Getting Organised

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Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 17/07/2013 - 3:29pm in

We were warned during O' Week that most students find university study much less structured than what we were used to. I suppose I'm one of the exceptions to that rule. My expectation, borne out by experience so far at least, was that scheduled classes and set deadlines would be a blessed relief from the degree of self management required in self-employment. It even compares favourably to the constant stress and uncertaintainty of unemployment.

That said, I know that keeping on top of things will be a challenge. Fundamentally, I would prefer to live day to day directed by whim. I've lived like that in the past and found it quite satisfying. However this isn't now a viable modus vivendi (Like that? Latin, that is. Dead posh.) for a number of reasons:

  • I'm partially responsible for the welfare of a spouse and three cats. I can't go off on a whim in case the latter decide to gang up on the former. It's bad enough being only outnumbered three to two.
  • I'm dead broke. Whims typically cost money.
  • Building up a good whim requires a certain degree of stimulous from the environment, and I live in Coffs Harbour, possibly the least stimulating environment in the country, outside of Canberra.
  • I wouldn't mind actually achieving something useful before I kick the bucket.

As noted last week (ahem), I had little reason to worry about being efficiently productive during school, and much of my past employment history has been in undemanding dirty-white-collar jobs. I've been sent on more than my share of courses which promised huge productivity gains from nothing more than a humourous video featuring John Cleese paying his alimony, a Powerpoint presentation, a trust exercise or two, bad orange juice, bad coffee, and platters of little sandwich triangles.

I even regrettably paid a substantial amount of money for a course in Coffs which shall remain nameless involving acronyms, slogans, inspirational aphorisms, bewildering exercises disturbingly reminiscent of the time I thought it would be a jolly lark to take a Scientology personality test, and endless CDs of an American man with a smile in his voice congratulating me on how well I was doing, the remarkable improvement in my productivity, and observing what a great idea it would be to do another course. It was a cult, not an educational, or even a training, course.

There's only on personal productivity strategy that has ever worked for me, and - for not quite the first time - I shall let the Internet in on the secret: It's called Just One Thing™.

My first problem in trying (and gradually failing) to run a business was actually doing work. No matter how trivial the project I was embarking upon was in reality, when I sat down in front of the computer in the morning it seemed overwhelming. Too often, the temptation was to say "Oh, well. Because of [insert excuse here], there's not much point in trying to get anything done today. Tomorrow will be different." And of course it never was. Part of the problem was that all the advice I'd received to date encouraged practices like slicing up your day into ten minute intervals and scheduling what you plan to achieve in each. This is totally inappropriate for a job which is mostly creative problem solving, where each problem is likely to be quite unlike any one you've solved before, and getting your head around what you're planning to do takes half an hour by itself. What you end up doing is planning to achieve far more than you ever could in a day, and ending the day inevitably berating yourself for abject failure, even if you've achieved quite a lot.

Eventually it dawned on me that the alternative to inevitable failure (or not trying), was to lower the bar for success. Start the day by saying "I don't have to work miracles. I merely have to do Just One Thing™." At minimum what you'll have done is one thing, which is preferable to going back to bed, curling into the foetal position and gently sobbing for a day. What is more likely, at least if you are a nerd, is that Just One Thing™ will lead to the next thing, and the next, and before you know it you'll have your nose stuck in the tram line and be well on your way to the terminal.

So Just One Thing™ is a form of self-deception, but it works for me. Well, I should qualify that by saying that it's improved things over the past few years. Will it be enough to get me through a minimum three and a half years of study? Almost certainly not.