Reboot with Pareto

“When in doubt, reboot.”

This has always been my computer-fixing mantra, and it is repeated in similar fashion by every competent computer technician in the world.

But sometimes parts of your life need to be rebooted, too.

When You’re Overwhelmed by Your To-Do List(s)

I got way behind on my emails while I was involved with funeral and family stuff. Then it was so backlogged, I just didn’t feel like dealing with it—especially on dial-up. Finally, on Sunday,  when I sat down and looked at it, I had twelve pages of emails. But I cleared them all out in less than 10 minutes.

How?

I did a reboot.

If I tried to read all of those emails—many of which were blog subscriptions, which means reading something long and then probably feeling compelled to comment and maybe even wandering off to see some other likely-looking posts—I would have been at the computer for hours and hours (and it had a high-speed connection).

So, I deleted everything except for some emails from friends, a couple of reminders to update my credit card information (it expired), and two or three notices from blogs that I always, always read. Total emails left to read: about 8. Not 8 pages—8 emails.

You see, there comes a point in your life when you are so far behind and so overwhelmed, you really need to say, “to hell with it,” throw pretty much everything out and start over.

This works for lots of things—not just emails. Are you behind on reading your magazines, catalogs, and/or newspapers? Most periodicals have an expiration date. They’re for current information only. If you have a summer sale catalog from Lands End, and it’s November, what good is it? The sale price is off and the thing you wanted is probably sold out by now. Not to mention it’s winter! It’s way past time to buy summer clothes.

Keep two or three of your favorite items—maybe the periodicals that don’t really expire, like Smithsonian or National Geographic—or keep only the current issue of everything and throw out anything that’s older.

Regular mail is the same way: throw away everything that’s not a bill or a birthday card. No, you are not legally obligated to open every envelope from every charity begging for money. No, you don’t have to read about the latest pledge drive from your alma mater. And, if it’s in an unmarked envelope—if the company felt the need to hide their name from you from the beginning—throw it away. (Better yet, shred it.)

The Pareto Principal

The Pareto Principal is one of those freakishly-accurate mathematical statements that people get PhDs for.

It’s quite simple: We get 80% of our output from 20% of our input.

What makes it freakish is that you can apply it to damn-near anything.

If you stopped to take an accounting of your closet, for instance, you would find that you wear about 20% of your clothes 80% of the time. We all do it—we have our favorite pants or our favorite top and we wear it every week, followed by a few other second and third favorites.

In the back of the closet, though, there are the clothes that are for special occasions—Christmas sweaters and interview suits and formal dresses—that we hardly ever wear. And you can’t forget to count the clothes that you’ve outgrown (but hope to one day get into again), or the piece that you bought that needs ironing or mending or altering, but you never seem to have time to do it, or the thing you paid too much money for, even though it doesn’t fit right (it’s like if it stays in your closet a little while longer, it will somehow magically alter its shape or you will learn tolerate it or you will somehow get your money back out of it, relieving you from the guilt of a bad decision).

When you take of all of it together, you will find that you probably do get close to 80% of use out of just 20% of your wardrobe.

Think about your kitchen and what you use in it. You use the same things over and over again: microwave, fridge, plates, glasses, forks and spoons. (Depending on your family, you may or may not include the use of the stove and pots and pans.) But how much are you not using? Your wedding china and Christmas or Passover dishes; your wok and roasting pan and George Foreman grill; your potato peeler and corn jabbers and whisk. I’m not saying you never use those things, but 80% of the time you don’t.

You can even apply the Pareto Principal to the blogs you read. (Yes, you probably get 80% of your information and entertainment from only 20% of the blogs that you follow.)

So what does that have to do with anything?

Reboot

It makes it a lot easier to let things go if you realize that you’re not getting a lot of use out of most of your stuff. Look at my inbox: when push came to shove, only about 20% of my emails were really worthwhile to me; the rest was either junk or things that would be interesting to look over if I had the time (which I didn’t).

The same thing goes with stuff in your house: you give up a lot of space (upwards of 80% of it!) storing things that you use only 20% of the time (and that’s just an average; some things you might use 40% of the time, but other things you may never use).

The Pareto Principal is an average–meaning typical. You can go off the average in both directions. People who become hoarders may only use 10% of their house and stuff while the other 90% of house is taken up with stuff they don’t use 90% of the time, whereas someone like a nun in a convent probably gets 90% of use from 90% of the things she owns.

While I don’t think there’s any problem with getting more bang for your buck–i.e. having less useless stuff and using the stuff you like more–I would theorize that when we start getting into diminishing returns–meaning getting even less use out of our seldom-used things–we start feeling overwhelmed, out of control, etc.

