The Bigs and the Littles

I simply MUST tell you (as if anyone can tell anyone anything anyway) about a recent BREAKTHROUGH I have birthed in my work life – with help, as is usually required, but not always taken best advantage of…

Long ago (like at least two years ago), the ever-vigilant B.D. and I, upon returning from our computer programming class (once MIT put its curriculum online it became possible to take computer programming classes in Burning Man workshops near the Pacific Ocean), observed and identified two species of tasks…

At this point I must digress to honor the wise and light-footed Andrea Azumera’s previous striking insight and innovation of ShahaTalamula… as a distinction regarding tasks. ShahaTalamulas are those tasks on your list which you notice are never begun, and once you look at them closely you notice this is because these are the ones which only affect you, about which no-one will be shocked or disappointed or even notice if you continue to not take care of yourself about. As usual, Andrea’s name for the category is also a name for the action of righting one’s relationship with the part of your life which needs your love and attention and thus Shaha! is the moment of ending with a firm strike through the air the not doing of the thing. Talamula is the gentle circling back to renew and care for oneself.

But back to computer programming. After we had applied frequency theory to the organization of our kitchen, we assessed the state of our hipster-PDAs – the stack of 3×5 cards full of to-dos on various projects. We still haven’t determined whether its best to check or cross things off (Andrea insists that the finishing must be celebrated with a strong, broad stroke but we are concerned about readability in case of future trackbacks), but since we preferred to extend the mornings upstairs in the sunshine before descending to our chilly office tank, we did a meta-analysis of the cards.

The two species of tasks, which we mentioned to you as preliminary findings some time ago, are “Bigs” and “Littles”.

My bigs usually look something like this:
• Write new book.
• Sell house.
• Research the law and get the lawyer.
They’re on the list every day. ((I won’t go into a serious dissertation mentoring session here, but the short version regarding subtasks is: Actually, you know exactly what you need to do next, do that. ))   Most frustratingly, the Bigs never get checked off. Or by the time they could be, I’ve stopped writing them down out of sheer despair.

A day’s littles usually look something like this:
• figure out why blog won’t accept large file uploads
• figure out why I’m getting 2 copies of every email
• write to Peter about appliances
• send Nathan’s recommendation letters
• read 500 job listings, mostly for criminologists
• update website with new book
• order textbook desk copies
• call credit card company about that strange charge
• call landlord about the sink, again
• change that whiny and mediocre student’s grade (must print out pdf form in triplicate and get dean’s signature in person)
• email that journal to find out why it’s taken 9 months for them to review (and probably reject) my article
• laundry
• decide about going to Portland, buy air tix before they go up and I hate myself
• find the old, long, unedited version of that journal article and send it to Kriss
• bug Isabelle about her feedback on the other article
• send corrections on that article to those nitpicky editors
• return lousy accounting software
• put a note in calendar to make sure refund comes through for returned accounting software
• write to Dr. Hage about new project
• review for Surveillance and Society
• find out what happened to the check from Routledge
• figure out why tenant hasn’t paid the rent

The littles are trivial and many in number, but alluring because they seem doable. Unlike the Bigs. This, my friends, is the beginning of the end. I’m sure your Littles look like mine. This is the mountain of crap which we assault daily, which makes us feel inadequate but all of which must be done, or we are horribly irresponsible and perhaps incompetent.  And each one is not hard and doesn’t take very long, so why haven’t I done it already? And then after socking away at it until the moment we race out the door to class, or are late to yoga, or really almost want to skip dinner with friends because there’s “just so much to do”, we just feel stressed and still inadequate, because every day brings 5 or 6 more like items. And we tend to forget about the Bigs. There’s no way we have time for them. We’ll have to wait until Spring Break or skip that cool thing going on this weekend and “block out a day for it”. And boy does that feel shitty. Guilty shitty, not doing the work I really need to do.

Then of course there is email, the constant-interrupt-generator, full of messages from students who feel the need to let me know personally about something I don’t need to know about, like their car broke down and they missed class.  And editors wanting my bio for some publication (always needs to be rewritten because I can’t find the previous one), and other urgent matters for which, apparently, I must Stop what I am doing and Respond.

So the old method was to get up in the (mid)morning and get to my desk and “warm up with few Littles”, fully intending to assault one of the Bigs in about 30 minutes. 2-4 hours later, having vanquished 2 or 3 Littles and about 10 email interrupts, I’m hungry/have to go to work/it’s time for yoga … I feel defeated by having done nothing about the bigs, and the work I did just frantically do seems like “nothing”. It feels that way because I know I’m using it to procrastinate. I can spend all day busily checking off Littles and addressing interrupts and then at the end of the day, straight-faced, say to myself and others “I didn’t get anything done today.”

