168 Hours

How do you spend most of your time? If you’re like me, your immediate response is probably one of “working” or “sleeping”.

Is that really accurate, though?

24*7=168

In each week, there are  168 hours. Just for fun, I did some back-of-the-napkin type accounting of how I spend my time. I’d encourage you to do the same.

Of those 168 hours, I found that I personally spend approximately:

  • 45 working, commuting to or from work, and eating lunch at work
  • 60 sleeping
  • 12 cooking and eating when not at work

Which leaves about 51 hours every week for “other stuff”. That’s more time than I spend sleeping, and more time than I spend working. But for some reason, it never registered for me.

Catching the Time

And, if you’re like me, you might just look at your own numbers and say “my God, where is all that time going? What am I doing with it all? And what do I have to show for it?”

Here’s the thing. Every week, we all have 168 hours to do with whatever we want. That could be working, eating, sleeping, reading, exploring, exercising… whatever.

This is especially good news for scanners. That’s a lot of time to spend exploring your various interests. When I realized how much time I had, even apart from work and sleeping, I realized that I could pick ten different activities or interests, and spend 5 hours on each of them, every week.

Making the Time

Now that’s all well and good, but for as much as the numbers say I have that much time, I can’t remember the last time I spent 5 hours a week on something — never mind on ten somethings.

As I was re-reading The 4-Hour Workweek last week, I realized why. In the book, Tim Ferriss discusses Parkinson’s Law, which states

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

In other words, I spend 45 hours a week doing things related to work, and my work tends to fill that time (regardless of how much of it is really just shuffling paperwork around). I spend 60 hours sleeping, because that’s how much time is between going to bed and my alarm. I spend 12 hours cooking and eating because I eat fast and J does a lot of the cooking 😉

But I spend 51 hours “doing nothing” because that’s the amount of time allotted to “doing nothing.”

Now, we all need time to do nothing — to chill, relax, whatever. But I probably don’t need 51 hours worth.

Choosing Your Big Rocks

There’s a popular metaphor for time management, made famous by Stephen Covey. There are many variations on the story (and mathematicians will recognize this as a version of the Knapsack problem), but the gist of all of them is this:

Take a glass jar, a pile of rocks, a pile of pebbles, a pile of sand, and a pile of water. How can you fit the most of everything into the jar?

If you start by filling the jar with water or sand, and you won’t be able to fit anything else in. All you get is water or sand.

If you start with the pebbles, and then add water or sand, you’ll be able to get more in because the water or sand will creep in around the pebbles. But you won’t be able to fit in any big rocks.

The key is to fill the jar with the biggest rocks first. Then add pebbles, shake up the jar, and let them settle in the cracks. Then add the sand, and finally the water.

When all is said and done, you’ll have a very full jar — filled with the most of everything.

Jars of 168

If the metaphor isn’t already obvious, the meaning is simply this:

We each have week-sized jars that hold 168 hours. We can fill our time with one or two large rocks (work and sleep), one or two pebbles (eating) and then fill the rest up with water and sand (doing nothing).

And while the week will be full, it won’t have as much in it of the things we would want — like going for walks, reading books or catching up with friends. It will seem like there’s no time for doing what you want.

But if you first establish what you want your big rocks to be, and make time for them first, you’ll be able to fit them in. Parkinson’s Law will take care of the rest.

Note: for most of us, there are a couple of big rocks that seem fixed in size and importance: work and sleep. But there’s almost always room for one or two more — or, if you’re a scanner, you may not need more big rocks, but instead just focus on filling up your jar with lots of pebbles (small projects) before you add the sand and water. And maybe in the future, I’ll also write about some ways that people have been able to shrink the size of those biggest two rocks.

Making the Numbers Work for You

Take five minutes now, and figure out what your weekly breakdown is. Determine how much time you have, each week, to spend on things that you never seem to have the time for. Then make the time — book it off with yourself — and start making room for those pebbles and rocks.

Your numbers might be less (you may have kids, or work longer days, or have a longer commute), but the key is to realize that you do have time. We all have exactly the same amount, every week, to spend how we will. It’s our choice how we fill our jars and our hours.

