Scanner Productivity: The Gather Sheet

After last time telling you how I got my inbox from overflowing to empty, it seems only natural that I also share another of my little time-saving tricks: my handy-dandy Gather Sheet.

Really, The Gather Sheet is just one part of how I manage my time as as scanner. So, I’ll focus on that for right now — but if you all are interested, in a future post, I can explain how I combine it with things like TimeBoxing and the Scanner Daybook.

Why I’ve Hated To-Do Lists

I actually really hated writing to-do lists growing up as a kid. It probably didn’t help that most of them consisted of such enjoyable tasks as “clean your room” or “vacuum the living room”.

And then there’s that scanner part of me. You know, the part that finds to-do lists constraining and confining. The moment something went onto my list, it would haunt me: “Do me… do me! Even if you’re on a completely different scanner track, I must be done!”

Why I’ve Loved To-Do Lists

On the other hand, I’ve found that — especially when I’m extremely busy — I get stressed if I try to just keep all of my “to-do” items in my head. In some ways, writing things down was my security blanket: I didn’t have to worry about forgetting things, because I knew I could just go back to my list and all would be fine.

This “clicked” for me when I read David Allen’s fantastic Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. As much as I hated them, I consistently found that to-do lists (especially the way that Allen proposed using them) tended to keep me a little more sane.  It was immensely freeing to not keep everything in my head.

The Gather Sheet

It’s taken me a while, but I think I’ve finally found a solution that works for the scanner in me (that’s the part that craves flexibility in when I do things) and the sanity part of me (that’s the part that needs the peace of mind that comes from writing things down). I call it The Gather Sheet.

The gather sheet is what you used to call a to-do list. But it’s not a list of all the things you must get done at a certain date or else lightning will strike you down and locusts will swarm and the plague will hit and the world will end (whew!).

It’s simply a collection of projects that will be tackled sooner or later. What I’ve found phenomenal is how just that simple mind shift can relax the inner scanner!

Understanding the Gather Sheet

Here’s a PDF version of my Gather Sheet; feel free to download it and use it as you so desire. Here’s what all those various fields mean to me:

1) The Date

At the top goes the date. I create a new Gather Sheet every day, because it doubles as my work to-do list.

2) The Requests

Next to get filled in is everything that I want or need to get done. These might be things from my daybook, they might be things that my boss says I have to do, or whatever. I call them “requests” because really, that’s all they are: requests for my time.

In the order they come in, I write these “requests” under (surprise!) the requests heading. It’s really important to include these in the order that they arrived, rather than some ‘priority’ system. If you try to prioritize things, you’ll basically have created just another to-do list, complete with outside pressure and timelines.

I also try to keep my requests as detailed as possible. In Getting Things Done terminology, I include only my “next actions” — the very next actionable thing I could take on any one project. So, instead of “Write Novel” it might be “Create a character sketch for my novel protagonist”. Basically, you want the task to be actionable.

Every time you get another request for your time, it goes on the request list. (The one exception I have here is for appointments — I put those on a calendar because I need the visual reinforcement of timelines.)

3) The Carry-Forward Flags

Now, for each request, go through and fill in the “CF” box. Basically, I use this as an indication of how long a certain request has been sitting on my list.

  • A number represents how many days it’s been carried forward.
  • A “W” means that I’m waiting on someone else before I can do anything with the request
  • An “N” means that the project is brand-new and hasn’t been carried forward at all yet

I’m sure there are other flags that you could come up with, but really those are the only ones I’ve found useful for me.

4) The MIT, APPTS and LHF Fields

MIT means “Most Important Task(s)” and APPTS is short for “Appointments”. This is where any non-negotiable stuff goes. Things that I could get fired for not doing, for example 😉

The MIT box is where I put the one most important thingon the requests list that I must get done on that day. It’s my “keep self honest” box. If there’s something that I would procrastinate on but which I really must do, it goes in this box and is completely non-negotiable.

I typically keep my appointments separate, in a calendar, but you could put them down as requests if you found it more useful.