Let’s face it: you probably aren’t overwhelmed by things you like and use constantly. I’ve never been so overwhelmed by birthday cards that I couldn’t open them. I’ve never been in a quandary about where to store the toilet paper or the milk.  I’ve never hesitated to accept a friend request from someone who is an old friend.

It’s the 80% items that bog you down. Where do I store this crock pot that I only use once every month or two? What do I do with bills that have been paid? How long should I keep a receipt? Do I really want to friend my boss or ex on Facebook? What do I do about these blog subscriptions when there’s really great, wonderful information on them, but only about 20% of it is applicable to me?

When you start going out of alignment–when the 80% of near-useless things start taking up 81% and 83% and 85% of your life, you need to clear most of it out and start fresh.

Reboot.

Edited to add: I just read an article that said Coca-Cola research has found that 20% of their customers account for 80% of their sales. Pareto strikes again!

Update on “The List”

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been battling procrastination with the aid a reasonable task list. So how’s the experiment coming?

Some win, some not-so-win.

Win:

Not me, but my boxes look like that... minus the shelves.

I have accomplished a lot at work. I managed to catch up all the filing (two banker’s boxes full of papers which had to be integrated into 40 other storage boxes full of files). I finished cleaning out an old office, stored the old files, reclaimed some office supplies, and threw away a full trash can and a bit of recycling and part of a can of regular trash. I’ve caught up the billing and file-making. This office is looking s-h-a-r-p.

In fact, I’ve pretty much done everything I can do which is outside my usual, daily work; no more low-priority, time-consuming, boring projects hanging out in the background.

Not-so-win:

The List becomes less effective the longer you use it. It’s gotten to point that I write things down, but will ignore some of the tasks, not caring whether I get them done or not. This was especially true on the weekends (I was better about sticking to the list at work, where there are fewer distractions and I’m, you know, actually supposed to work. When I’m working for myself, pfft, I’ll blow things off.)

I suppose for some people (maybe people who are a bit compulsive) they might not get list-fatigue, but I have never been one to keep a list or a schedule or anything like that long-term. I thought that was because I was being unrealistic, but it’s probably because I’m creative and don’t like to have everything in my day planned; it allows for flexibility, in case I get in the mood to do something else. (This is the same reason why I won’t plan what I’m going to eat for dinner more than one day in advance; when I wake up, I decide what I’m in the mood for that day.)

So, I think instead of making a list every day, I need to save it for emergencies–those times when I really need to buckle down and either tackle a long-term, tedious, boring task, or I have a pile of stuff which I really need to do. Interestingly, that is the way I used to make lists. Prior to the end of the term in college, I always ended up making a list of things I had to get done before I could leave for the holidays. It ran the gamut from turning in term papers and taking exams to putting out the trash and stopping my mail. While not everything on the list got done (because I always put too much on the list and/or waited until late to start), all of the most important stuff always got done in a rush of activity that Karen Kingston calls “a white tornado.”

And, I admit, I loved the thrill and the adrenaline rush. Doing a lot of things at once makes me feel really accomplished; doing the same amount of work over a long period of time (i.e. a little bit every day) does not make me feel accomplished and does not give me a rush.

Are we starting to see why I procrastinate?

On a slightly different, but somewhat related note, is this blog post about new research showing that the longer people make decisions, the worse their decisions become (or they more they procrastinate and don’t make them). I believe they’re talking specifically about the decisions we make over the course of a day, but I believe that this probably holds true for people who make decisions day in, and day out (CEOs, judges, teachers, etc.). That’s why some countries/corporations/schools recognize the need for people to take a sabbatical; it keeps them from becoming permanently burned-out.

But, back to decision making on a daily basis. If you are aware of the fact that you tend to make worse decisions as the day gets longer (or, in my case, the procrastination level goes higher), then you can structure your day to account for it. Schedule meetings where you need to plan or make decisions for the morning. Team meetings should also be in the mornings, so the entire group isn’t making bad decisions (or making none at all). Negotiations, court cases, mediation and similar should be scheduled for the morning whenever possible. Save your afternoons for mindless tasks: filing, paying bills, handling e-mails and phone calls which do not require decisions. In fact, if you structure your day this way, you can spend your last hour getting your filing and piddly work caught up so you start the next day with a clean desk. Theoretically.

Procrastination Confession

I had a four day weekend because of the Christmas holiday and boy, did it ruin me. I got off my exercise schedule, then I got off my sleep schedule, and by the time Tuesday came around, I drug out of bed late, didn’t exercise, and went to work and accomplished next to nothing. Then I did the same thing Wednesday.

