A warning: this post will perhaps come off as excessively self-indulgent: I’m only doing it because, within the last week, two different people asked me about this in person. (I’m happy to do more posts like this if y’all actually find them interesting, though.)

Occasionally, a friend of mine asks me how I get stuff done; occasionally, people even go so far as to ask me how much sleep I get. (The answer, by the way: if I get less than 8 hours a night, I feel lousy/unproductive the next day, so I try to avoid that; I try to get significantly more on at least one weekend morning, though Zippy sometimes has strong opinions that prevent that.) These are typically people who know me in a work/programming context, but who also read this blog and see me yammering away about video games, learning Japanese, the occasional book, and what not.

The short version:

  1. At any time, figure out what you most want to do, and do it.
  2. Reflect on your choice from step 1.
  3. Repeat the above on various levels of scale: every minute, every hour, every day, every week, every few months, every year or two, with your reflections about one level of scale informing your actions at a higher level of scale.

This is fairly obvious, but not quite as banal as it looks. We all have many more things that we’d like to do than hours in the day (books to read, video games to play (especially right now!), programming languages to learn, …); I get the impression that I get less frustrated by this than many people, and apparently to some people I convey the impression of actually managing to do more things than the norm. (Also of a wider variety than the norm, about which see more below.)

The single technique that I find most useful to managing my frustration is the first tip above. Sure, I have a zillion books I’d like to read, a zillion games I’d like to play. I realize, however, that at any given instant, my eyes are only going to be passing over the text of at most one of those books, or my hands are going to be holding a controller managing at most one of those games. And I realize this not just at an intellectual level: my brain is actually pretty much at peace with that concept, and I expect that most of our brains are.

So, while there is part of my brain that says “but I really wish I knew Erlang!”, I have a technique that I can use to quiet that part of my brain. I ask it: “great; do you want me to stop what I’m doing right now and go learn Erlang?” If the answer is yes (which it hasn’t been so far, no guarantees about next week), then, fine, I’ll go and start learning Erlang! If the answer is no, then that’s enough to make that part of my brain shut up for a while.

It’s not enough to make that part of my brain shut up indefinitely, of course. This is where the reflective part comes in. (Mindfulness might be a term worth mentioning around here, too.) I have various deep-seated desires, many things that are important to me, centers in my life that I want to cherish and nourish. And whatever action I choose at any given time is unlikely to nourish most of those. (Though there’s something to be said for gravitating towards actions which nourish several of them at once; fortunately, this turns out to be possible more frequently than one might think.)

So, after doing that thing for a little while, I ask: is this still what I most want to do? In what ways do I feel better now, in what ways do I feel worse? This lets me decide what to do next; on a deeper level, it also lets me tune my sense for what I want to do at any given moment, to help me tell apart actions that will satisfy a superficial need from those that will satisfy a deeper need. (At any given time, I may choose to satisfy one or the other type of need, I don’t claim to always be fulfilling my deepest needs, but it’s useful to be aware which one of them I’m doing.)

And it’s also useful for feedback into higher-order planning. So far, I’ve talked about making choices at a minute-to-minute level, but letting myself be buffeted around in a brownian motion by those desires isn’t likely to create a satisfying life. So I need to step up a level and think about I want to be doing over a longer period of time.

Here, the flavor is somewhat different: if I’m choosing actions that will, for example, take place over a week, then I probably shouldn’t choose just one action: I should (tentatively) choose several actions that, in aggregate, sound like how I most want to spend my time over the next week. On the non-work-related side of my life, this might consist of picking a book or two to read, a couple of games to be playing through, and renewing my active choice of ongoing actions in other areas that are important to me (hanging out with Liesl and Miranda, learning Japanese, etc.). But this isn’t an unlimited set: it’s a conscious choice of a finite collection of items, a collection that, based on my past experience, I should be able to do over the next week and be happy doing so. (And it’s very important to leave in enough slack so that I can open myself up to surprises about what I most want to do on a smaller time scale.)

And then I should reflect on all of that, and occasionally think about this on still larger scales: what sort of parent/husband/colleague/friend do I want to be, where do I want my career to go, what are the key centers in my personal life, do I want to grow some of them, shrink some of them, transition some of them from personal life to work life or vice-versa?

So that’s the strategy. The details of how one might go about this, of course, vary wildly from person to person. In particular, I think part of the reason why people asked me about this last week has to do with a couple of my personal quirks that give people an inaccurate impression of me:

  • I pursue a wide range of activities in less depth instead of a narrow range in more depth.
  • One of the centers that’s important to me is the “public intellectual” one, which means that I blather about what I’m doing on my blog instead of doing (potentially more) interesting things in private.

When you put those two quirks together, it seems like I’m doing tons of stuff; this is perhaps true, but it doesn’t mean that what I’m doing is any more worthwhile than what somebody else who is quietly focusing on a narrower area is doing. If you’re the sort of person who likes to do lots of different things, then by all means follow that aspect of the way I choose to manage my life, but that’s simply a difference in temperament/choice, not something that’s better (or worse) than the alternative.

(Side note, related to the “public intellectual” bullet point: I even caught myself explaining my apparent productivity by saying “I don’t watch much TV”. This is true, but I spend a fairly large amount of time playing video games, which doesn’t have any higher social status! Since I talk about video games and actively manage that part of my life, however, that means that even people who don’t play video games are relatively likely to give me a pass on that part of my life, to accept it as something valuable even if they wouldn’t choose to do it themselves. But my blogging about video games doesn’t mean that I’m doing anything more worthwhile with them than somebody who plays more and blogs less. Though I do think there’s some virtue to actively managing that part of my life, as with all the other parts.)

I can go into excruciating detail about the techniques, but I think this is a good place to stop for now. (This is certainly nothing new: the concepts and implementation details are in agile, in lean, in GTD, doubtless in any number of other places.)

I now return you to my regular schedule of video game blogging. Or Christopher Alexander blogging. Or, well, whatever I feel most like blogging about at any given time, with that choice informed (but not determined) by my broader goals.

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