LHF is shorthand for “Low Hanging Fruit”. What goes in this box is any request that I can get done, fast — generally 30 minutes or less. I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes from getting things done, so I usually try to have at least 2-3 LHF every day.

5) The “Notes” Field (Blank Column on the Left)

This one’s like my mini-daybook, notepad, and call log all in one. It’s place where I can jot ideas as they come to me, phone numbers of people I need to call, details of upcoming projects, sketches of upcoming designs, etc.

Basically, it’s free space that allows me to use my Gather Sheet as my primary collection device in meetings, on the phone, or just when daydreaming.

Getting Stuff Done, Gather Sheet Style

Once you’ve got your gather sheet set up the first time, using it is pretty simple.

  • New requests for your time go at the bottom of the request list, with a CF flag of “N”
  • Every request that gets completed gets crossed off. If there’s a “next step” to a request (for example, after writing a character sketch for the protagonist, I might want to rite one for the antagonist), it gets its own line as a new item
  • MIT gets done first thing — no checking email, or the weather, or anything else until that’s done
  • LHF usually gets done next, since they’re things that I can get done quickly
  • When deciding what to do next, I usually look for items with the highest CF values and work at them. This helps me not procrastinate on things for too long, but gives me the flexibility to work on things as I feel like it

That’s pretty much it. Use it throughout the day as new requests come in, old ones get done, etc.

The last bit of the system is: before the end of the day (be it the work day or before you go to bed), review all that you go done the previous day!

  1. Look at everything you finished! Do any have follow-up items that you should write down as new requests? If so, do that first.
  2. For any request that didn’t get crossed out, ask yourself: do I still want to do this? (or, if it’s a work task, “does this still need to be done?”). If yes, it gets an arrow drawn in under the arrow column. If not, it gets an X.
  3. Flip to a new page, and write tomorrow’s date at the top.
  4. Copy, in the same order that they appear on today’s page, any request that you drew an arrow beside. Increment the CF by one (since it’s been carried forward an additional day).
  5. Look at your calendar and write down any appointments, including time and location.
  6. Decide what your MIT and LHF are for the next day. Write them down. Don’t be afraid to make your MIT something that you want to do, rather than something your boss or significant other wants you to do!

And that’s it. Put it somewhere you’ll see it, first thing — at the kitchen table if you’re using it at home, or maybe on top of your computer keyboard if at work.

The Benefits

Like I said before, the Gather Sheet is what’s worked for me — and I hate to-do lists! The reasons it works are many:

  • It gets stuff out of your head, and on to paper. Very de-stressing!
  • It respects your time, by allowing you to see everything that you’ve got going on at a glance
  • You have the flexibility to cancel items that no longer interest you, or that no longer need to be done
  • On a similar note, you can see at a glance you can see what you’ve been procrastinating on — and either get it done, or leave it behind
  • You can get things done quickly, because you’ve identified things like low hanging fruit and most important tasks
  • It allows you to do things when you want to, rather than based on a priority system that’s imposed on you or arbitrary

What about you? Do you have a time management tool that you like to use? Or maybe you’re trying the Gather Sheet for the first time — how’s it working for you? Feel free to share your insights and ideas for the rest of the readers!

Creative Blocks and Scanner Moments

I commented on Twitter late last week that I have probably a month’s worth of half-finished posts written (or, at least, titles jotted down) for Sententia. The problem is, of course, that they’re not nearly ready for prime time, which means that blog content languishes.

Some of those drafts are mere fragments of ideas, others are posts that I’m sure I could sit down and knock out, and still others started off strong but never moved beyond that point. I’ve hit my block in the road, but when faced with a blank page, couldn’t get beyond the first few thoughts.  In other words… writer’s block.

When I look back at all those post drafts, a fair amount of it is actually pretty terrible (lucky you that I never posted any of it!), in that the writing just never came together. But some of it’s quite good — a good idea, pretty clearly written, just not finished. But that doesn’t explain why I’ve hit this block, or what to do about it!