Disgusted with myself, I vowed to get back on the wagon Thursday

Regardless of what wagon you’ve fallen off, the first thing you need to do is identify why you fell off; that’s the only way you have any hope to change yourself for the better.

The long weekend and messed-up sleep schedule is not what made me procrastinate when I came to work. Breaking my rhythm certainly contributed to my decline, but it’s not what kept me there.

The number one cause of my procrastination? Temptation. Presented with a pleasant distraction versus a tedious task, the distraction will always win out for the procrastinator. My worse distraction? Oddly enough, not the internet (although that’s up there). Actually, my writing is my biggest distraction. So the first thing I did was leave the USB key at home (I carry my writing around on my USB key). That eliminated the temptation of writing and editing instead of doing work.

Secondly, I fell into the fallacy that because nothing on my list was terribly important or time-consuming (back to filing and billing), I could wait until the last hour of the day and get it all done. Remember, I confessed to being a person who gets a high from rushing to complete tasks; I was setting myself up to get a high.

Only it never came, because by the last hour of the day, I was not saying, “Let me run around like a chicken with my head cut off and get this stuff done.” Instead I was saying, “Eh, it’ll wait until tomorrow.”

I know, from long experience, that I am most productive shortly after waking up (studies show that the vast, vast majority of people are this way, regardless of what time they wake up). As the day goes on, my output drops exponentially. This is why I can’t exercise or clean house in the evenings after I get home from work; my energy is used up for the day.

So, when I came to work Thursday, I knocked several things off my list first thing. Accomplishment is like a snowball rolling downhill: if I make a big enough snowball early, it will continue to gather momentum as the day goes on.

And before I even got to work Thursday, I drug my ass out of bed and did some exercise. It was lame exercise–sitting on the couch, reading a book, peddling a mini stationary bike–but it was better than laying in bed and not moving at all. (Not to mention I’m reading non-fiction, so I’m being edified in the process… theoretically.) I did that for 15 minutes, then I got up and spent 15 minutes picking up the living room (which is also a form of exercise, believe me).

Everything combined, I was able to get my list done yesterday, plus I picked up 1/3rd of the living room. I did the same thing this morning and my to-do list was more than halfway done before lunch. And this morning consisted of purging old files and making new ones for 2012–not high on the excitement list, you know.

My boss asked me today what my New Year’s resolution was. I said, “The List.” 2012 is going to be about getting more crap done. All hail The List.

Getting Crap Done

I will admit it: I’m a procrastinator. And I’m married to a procrastinator. On the one hand, we’re very laid-back people. We don’t get uptight or stressed very often. This makes for a good marriage and, hopefully, a long life.

On the other hand, though, we can’t get shit done that needs to be done. We started to rebuild one of the doors on our barn a couple of years ago; it’s still propped up against the barn, about 70% completed. The vegetables I was going to grow last year? Empty pots and bags of dirt are still lying in our yard, waiting for utilization (every year, though, I take one step closer to planting, so this year I might actually plant something).

I have noticed something about myself: I hyper-focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. This is how I managed to write 3 novels in as many years but can’t make a simple container garden. All of my time is spent writing, writing, writing. Meanwhile I’m not exercising, the house is a disaster, and cedar trees are starting to grow out of my bags of dirt.

So one day I was doing something close to nothing, but different than the day before (to quote the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince, but who is now, once again, Prince), and I followed a link off a Facebook post, then another one off a blog, until I found this blog: Get More from Life.

Specifically I looked at Scott’s post on making lists. I like lists, but I seem to do them for a short period of time then give up. Then it dawned on me that I am crashing and burning.

Being that I’m always behind on something I wish was done, when I go to make a list, I make a list of EVERYTHING that needs doing. Of course I can’t get everything done in one day. And an endless list–one without a cut-off date–is not only depressing, but, being a procrastinator, I put off most or all of the list until tomorrow or next week or whenever. Without a deadline, I will procrastinate indefinitely. (With a deadline I will procrastinate until the last possible moment, then I will run around like a white tornado, getting everything done in one rush which leaves me with an endorphin rush.)

So, what’s different about Scott’s list? He looks at one day and one week increments. There is only what you need to do today and this week (although he will allow that there might be things you need to do monthly. E.g. wash the car, refill prescriptions, etc.)

So how does the list system work? Scott’s not quite clear about a few things (you can tell he’s a go-getter; I have to lazy his system down), so here’s my interpretation/system for me.