What are you doing with your 168 hours?

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.

Your Power, Your Responsibility

Well, it’s official. My scanner-ness has been kicking in full-force lately (as is probably evidenced by the slight slowdown in posts here; although being sick has certainly played a part).

Part of how being a scanner manifests in myself is changing modes of expression. I’ll go through periods where all I want to do is write, write, write. Other times, it’s one — or more — of verbal communication, drawing, music, or just plain experiencing (also known as ‘chilling’).

The past few days, maybe even weeks, it’s the ‘chilling’ phase that I’ve been finding myself drawn to. Part of that is likely due to a lot of changes in my personal life (work, family, etc.), which have taken up a lot of my energy.

Part of it is possibly due to the rediculous weather we’ve been having: it’s harder to feel ‘up’ when you keep getting teased with nice weather, then slammed with snow. And part of it is maybe due to the fact that I’ve started playing World of Warcraft again, which is just plain a good way to take some time and chill. 😉

Modes of Expression or Modes of Procrastination?

Sometimes, though, I wonder if these modes of expression are really aspects of my scanner personality, or if they’re signs of laziness and procrastination. Don’t feel like writing? Let’s pick up a paintbrush instead.

As I was reflecting on this issue, I realized that — of all my modes of expression — writing is the one that causes me the most difficulty in this area. It’s the one that’s hardest for me to look at as purely a ‘mode of expression’ — I very naturally slip into thinking of it as ‘work’. Maybe it’s because of all those papers I wrote in school, or the fact that usually when I write, it’s because I made a commitment to do so.

The challenge, it would appear, is not so much about the mode of expression but the freedom I feel I have to make the choice. In other words, as soon as I feel that I am being restricted, I push back. The ability to make the choice isn’t just a luxury for me as a scanner, but a necessity.

Power to Choose

In the past, I usually have thought of scanners as being paralyzed by having too many options in front of them; too many interests and too many passions to be able to choose between them. If you had asked me to describe the #1 problem I encountered as a scanner, that’s exactly what I would have told you.

But there’s more to it than that.

Another part of the classic scanner dilemma is having the flexibility and freedom to follow whichever passion calls at the time. It’s not just about being overwhelmed by having too many choices; it’s also about being able to make conscious choices to exercise those passions.

Scanners, by nature, like to move freely between their passions.  But sometimes, restrictions on those passions make a scanner feel trapped and constrained. This trapped feeling does not have to be just ‘par for the course’ for scanners.

Learning by Doing

Years ago, when I was working on my Religious Studies honours thesis, I found myself being drawn down by some serious apathy. I didn’t care to do anything, and the more I tried to force myself to ‘behave’, the harder I found myself resisting. I tried setting deadlines, scheduling my time, getting others to hold me accountable, but all I got was feelings of resentment and apathy.

What I finally realized is that my apathy, resentment and other negative feelings were a direct result of one thing: I had been giving away my power. As soon as I took back my power, and decided that I had the ultimate responsibility to make choices that would be satisfying.

I remember that I had chosen to write a thesis because I enjoyed the subject. I started actively choosing when to work on my writing. I focused on choosing what I was doing in the moment, taking responsibility for what I was doing in the moment. In doing so, I was able to choose those things which would make me happy — simply by exerting my own power.

Great Power, Great Responsibility

In the SpiderMan universe, we are frequently presented with the idea that ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ It’s a true statement in many ways, but I think it’s actually quite misunderstood. A lot of people take the saying at face value — that there are some of us that have greater power, and that those who do also have greater responsibility.

But here’s the trick. We all have great power. It is not something that ‘comes’, it’s something that we’re born with. We all have the great power to take control of our lives, to make our own choices, and to live according to our own needs, passions and desires.

What that means is that ultimately, the buck stops here. If we are the ones responsible for our current situations, then we must also take the responsibility to change them if we aren’t happy.