Creative Blocks

When I look those “terrible” drafts, I can remember the experience of writing them — and for a large proportion of them, I remember it felt like pulling teeth. I had ideas that I wanted to express, but couldn’t find the words to do so.

It’s like a painter who can see a beautiful picture in their minds eye but is frozen by a blank canvas, or a musician who hears fragments of a tune in their head but can’t pull it together into a meaningful melody.

The experience is a pretty common one for most of us: we get to a certain point, and then *boom*. We hit a wall, our perfectionism clicks in, and all of a sudden, we’re facing a creative block.

For some people, this creative block completely prevents them from getting started. That great idea vanishes when you’re faced with a blank page. For others, you’ll get all fired up about an idea, maybe even get part-way in, but then all of a sudden, you find yourself stuck.

The natural response when you creative blocks is to get frustrated. “Why can’t I get this ou! It’s on the tip of my tongue, it’s a great idea, but everything I write just sounds wrong!”

Beating Back the Creative Blocks

The most common advice for overcoming a creative block is to just persist. Keep on going, and eventually, you’ll find work through that blockage and find your voice again. For writers, it’s “write a terrible first draft; you can rewrite or edit it later.” For artists, it’s “just start sketching and see what comes out.” For musicians, it’s “focus on the music, let the notes come as they will.”

That’s good advice, and very often, it works. But not always. That advice works if you’re having momentum problems. It’s hard to get started and get into flow. But if you just jump in, you’ll get into flow soon enough.

But beyond the common momentum problem, there are other factors that can come into play as well:

High Expectations - Are you expecting too much of yourself? When I write, I do this all the time. I want my first draft to be a perfect expression of what I’m trying to say. 

Overcoming High Expectations: Realizing that not every project has to be totally perfect is easier said than done. All of us have a perfectionist streak in us, so the key is to make it work to our advantage rather than holding us back. Ask yourself, “How perfect does this have to be? Is this a project that requires 100% perfection, or maybe only 50%? 20%?” 

Distractions – The single-biggest flow killer is external distractions. If it’s lunch break and you’re trying to create, you won’t get into flow if your cubicle neighbor’s phone is ringing off the hook.

Overcoming Distractions: I find myself more distracted when I’m trying to get my creative work done ‘whenever I can’. Whenever I can turns into wherever I can, and that means I’m usually not in an optimal place to get things done. The key is to set aside a time and a space for whatever is important — a time and a space that you can control. Then, lock the door, turn off the e-mail, and enjoy your undistractedness.

Boreout – This one may seem counter-intuitive at first: if you have too little to do, it can be hard to get on a roll and actually do something. The key thing is not that you’re lazy, but that you’ve tried to cope with boredom in ways that sap your momentum. (See Wikipedia:Boreout and Forget Burnout, Boreout is the new office disease for more).

Overcoming Boreout: The best thing, of course, would be to avoid the boredom coping strategies that lead to boreout in the first place. Things like setting little challenges to get things done as quickly as possible can keep your momentum going and help you avoid dragging out smaller tasks. If you’re already suffering from boreout, the key is to get moving again (like the momentum example given at the very top) — but start small. Pick something you’ve wanted to work on or have thought about trying. Set a stopwatch and work on it for 5 minutes. Take a break, then do five more minutes. After a few repetitions, bump it up to 10 minutes. And so on, and so forth.  You’ll have your momentum back in no time.

Moving On – And finally, we come to the classic scanner syndrome. You have no lack of ideas — in fact, they come more rapidly than you can handle — but you never seem to want to bring them to a conclusion. People call you a dilettante, a dabbler, or a jack-of-all-trades.  (Read this excerpt from Refuse to Choose to see if you’re a scanner!)

Overcoming Moving On: The trick to this one is that … well … there is no trick. The need to move on isn’t something you overcome, it’s something you learn to identify and embrace. If you are a scanenr and have reached your “finish point,” the worst thing you can do is just keep going. It’s far better to leave something incomplete than to force yourself to live a miserable existance (and then beat yourself up in the process). The key is to know when you’re experiencing a creative block, and when you’re experiencing a scanner moment.

