# Rae said:

I've been getting ready to do a post on motivation and I definitely think prioritizing when you have a huge pile in front of you that never gets smaller, no matter how much you work, is one of the main things that can interfere with motivation. And yes, I think that phrase will end up on a quote site somewhere. :P

on February 18, 2007 08:11 PM
# Arun Pillai said:

But again,do you seriously think,DELETE is just the last option with you ?

on February 23, 2007 02:45 AM
# CW Frank said:

Imagine sitting in an office with someone who walks in late every day, goes to lunch early, takes an extra long lunch, leaves work early. Now imagine that routine for months, with stuff stacking up on his/her desk, and hearing complaining about 96 new e-mails after 3 days off of work.

That was a co-worker of mine. Was. Before the past tense, I ended up writing a blog post entitled "Effort", and apparently it has helped at least once person, maybe it will help you:

Spend 5 or 10 minutes at the end of the day organizing everything putting it in order and knowing / listing what needs to be done (better yet, put it in an organized stack to start on the next day).

Spend 5 or 15 minutes finishing something up, instead of leaving it sit and forgetting where you are in the process. If it is a long process, find a stopping point, make notes, go home and relax after step 1 above.

Check e-mails and messages first thing in the morning. Write down all of your voice messages as you get them, not too much detail unless it is a long message you need to listen to again. Hit up each e-mail and voice message one-by-one - dilligently and with attention / effort paid to each one, and everything associated with that task will get done much easier, faster and more efficiently.

Third . . . don't be a lazy slug to move slow about anything. Don't use medical problems as excuses. If you're that slow, find a way to work more efficiently, or if the medical problem is that bad, go on disability. (I hate whiners, I hate excuses.)

Keep things in order to begin with. Hanging Folders, Binders, paper-clips & sticky-notes are my favorites. Secondary to this, loose-leaf paper and staplers.

Don't touch your in-box, voice mail or e-mail if you're not ready to deal with the entire stack. So coming in late with not enough time to do something before having to do something else is a pointless waste to touch any of the above 3 methods of communication.

If you get sidelined constantly, close the door. If you don't have an office with a door, quit your job, start over, make sure you negotiate a private office with a locking door and windows. Prioritize things. Blow off an irrelevant meeting or walk in late to get things done. Yada Yada Yada.

Don't be a lazy slug that complains about stuff; especially the stuff that is your own time-management problem. I've never been in a work environment that is this bad in terms of time-management & accountability. I can justify anything with any excuse, and it is simply accepted. That's because the culture has allowed and tolerated this crap since day one. There are certain things that are simply unacceptable. At least I have the integrity and dilligence to stay on task, manage my time efficiently (despite constant interruptions from staff who want something regarding the schedule).

And the number one thing you can do to manage time better and get things done set boundaries. Boundaries being with staff & time allocation and with yourself & time allocation for tasks.

on March 11, 2007 06:21 AM
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