And then last November I freaked out. “My life is a task list. Every day there’s a new list. It never ends. This is my life? Checking off tasks? No way.”

But now, I’m reading The 4 Hour Work Week. I’m pressing “unsubscribe” on every email that comes with that button. I’m sending the lists I do need to be on into a folder that I NEVER open. I’m streamlining. I’m giving myself only 30 minutes for email and sending abrupt, triagist messages — if anything at all. Oh yeah, and I wrote my dreams up on the wall, the real dreams, the cheap ones, not the expensive things I was wanting because I didn’t know what my dreams really were. Because Tim Ferris says that if you don’t know what your dreams are, then when you make the money to free the time you’ll just fill it with more work.

I even tried to check my email only once a day in the afternoon. But I’m far too addicted to that although it almost never delivers anything I like. Maybe I’m addicted to the interrupt? Hadn’t thought of that.

But ANYWAY, here’s the thing that works. You’ve been very patient. Now that I have a new task manager for my iphone with priorities and tagging and a supply of 500 snowy blank index cards with the last two weeks’ cards safely stacked (each one dated) next to me. I know I won’t lose track of anything (how on earth did I forget that article review in November – Oh yeah, November that was when I threw out 3 days of lists…). All the Littles will still be there for later. Here’s the thing that works. In fact it is the ONLY thing I’ve EVER found that works, and I just found it and that’s why I’m spending all of this effort to turn it into an entertaining message to you:

•  • •        Do the Big FIRST, for ONE HOUR.           • • •

This is so fucking amazing I can’t even describe it to you. Ok here are the operational details and procedures:

1. Do the Big FIRST. No warm-ups. No urgent Littles. (There is nothing that can’t wait ONE HOUR.)

2. Do the Big for ONE HOUR. It’s essential to commencing the hard, intimidating, tedious, endless work of a Big that you reduce the expected pain, humiliation, confusion… to a level that is not only tolerable, but easily tolerable. Tell yourself, over and over, “It’s only an hour…I only have to do an hour…I can do one hour.” Every time an interrupt or a Little pops up, or you remember the laundry, or your lover wants you to decide about having dinner with the Robots on friday, just say to them or yourself “I’m in my hour. It can wait another XX minutes.” Scribble the pop-up task on the nearest 3×5 card and get back to work. Hey, only 23 more minutes!

Features, Benefits, and Specifications:
• You will find that you get so much more done when you in fact work on the Big every day. It’s very hard to get things done when you don’t work on them. You will also find that your productivity/20 minutes is much higher when you work only for one hour than when you “work” for 8 hours. Very likely higher in the absolute.

• At the end of the hour you are FREE from Bigs for the Rest of the Day. This could happen at 10 am if you get up a little earlier than I do. You will not believe how fabulous it feels to have made a unit of progress on your Big early in the day.

• You will find that your experience of the Littles changes. Now when you do them, after already vanquishing today’s chunk of Big, you experience your doing of them as smart, efficient, and productive. Because you are not using them to procrastinate. They can even be joyful and fun, because with your Big moving along so nicely, the rest of life is a celebration.

• In the late afternoon, when you want to take a break (to check facebook, eat sugar and pass out, spin poi, do yoga, have a beer, call a friend, take a nap, check facebook, read a magazine, check facebook, or whatever it is that you like to do for fun) you won’t feel guilty, because you’re just blowing off Littles, not the Big.

• If, at the end of the ONE HOUR period, you feel engaged and entranced by your Big, you are welcome to continue working on it for as long as you like. Then you can feel extra good about yourself and go get ice cream on a sugar cone or something else that is truly, deeply decadent.

• For me, the cherry on top of all that whipped cream is this: I checked my list of Dreams up on the wall. I found that #1 is “luxurious, serene writing time every day.” And it turns out (DING DONG) …that’s what my Big usually is, IF I do it first. (But I never noticed that before or elicited that experience of it.) I have a sense of time to focus with my best energy, with a sense of abundance about the daylight and no pressure of backlog. Even if it isn’t writing or if you don’t love writing, the truth is the Big is usually something that has a hold on you. And it has a hold on you because you care about it. I love my house, that’s why I haven’t sold it yet. It’s going to take the same energy as writing to move forward with the project of transferring it to its next guardian.

And in one day it seems very human and whole to do no more nor less than the next step on the thing that is frighteningly challenging in your life.