Embracing the Scanner Moments

That last point — moving on and the ‘scanner moment’ is worth talking a bit more about. When I look at those draft posts I have sitting in my blog publishing area, I see another kind of post that I didn’t mention before. Those are the ones that I was initially really passionate about.

I’ve got loads of ideas for posts that are half-finished because all of a sudden, they just didn’t seem that interesting any more. Whether I’ve started an outline or even written up a first draft, going back to that idea and finishing it off would feel like revisiting yesterday’s dinner. I’ve reached my finishing point, and no amount of self-discipline will bring back that initial passion for an idea.

I’ve recently started re-reading Refuse to Choose to help me tackle this problem, and came across something of an epiphany. In a section describing scanner daybooks (the ultimate scanner tool which — I am almost ashamed to admit — I haven’t gotten around to using. Yet!), Barbara talks about the importance of running with your ideas and letting them flow:

Always try to make your descriptions as complete as possible so that if you disappeared and a stranger found this description, she’d be able to complete the project. Why? Because otherwise, once the passion wears off, you’ll forget why you were so excited. Let your thoughts spill out on the page as they come to you, instead of making a list or an outline you won’t understand or appreciate later.

You’ll notice that the solution here is a combination of the creative blocks techniques listed above — you want to move on when you’re ready, but before that point, make sure you capture whatever it is that has caught your eye. Your best bet is still:

  • When the urge strikes, cut yourself some slack on the perfectionism and realize that you’re just following your natural instincts to be a scanner!
  • Give yourself a time and a space to pursue your many passions, without constant interruption. Then, when you’re done, go back to the crazy life with all its distractions. Even 5 minutes here and there can make a huge difference in your level of personal fulfillment.
  • Follow your passions — yes, that’s plural! A scanner is particularly at risk for boreout because we tend to reach our ‘finish’ point much sooner than others. If you try to focus on just one thing at a time, you will suffer from boreout. If, instead, you honor your passions and ideas (even just by writing them down) you not only will feel more fulfilled, but you also won’t get bored.
  • And finally, take advantage of those moments when your passion is in full force. Love it, explore it, write it down in depth. And when the moment passes, leave it behind. It’s the best thing for you.

In other words, as a scanner, you can approach your creative blocks in much the same way as everyone else. You may just do it a bit more rapidly.

Weekly Reads: Free Time Edition

If you’ve been following the posts the past week or so, you will no doubt have noticed that I’ve republished a number of articles from the old Sententia in commemoration of the Chinese New Year. There will be two more articles yet to come in the series, which I suppose is good, because as of yesterday my computer is in for repairs, and so I’ll be somewhat out of commission.

However, never fear; I’ve got a fair number of posts queued up, and I do still have internet access (though somewhat more limited) at home, so the posts should be able to keep on rolling. Comment moderation, etc. will be a bit slower, but I’ll try to keep up on that as well.

Now, the real question is… what will I do with all the extra time I’ll have, not being able to spend my evenings online? It’s way too cold to be spending much time outside… I do have some books I’ll continue reading, but I’m open to other ideas, too! Feel free to leave a comment if you have some suggestions for me…

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments on this site are moderated, especially if they contain links, so if it doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months (from Tim Ferriss). I really enjoy language learning, and seem to also have an aptitude for it. Ferriss’ article focuses on applying Pareto’s principle (AKA the 80/20 principle) to language learning, a technique I found very valuable when I studied Latin in University. Students of Latin, check out Anne Mahoney’s list of 1000 Essential Latin Words. The first 250 words make up 50% of the vocabulary you’ll need to know; if you spend some time familiarizing yourself with the list, you’ll find it that much easier to comprehend texts without running to your dictionary every other second. (Then again, I still prefer the natural language method for learning languages, but that’s another topic for another day.)

Wrapping Your Head Around the Project (from LiveDev). I run into this situation often at work: I get really into a project, work on it all day, but am not able to wrap it up before it’s time to go home. So I leave it for the next day — at which point, I just can’t seem to get back into it. Glen talks about this problem — and offers some techniques for getting past it — in this interesting article from LifeDev.

