Tackle Tough Long-Term Issues with Three Pages a Day

In Thinking Tactics, I teach a set of thinking procedures that each take under 10 minutes. They can be used to clarify most confusion, resolve most conflicts, and figure out the next step on most projects.

But not everything.

Sometimes you face a bigger issue–one that cannot succumb to a few minutes of targeted thinking. Maybe you are considering a major life change–a change of career. Or maybe you face a long-term health issue that has scrambled your priorities. Or you’re just trying to determine a long-range strategy for your business or your life. With long-term, complex issues, you can’t expect to address all the issues in just one focused thinking session.

In these cases, I recommend a practice I learned from Julia Cameron, which she calls “morning pages.” Every morning, without fail, fill three pages in a notebook with “thinking on paper” If you have nothing to say, write anyway. Use this time to reflect on what’s happening in your issue, what’s not happening, or what you want to happen. There is always another angle to explore.

Elsewhere I’ve explained the benefits of “thinking on paper.” [See Note.] The added benefit of “3 Pages a Day” is that you give yourself a structure that helps you systematically reflect on difficult issues, without being overwhelmed or pressured for a solution. Three pages is short enough that you can sit with any unpleasant thoughts for that time. And there is no pressure to answer right now, just to fill the pages. But it is also long enough for you to make a little progress in each session, and each session builds on the previous. That means you can take the space to get the closure or clarity that you need.

This kind of frankness with oneself is invaluable. Your friends may get tired of discussing your issues, but you never do. Cameron reported that after she wrote three pages a day for a while, she got angry that the same problems came up again and again. That motivated her to solve those problems, once and for all. Me, too. After a while, the problems sound like whining, and I decide to do something about them.

“Three pages a day” or “Morning Pages” is a helpful technique when you don’t really know where to start fixing a situation. You don’t have a plan–you just have a general dissatisfaction with how things are going. It provides emotional support, and a structure for sorting out an amorphous blob of issues.  It’s an excellent practice to use in difficult times–regardless of what makes them difficult.

Note: Thinking on Paper is a valuable skill I have discussed elsewhere. You can get an introduction from these free resources:

Short Article
Free Teleclass

Or more in depth training with these paid products:

Thinking on Paper minicourse
Tap Your Own Brilliance (4 class set with 2 bonus classes)

November 20, 2013 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Tip: Begin Where You Are

I filled out a time-management questionnaire recently (see references below), and one question was, “Where should I begin, if I want to keep my appointments better?” The only general-purpose answer to such a question is: begin where you are.

You always must begin from where you are. Always. Whatever the goal. You need to know the “current reality” to figure out the next steps. And the next step always starts where you are and moves toward where you’re going. You may “work backwards” from the goal, but you won’t find where to begin unless you work backwards all the way to where you are now.

To take the case of keeping appointments–you need to ask, where am I now?

For example, if you don’t keep a central calendar, you are starting from zero. Get a calendar and start using it.

On the other hand, if you have a calendar, but you aren’t using it regularly, you begin from there. Figure out when to look at it so you don’t miss the appointments.  First thing in the morning? The night before? What works best for you?

What if it’s neither of these? What if you have a calendar and check it regularly, but you’re still missing appointments? Then you probably need to investigate to further understand where you are now. What’s going wrong? Maybe you need to keep a log to help you identify why you’re missing appointments. Once you know the problem, you can solve it. But you can only solve it if you know your starting place, and start from there.

This shows why I teach thinking tactics rather than time management per se.  There are many helpful systems for time management (several of which I recommend on my site–see references below). But the key to any of them is the thinking you do to implement them.

Even something as straightforward as using a calendar needs thinking to implement it–thinking about what kind of calendar works for you, about what you will keep on the calendar, about how you will remember to use it. Knowing how other people use a calendar can give you ideas for how to use yours, but ultimately, you need to adapt it to your situation. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to any of these questions.

That’s why you begin where you are.

References on Time Management

My thoughts on time management are on my website here:

New: FAQ on Time Management–I gave extensive answers on a survey on the Schedulemailer site:

Book Recommendations on Time Management:

David Allen, Getting Things Done

Alan Lakein: How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life

Francesco Cirillo: The Pomodoro Technique


November 8, 2013 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Book Recommendation: Leave the Office Earlier

I’ve recommended three top books on time management in the past. (Getting Things Done, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, and The Pomodoro Technique). Each of those explains a system or philosophy of time management.

If you are looking for an integrated system to implement, read one of them. But if you want a shot in the arm to spur you to be more productive at work so you can have more time at home, read Leave the Office Earlier by Laura Stack.

The book reads part as diagnostic manual, part as encyclopedia. It opens with a 100-item questionnaire you can use to find your “Productivity Quotient.” The 100 items are then organized into chapters around 10 topics including “Reduction” (as in getting rid of things),  “Discipline,” and  “Vitality” (which is on the role of health in productiveness). Within a chapter there are sections of 2-3 pages each for the relevant item from the questionnaire.

Each short section is interesting, practical, and encouraging. You get specific ideas for how to solve specific problems. The advice runs the gamut from pointers on when to throw something away, to strategies for working with people who process information differently than you do. I suggest reading a few sections at a time. Put it on your bedside table and dip into it every night.

I recommend this book for its consistent can-do, optimistic approach, coupled with its fresh, essentialized look at the many issues involved in productivity. I had seen many of the ideas in some form or another, but Laura Stack presented them in an interesting way that helped me see new value in them.

For example, there are many prioritization tools that involve drawing four quadrants and labeling them, such as this:

Another variation uses “have to/don’t have to” across the top, and “want to/don’t want to” across the side, instead of urgent/important. You list your tasks in the appropriate quadrant. If possible, try to avoid tasks in the 4th quadrant: “don’t want to and don’t have to,” or “not important and not urgent.”

Laura Stack labels her quadrants differently: “high vs. low value” and “deadline vs. no deadline.” This changes the point of the exercise.

This is a subtle difference, but it changes the focus. The point becomes: try to work on high value projects with no deadline! I find this labeling much clearer and more motivating–because it focuses you on your long-range, high value goals.

I found the most interesting section in the book was the chapter in which she distinguished working hard from workaholism. Her advice had more credibility than other treatments I’ve read, because she is clearly pro-hard work. (I think you can tell that from the book. I’ve met Laura Stack, so I can testify to it. She is a productive dynamo.)

Taken together, the advice filled me with optimism and practical ideas for shifting the balance in my life. If things have gotten a bit out of control, I think you’ll find it helpful, too.


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