If I was unhappy being trapped by the requirement to sit and write my thesis at time X or Y each day, it was my responsibility to do something about it. My choices were still many: I could choose to ‘suck it up and just get it done’, I could choose to write only when it interested me, I could choose to say ‘screw this, I’m not interested’.

But the key was to realize that I was the active chooser, the one with the ultimate responsibility to make a choice that would dignify and uplift my self.

The Scanner Lesson

So, taking this back to the question I posed earlier: is the desire to drop one thing and move onto another completely a scanner personality trait, or is it also a function of procrastination and laziness? The first one is a good thing — it just means you’re exploring new avenues and pursuing new interests. The second one isn’t something we usually like to see in ourselves.

The answer is, it can be either one. Knowing the difference between the two is where the trick comes in, and it really is just a matter of asking yourself two simple questions:

  1. How am I feeling about moving to the next thing? (Am I feeling good about where I’m coming from and where I’m headed to next?)
  2. Am I moving to the next thing because I want to or because I’m supposed to? (Am I moving on to the next thing because I am ready to, or because I’m not actively choosing to exercise my power?)

The lesson, of course, is true for scanners and non-scanners alike. No matter what your personality (and unless you are a child) you are still the decision maker in your life. That means that whatever choices you make are yours to live by. It is your power, and therefore, your great responsibility.

Weekly Reads: Idea Party Edition

Last Thursday, the twitterverse was abuzz (atwit? atweet?) with Barbara Sher’s marathon Idea Party.  For twelve straight hours, folks from around the world shared their wishes and obstacles, and received tonnes of suggestions in return.

Sometimes, it even went beyond suggestions and into the realm of action. For example, a tech writer with experience in resume writting was looking for work, and was paired with a jobseeker looking for a tech resume update.

If you want to revisit the madness of the IdeaParty, there’s a massive 250-page PDF of the conversation available — you’ll want to read it from bottom to top. Or, if you want to get in on the party, there will be another one this coming Thursday from noon until midnight (all times Eastern). Just keep an eye on the Twitter hash tag #ideaparty.

It’s all leading up to the massive March 24th Idea Party bash to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want. It’s a fantastic book — if you haven’t already read it, you can do so for free online, or get a copy at your local library. You can also purchase the book through Amazon (note: that’s an affiliate link, so if you purchase the book via that link, I’ll get a very small cut).

If you’re curious about what exactly an Idea Party is, or how you can get involved, be sure to check out the free eBook that Barbara put together to explain the concept.

Also, if you’re a scanner, note that time is getting short for you to contribute to the first Scanner Blog Carnival. Details are in this post.


On an unrelated note, I’m still looking for more feedback on these Weekly Reads posts. Enter your vote below, and shape the future of Sententia. Wow… that sounded a lot more dramatic that I intended.

 

[polldaddy poll=”1439550″]

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 containing multiple links are flagged for moderation, so if your note doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

Don’t Try to Dodge the Recession with Grad School and Seven Reasons Why Graduate School is Outdated (from Penelope Trunk). It used to be common thought that if you lost your job and couldn’t get another one right away, the next natural step was to go back to school. While there certainly are some cases in which that’s still good advice, in classic Brazen Careerist style, Trunk gives loads of reasons to reconsider the grad school path.

How to Mitigate the Urgent to Focus on the Important (from Harvard Business Publishing). Repeat after me: urgent and important are not the same thing. Urgent and important are not the same thing. Got it? Good. Now, the question is how to actually get to the important without the urgent taking up all your time. Fortunately, Gina Trapani of Lifehacker fame has some tips. My favorite? Schedule a non-negotiable 20-minute meeting with yourself every week.

Steps Towards a More Sustainable Life of Less (from Zen Habits). I am becoming more and more aware of how much stuff is around me all the time. Not just physical stuff, but mental and emotional too. Sometimes, I’ll be watching a TV show that shows a “simpler life” (the real thing, not the Paris Hilton TV disaster) and find myself pining after that way of life. Fortunately, there are small steps that we can take to simplify our day-to-day, and this great article from Zen Habits is a good place to start.