Guided Meditation as a Tool for Speaking with Spirit Guides (from Erin Pavlina). I can remember two times in my life that I’ve participated in a guided meditation, although until reading this article by renowned medium Erin Pavlina, I never really considered it as meditation. Regardless of your aims in mediation — maybe you want to listen to your inner voice, speak with spirit guides, talk to your future self, or something completely different — Pavlina gives some really practical tips to get you on your way.

Communication Concepts

So You Want To Be An Interaction Designer (from Cooper) and So You Want to Be an Interaction Designer 2006 (from AdaptivePath). How had I not heard of Interaction Design (commonly abbreviated IxD) before this week? There is just so much in these two articles that resonates with me and calls to something within me. Is this another fleeting passion of my scanner-ness? Who cares, it sounds fascinating, and I think I’m going to spend some time checking it out. Any Interaction Designers have some favorite introductory books they’d like to recommend?

Six Ways to Get People to Say “Yes” (from CopyBlogger). No, it’s not about Jedi-mind-tricks, although the effect can be almost the same. Whether you’re in marketing and sales or not, there’s huge value in learning the fine art of persuasion. The key is to show people what’s in it for them — and in this article, Dean Rieck gives six great tips on how to do just that.

Choosing a Good Chart (from The Extreme Presentation(tm) Method). If you’re at all involved with data visualization — maybe you have to generate reports for your management at work, for example — you may be used to just choosing charts more or less at random. “Pie Chart? Nah, did that last time. Let’s do a bar chart this time!” But did you know there’s a rhyme and reason to why (and when) you should use different chart types? Check out this easy reference guide whenever you need a quick reminder of what’s what.

Bonus Material

6 Words That Make Your Resume Suck (from SquawkFox). Layoffs are really starting to hit a lot of people hard. If you want to get a jump on the competition, check out this fantastic piece from SquawkFox. Often we’re told to put specifics on our resumes, but its in the examples that this article really shines. Even if you’re confident of your job security, it never hurts to keep your resume up-to-date; it saves a lot of time if you put in updates as they happen, rather than doing one major overhaul every several years!

Company Man – Jim Lahey reveals his recipe for no-knead pizza dough (from TastingTable). Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread cause a firestorm of breadbaking when it showed up in the New York Times a couple of years ago — and it’s what got me into my love of baking. Now, Lahey’s back with a recipe for no-knead pizza dough. I haven’t tried his recipe yet (I love my current kneaded version, from Bertinet’s fabulous book Dough — if you enjoy baking and/or eating fresh bread, this book is a real winner) but if its anything like the original No-Knead Bread, it will be a winner.

How to Overcome Boredom

Last week at work, I was experiencing a whole bunch of boredom.  The project I was working on amounted to little more than copying and pasting, and changing dates on documents to reflect that it is now January 2009, not September 2008.

83/365  painfully boring day

photo by riot jane

At first, I was able to keep myself engaged by making a game of it — how quickly can I get this document fixed? How many can I do in an hour? But that only lasted so long before I was avoiding checking my email, and could barely stand to look at the (seemingly ever-growing) pile of updates yet to do.

Fast-forward to today, and boredom seemed like a thing from the very distant past. I was in the groove, having a lot of fun working on a project and being excited seeing it all come together. I still wasn’t checking e-mail, but this time it was because I was so into what I was doing.

So what was the difference? What exactly is it that makes us bored vs. not-bored? As we’ll discover, the key is to understand challenge and skill — and find which one is your anti-boredom medicine.

Defining Boredom

I’m a firm believer that understanding something (like boredom) can make a big difference when it comes to overcoming it. So let’s start there.