  1. I started by *gasp* making a list. My list is just hand-written on a legal pad, with one side divided off for the weekly list, and the other side for each day’s list.You will only make a list for one day at a time and one week at a time. Do NOT make up days in advance. If you know you need to take books back to the library Wednesday, then list that on your weekly list.
  2. Friday evening, before I left work, I looked through my in-box and made a list of things I wanted to get done Monday.The trick is being careful not to overload yourself. This is where my previous lists have all failed. You only write down enough work for one day. As part of my day consists of things I can’t budget time for–such as answering the phone, making appointments, and handling emergency tasks from my attorney–I didn’t put too much on my to-do list, knowing I’d need the rest of my day to do unscheduled work.
  3. As to what I need to do weekly, I looked at things that need to be done, but which I’ve been putting off–namely billing and filing. These things are tedious, so it’s easy to put them off indefinitely.But rather than making a huge, blanket assignment such as “catch up the filing” (which means taking a large pile of papers and incorporating them into the files in 37 boxes!), I set myself the weekly task of filing papers into 3 boxes and processing one claim form.
  4. When making up your daily to-do list, incorporate a weekly item where you otherwise have light work days.
  5. What happens when you can’t accomplish everything on your list?  (Yes, it’s been two full days of list making and I’ve already blown a list.) First off, I recognized the fact that I put too much on my Sunday list. I didn’t get started on my day until noon, but I loaded up my list like I had all day. I KNEW when I was making my list that I was over-extending myself, but I did it anyways because that’s my habit (which I need to break). As the day went on, I saw that there’s no way in hell I’m going to accomplish two of those tasks that I added on against my better judgment. So I wiped them off (yea whiteboard!). I still had two tasks that I didn’t get done, even after redoing my list. Which means I still bit off more than I could chew. I have been contemplating how to handle these two orphan tasks. Normally housecleaning is a weekend chore because I’m tired when I come home and I know, realistically, housecleaning is not going to happen in the evenings. If I can be preventative–meaning cleaning up the supper dishes and putting away what I got out–that’s something.So I’ve decided that those two tasks (laundry) will just get rolled over to next Sunday. I think that’s the answer for the work week too: if I don’t get something done (for whatever reason; some days are crazier than others), then, when I make out my list for the next day, I put it on the list. At worst, this is no different than any other day of my life, so I’m not really foreseeing a huge drawback here.
  6. Here’s the difference though: before, I would have punished myself by adding my incomplete tasks to the next day’s full list, expecting that I will, for some reason, have more energy and motivation tomorrow than I have today, and I will white tornado through that list and do a full day, plus some. Guess what? That never happens. So, going forward, each day is a new day, and I will never, ever, play catch up. If I have to roll-over something, okay (although I need to keep in mind that I might need to aim lower going forward; the goal is to be like The Price is Right, close without going over), but I will treat it as if it’s on my list for the first time–meaning that tomorrow’s list will allow adequate time to accommodate it. No more having a full list, plus catch-up work. There is only today.
  7. I will, however, be doing my weekly chore over the course of my weekday evenings. What’s my weekly chore? I have a nifty book (bought in one of those gung-ho moments when I was ready to motivate, but didn’t quite follow through) called Organize Now! It has organizational assignments broken down by week, so it makes it perfect to pick one task (this week: organize my sewing table and craft shelf) and complete the various steps slowly, over the course of one week. 5-15 minutes per night is all I need.

If you still have trouble procrastinating with the list (meaning you leave everything until the last half hour of the day), you might need to break your daily list up into morning and afternoon. If you don’t get something done in the morning, ask yourself if you need to move it to the afternoon (at the expense of deleting an afternoon task), or if you will move it until tomorrow morning.

If you need more motivation (or you want to procrastinate by reading instead of making a list), here are some additional websites I’ve  come across:

FlyLady  – How to clean your house and organize yourself and your family. Makes a good point that a lot of procrastination is about perfectionism. To paraphrase her response, “Doing a half-assed job is better than doing nothing at all.” And “You can do anything for 15 minutes.” This is how I chunk up unpleasant tasks, like cleaning the kitchen.

Twenty Ways to Stay Productive if You’re Working from Home  – Some good tips, even if you don’t work from home.

Big Rocks First: Double Your Productivity – If you still struggle with accomplishing things, make sure one thing on your list, each day, is something that HAS to be done and do it first. That way, even if you end up having to roll some things over to tomorrow, you’ve at least gotten the most important thing done. This will make you feel more accomplished than doing a dozen tiny tasks but having to roll over the big, important one.

And if your task is so big that it will take more than 15 minutes to complete, you may want to divide it into more than one tasks on your list so that 1) it doesn’t seem so big, 2) you at least make a start on it, even if you don’t get all of it done (remember, a half-assed job is better than nothing at all).

Now, it’s time to get back on my list before I run out of work day.