BY TOM COX | BUSINESS TIPS CONTRIBUTOR
Have you noticed how different your future self is, from yourself today?
My future self, apparently, has lots of free time. He has money. He’s very decisive. He goes to the gym with the regularity of a metronome. His self-control is a thing of legend. Or would be, if he existed.
Future-me’s only weakness is on-time performance — he still hasn’t shown up. All his work keeps showing up on my desk each morning.
Current-me needs a new strategy.
Be Nicer to Future You
My mistake has been to believe that my future self will have more time, more focus, and so on.
What if that’s never going to be true?
What if future-me is going to show up tired, grouchy, confused, and distracted? What can I do today to help out future-me?
Let’s make a list.
What I wish Past-me Had Done
How awesome would today be, if only my past self had:
- unsubscribed from a bunch of junk mailing lists
- put all of the project work papers back into the folder
- done something decisive with the stack of business cards sitting on my desk
- said “no” to a lot of the work I don’t want to do, am not good at, and aren’t really part of my job
- gone to the gym yesterday, so I would feel energized today
- ate really good food yesterday, so I would feel healthy today
- put half an hour of thinking time in between each of my appointments, so I could finish processing the last one and prepare for the next one
- stopped work on the big project by writing a note saying “the next three tasks are:…” so I don’t have to reprocess that list and re-create it
How would today be different, if past-me had done that?
I’d be more relaxed, more energized. I’d be productive.
Let’s face it — past-me is a bit of a jerk, to leave current-me with this mess.
Oh, my gosh.
My future productivity will depend entirely on how easy I make things for my future self.
- say no now
- prepare now
- “park on a downhill slope” – end each project so it’s easy to restart
- “well begun is half done” – invest in a solid start
- GTD ‘decide’ separately from acting on
- GTD store your decisions for the future – stop re-processing
- create rules-of-thumb to overcome ‘decision fatigue’
What You and I can do Today
The fastest path to productivity is to eliminate, simplify, and create decision rules-of-thumb.
The second path, taken after the first, is to build good habits so that “good behavior” becomes automatic and thus takes no willpower. (For more on building a good habit, see this article.)
To make space for yourself to do better work — to create the time and energy to start being better to future-you — you’ll have to say “no” more.
As Mark Horstman of Manager Tools likes to say, nobody goes home with all their work done. So the only real choice you have is, which work to do and which work to leave un-done.
For many of us — for me — what I skip doing is what I most should be doing: saying no, unsubscribing, eliminating, simplifying. Reducing tomorrow’s crunch.
There is a time to smell the roses, and there is another time to examine and judge the roses, and yet another time to get through the garden on the way somewhere else.
We all experience “decision fatigue” that slowly erodes our ability to make fast, accurate decisions. (Have you ever had that waitress who just asked too many questions? Which soup, which bread, how to cook the meat, which vegetable, which wine, and at some point you start snapping “I don’t care. Pick for me.” That sense of irritation you got, that sense of impatience and a desire to get it over with, is decision fatigue.)
There are three techniques to deal with this:
- make the most important decisions earlier, while fresh
- make fewer total decisions, by employing rules of thumb
- increase your stamina, by alternating decision-making activity with rejuvenation – energy management
What does this imply?
Schedule the most important meetings and decisions for early in the day. Use Horstman’s “Noon Rule of Scheduling” (itself a rule of thumb) to ensure that this happens.
Pay attention to how many decisions you are making. Even a small decision, like whether to have white bread, whole wheat, rye or sourdough bread with a meal, takes a tiny toll on you. Start creating rules-of-thumb to handle the simple ones. Then break them when you want to break your routine. For a year I always had sourdough bread. Now I don’t have any bread.
Make your list of energizing activities, and keep it on your desk. Before any major decision, stop and do one of them – whether it’s smile at pictures of your family, or meditate, or stretch, or walk around the building.
Invest Now – be Nicer to your Future Self
(Regular readers are invited to check out GTD Club, my weekly study-hall for executives who want to end their work week more organized, and able to enter the weekend with an empty mind and a full heart. Ideal for users of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system.)
The time to make yourself happier tomorrow is today. Be nicer to future-you. You’ll thank yourself tomorrow.