Most of us would probably define boredom something like how the dictionary does:

The feeling of being bored by something tedious 

Oh so helpful, right? So, as I was taught when in elementary school, when a definition in the dictionary doesn’t help, try looking up other words from the definition. Which leads us to

Bored, adj. To make weary by being dull, repetitive, or tedious

Well, now we’re getting somewhere. It may not be the world’s most detailed definition, but it is slightly more insightful. At the very least, the definition(s) match our emotional experience of boredom: the feeling of tedium, the feeling of being weary because of experiencing dullness and repetitiveness (repetitiveness… repetitiveness…)

But what a dictionary definition doesn’t tell us is what boredom actually is — it only tells us how we experience it. And while it might give us a bit of a glimpse into why we get bored, it doesn’t really help us all that much beyond what we already knew: we get bored because we’re doing boring things.

What Boredom Isn’t

Another technique we can use to understand what boredom is and where it comes from is to look at what it’s like when we aren’t bored.

For example, we could say that we’re not bored when we’re totally engaged with something, or when we’re curious and captivated, or when we’re being challenged. This would imply that boredom is characterized by a lack of engagement, challenge and/or curiosity. And this makes intuitive sense: it’s impossible to feel simultaneously bored out of your skull and completely engaged and interested in something.

This also aligns with research done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a noted psychologist from Claremont Graduate University. I recently re-watched his TED Talk on Flow (which is super-interesting; I may write a post about it!); while the talk itself is about the state of Flow (ie. the aforementioned complete engagement) you can learn alot about boredom from it, too.

Boredom as Low Challenge, Low Skill

stages-of-flow

According to Csikszentmihalyi, there is a relationship between how you feel doing something (e.g. bored, relaxed, in control), how much you’re being challenged, and how much of your skill level you’re needing to do that task.

Let’s skip the “Flow” side of this diagram for now, which is where most people focus, and instead look to the topic at hand: boredom.

As shown in this diagram, Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that we tend to experience boredom when we are engaged in non-challenging tasks which use some of our skills, but not a lot. That matches up with our earlier definitions, in that boredom hits when we’re doing things that are dull and non-challenging.

Beating Boredom By Increasing Challenge

What’s more interesting, though, is that this diagram doesn’t just tell us what boredom is, it also tells us how we become bored — and in doing so, it gives us hints about how to get “un-bored”.

In short, if boredom occurs when we aren’t challenged and aren’t really using our skills, then the opposite ought to be true. Increase the challenge and amount of your skill you’re using, and you’ll move out of boredom.

Note, however, that just increasing the challenge on its own isn’t a guarantee that you’ll beat boredom and get into a better space; if I wanted to program a complex application, which would raise the level of challenge. Now, I am a competent programmer, but it’s been a while since I’ve written any serious code. In other words, it may be high challenge, but the skill level it would require is way beyond where I’m at — I’d feel worried about my ability to complete the task, since I perceive my skill level was far below what it needed to be.

So while an obvious key to moving out of boredom is to increase the challenge — with the added caviat that we also need to make sure that we have the skills to handle the new challenge.

Moving to New Skills

But since challenge and skill are related, it really ought to work both ways, even if this isn’t obvious. Let’s take the programming language example — what would happen if I decided to learn a programming language? By doing this, I am not so much changing the challenge level (as I’m a fairly competent programmer, and have a good understanding of programming languages) as changing the skill level involved.

In other words, just like you can overcome boredom by adjusting how challenged you are, you can also overcome boredom by adjusting the skills you’re using. Now obviously, changing skill and challenge levels are related: if you’re pushing yourself to acquire new skills, you’re creating an inherent challenge. But each individual will have different ways that work better for them.

Which Works Better For You?

Imagine what you would do in this situation: if you were totally bored with your current job, which approach would you be more likely to take to better your situation? All things being equal, would you try to find a new job in the same field, or would you try to change career directions entirely?

There’s nothing wrong with either direction — both will meet the same need and will help you move out of boredom — but one will feel intuitively more natural than the other. If you’d try to find a new job in the same field, you’re more challenge-driven. If, on the other hand, you’d rather change fields altogether, you’re more skills-driven.

Either way, that’s your anti-boredom medicine. Simply by increasing challenge or adjusting skill requirements, you can beat boredom.