Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

The Legacy of the Day

by Andre · No Comments

Focus on what’s important and eliminate what’s unimportant. It’s advice we hear repeatedly, making it a platitude. No one actually doubts the principle, but it does leave the question of how to determine what’s important unanswered. It can be hard to even ask the question, since it means admitting not having one’s priorities straight.

Since all priorities have a personal dimension, it’s healthy to be skeptical of universal formulas for addressing what matters, but one entry point into measuring the impact of activities is the memory trace they leave behind.

What will I remember the day by?

Projecting to the end of the day, looking backward, what tasks, conversations, facts or experiences will you have forgotten? Which ones will linger? The time frame can be expanded or contracted to fit any desired perspective, but a day is concrete enough to make a practical foothold. Long-term perspectives can make planning too abstract if applied as a question on a moment-to-moment basis.

This contrasts with the common time management advice to apply questions like “Will I remember this a year from now?” or “Does this action contribute to the lifestyle I want to have in five years?” to test the worthiness of individual tasks. Many tasks are mundane or routine, but still need to get done. Not every moment can be a milestone. By thinking of those routine tasks as clearing the ground for milestones, you’ll have extra motivation to get them out of the way as soon as possible

Another problem with questioning everything you do in the moment is that it takes you out of the moment, leading to an overly self-conscious relationship with life and work. This is how people come to procrastinate by obsessing over productivity.

Avoid relying on memory for the memorable

To make the legacy question most effective, the answer needs to be parked in some external placeholder rather than held in the mind. When reviewing an action list, you’re doing two things at once: looking for the one item that’s possible to complete (given time, context and energy constraints), and making a judgement about every other action that can wait. Saying yes to one thing means saying no to everything else, and it’s best to do that consciously by acknowledging each item as one that can wait.

The alternative is to rely on memory to prioritize, which typically means ignoring items on a list. I would argue that you’ll have more peace of mind knowing what you’re not doing than wondering what you’re not doing, especially if you live and work in an environment where circumstances change from moment to moment. Take a moment to scan your list to make sure that there’s nothing you won’t have to think about while you’re focusing your attention on what really matters.

Sometimes there’s still a lingering doubt, even after reviewing the list, that there’s something else out there that hasn’t been identified. When in doubt, do a mind sweep: write down everthing that has your attention, even if it’s already down on a list. If an item on the mind sweep is already logged as project or a next action, review those entries to make sure they’re properly defined and current — if an item is already written down but still on your mind, there’s probably some further processing that needs to be done to get it off your mind. If an item on a mind sweep isn’t already entered into your system, process it now, or just do the action if it takes less than two minutes.

Encompass the total quality of experience

What you remember the day by will be more than projects completed and actions checked off. A day should be measured by the total quality of experience, not the volume of work done. It’s possible, and common, for people to put in long hours and work hard, but have no memory of the what they’ve done that day.

One way to correct this is to record and review what’s gotten done, but that narrows the scope of experience to actions, a single dimension of a multifaceted reality. There are other things to remember: friendships formed, conversations had, facts or truths learned, personal insights and realisations, new projects to look into, old projects to let go of, laughs, reminiscences, and anything else that has a way of making itself memorable. Get things done, but keep that doing in perspective.

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