For Your Reference

How to Make Butter (from Bay Area Bites). Ever since reading In Defense of Food, I’ve not been able to look at margarine the same way. If you’re an all butter, all the time type person too, you may want to check this article out. No churning needed, just some heavy cream and a mixer. As a nice side effect, you get buttermilk for baking with, too!

Wishcraft Online (by Barbara Sher). I mentioned it above, but it’s worth another mention. Wishcraft is one of the most influential books I think I’ve ever read. For 30 years, it’s been doing exactly what the subtitle promises: helping you get exactly what you want out of life. This isn’t just some feel-good, airy-fairy but ultimately unrealistic book, either. Sher tells it like it is, and makes you believe that dreams really can come true.

The Private Eye Guide to Self-Discovery

If you’re like me, you’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out who, exactly, you are. What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you enjoy doing? What are your passions? Who are you, anyway?

There are dozens of different ways you can approach this question. You can introspect and examine your life until you come up with an answer. You can ask those around you for their impressions. You can find answers in religion or culture. You can take any number of quizzes to give you your personality types.

Today I want to share with you a fun way to start unlocking some of that self-discovery: 30 minutes as a Private Eye.

The Private Eye Approach

One of the most fun and impactful ways that I’ve found to discover things about yourself is to put on your detective cap and visually investigate the world you’ve created. 

The basic idea for this private eye approach to self-discovery is based on the idea that the spaces we create around us are external representations of our inner selves.

Now, if that sounds kind of esoteric and wierd, stick with me for a moment — it’s actually based on research done by psychologist Samuel Gosling. Gosling did an experiment to determine whether you could learn as much about a complete stranger by spending 15 minutes in the place where they live, as you could by being that same person’s close friend.

The results were remarkable — in many cases, 15 minutes was enough for a complete stranger to come up with a more accurate survey of the person than their friends had been able to provide.

Part of the reason is that we tend to put on faces for those around us. We act in certain ways, disguising our “true nature” (often unintentionally) because we want to make a certain impression. But when we think no one is looking, or when allow our subconscious to manifest itself, a very different picture may arise.

(Thin-)Slice Of Life

The Private Eye exercise is intended to get you looking at your life from a different angle and a fresh perspective.

Your initial impressions can give you accurate insight, even when you only examine something from an abstracted perspective or for a very brief period of time. It’s a technique known as ‘thin-slicing’, and as I mentioned above, research shows that it’s an incredibly accurate way of gathering information and making decisions.

Malcolm Gladwell’s describes some of this research in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Here’s a quote from that book:

Gosling says, for example, that a person’s bedroom gives three kinds of clues to his or her personality. There are, first of all, identity claims, which are deliberate expressions about how we would like to be seen by the world… Then ther is behavioral residue, which is defined as the inadvertent clues we leave behind… Finally, there are thoughts and feelings regulators, which are changes we make to our personal spaces to affect the way we feel when we inhabit them…

Just as important, though, is the information you don’t have when you look through someone’s belongings. What you avoid when you don’t meet someone face to face are all the confusing and complicated and ultimately irrelevant pieces of information that can screw up your judgement.

In other words, by simply taking in all the information and clues that you’ve created in an environment, even a complete stranger can get an astonishingly accurate picture of who you really are — a potentially more accurate picture than if they were to meet you in person.

Pick Your Spots

You’ll need to determine a space that you will ‘snoop around’ in. Bedrooms are good for this, although if you didn’t exactly have a say in designing the room, it may not be as revealing. In general, you want to identify a space that you spend a lot of time in.

It also needs to be a space that you’ve had an impact on — be it the magazine you were reading, the bookshelf you organized, or the bowl you didn’t take back to the kitchen after dessert last night. And it should be a space that you’re in fairly frequently. Daily, or even multiple times a day, is best.

For some people, a home office is a good option. Even the cubicle you call your own at work can be suitable, so long as when you look around it,  you can see that you’ve had an impact on the space. It is important to choose as large a space as possible — for example, don’t just choose the kitchen table, but instead, focus on the whole room.

Really, you only need to identify one space, but if you’re feeling really ambitious, you can do any number of rooms. It can be a good way to spend a lazy afternoon or evening.

Go Under Cover

You may wonder how exactly this space can possibly tell you anything about yourself that you don’t already know. After all, you have already met yourself in person (many times!) and you look at your personal space every day.

The trick is to step back, remove your ‘self’ from the process, and try to look at your surroundings abstractly.

Remember when you were a kid, and you’d play dress up? You’d put on a certain shirt, or hat, or funny glasses with nose attached, and all of a sudden, it was like you were someone else. Actors and actresses experience this too — as they sit in the makeup chair or in costuming, they feel themselves becoming someone else.

This is the experience we want to aim for, in order to look at the space around ourselves with new eyes. It may seem strange that I’m suggesting using detachment from your authentic self as a means to help you find your authentic self, but trust me — it works. And it’s only temporary.

A quick Google search will reveal a number of ways that you can get into character. One technique is to put on an awful hat, pair of reading glasses (pop out the lenses), trench coat and even a pipe if you have one. It can be a fun afternoon to just stop by a thrift store and see what you can find. As a bonus, you’ll have your next Hallowe’en costume all ready to go!

Even if you don’t want to spend the money, feel goofy for playing dress up, or just want to investigate a space that isn’t in the privacy of your own home, there are other non-dress-up options as well. An effective solution is simply to sit, close your eyes, and let your imagination go. Set yourself in a dusty private eye’s office (or however you imagine a PI might work), and spend about 5 minutes mentally exploring the space.

Snoop Around and Take Notes

However you do it, the key is to get into character as much as possible. Become a detective, whose mission it is to discover hidden secrets about whomever lives or works in this space.

Like any good detective, you’ll want to make sure you have a notepad handy to record your findings. I find a digital camera useful, too, since it allows me to capture visual reminders that I can reflect on later, but this certainly isn’t a necessity.

Initially, just make an initial pass through the space — no more than 10 minutes. Look around, under, in, and through. Snoop around, and just try to soak in as much information as you can, taking notes on anything that catches your eye, or any patterns that you identify.

Once you’ve made your way around the room, leave the space and write down your overall impressions. Do this in the third person — “the person who lives here …” — as this will make it easier to keep yourself removed.

Map Your Mind

The last step to getting your space to give up its secrets is to go abstract, and make a map. Barbara Sher refers to this as a Living Quarters Map.

Start by sketching a rough floor plan of your space (be it a whole house or just a single room). Then, walk through your space again. This time, look specifically for projects that you’ve been involved with.

These projects may be things you’ve completed, they may be things you haven’t completed. They may even be projects that you never actually started. The key is to identify any thing in your space that reflects one of your actual or intended projects.

For each project you find, mark it on your map. Take a picture if you’ve still got your camera handy. Don’t dwell on the state of the project, just note that it was important to you at one point, write down a few details, mark it on your map, and move on. The key is to remain in your detached, detective mindset.

Review the Evidence

When all is said and your map is done, put it aside. Give yourself a mental break and leave it for a day or two. After you’ve given it some time, but your detective hat back on, and review your map again.

Do you see any patterns? Maybe you’ll find that in every room, you had a variety of magazines and books scattered about. Maybe you’ll see photos of friends and family. Maybe it will be little trinkets always organized decoratively into little groupings.

Now — look at your map plus all the notes you took on your initial pass through the room. What matches up? By taking these two aspects and putting them together, often even stronger patterns will emerge. Sometimes, the exact opposite will happen, and you’ll see completely opposite sides of your character emerging.

Render Your Verdict

Regardless of what you find, each pattern you find will give you an insight into your interests, desires and passions.

Note that each of those are in the plural for a reason: interests, desires, passions. In all likelihood, you will find a multitude of patterns emerging. This is a good thing. It’s important to not try to artificially boil your interests down into one overriding theme.

If a single, overriding theme emerges, that’s fine, but it’s not necessary (and it honestly isn’t all that common). You are the sum total of all  of your passions. You are a complex person, with complex interests, desires and passions.