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Get Random!

Get Random!

Get Random

    We spend a lot of time at Lifehack talking about getting organized – making up lists, labeling files, simplifying your workspace, and so on. Everything in its place, and a place for everything, right?

    There’s nothing wrong with this view of organization, so long as you’re getting more work done than the time you’re spending on staying organized. But a lot of times, our brains don’t work quite so neatly. For that matter, our lives don’t work quite so neatly. As it happens, we live in worlds that are as much defined by randomness and chaos as by neatness and order.

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    This isn’t a “left-brain/right-brain thing. It’s about how we engage with the world. Because the world isn’t always as neat and orderly as the systems we create to interact with it, we can fall “out of sync” at times. We feel this all the time – overwhelmed, creatively blocked, or just plain stuck. At those times it’s a good idea to inject a little randomness into our otherwise predictable system.

    Randomness isn’t just a way to “break out of the ordinary” – it is the ordinary! And as much as we try to control things, we need that little seed of randomness now and again to close the gap between our attempts to organize our lives and the mixed-up world that is our lives. It’s what we’re designed for – humans didn’t evolve in a GTD world, we involved in a messy and chaotic world, and we’re pretty well adapted to it.

    Bring on the Crazy

    Here are a handful of ways to add a dash of randomness to your life. Try them all or just one or two, and see if you aren’t quite surprised at the results.

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    The Noguchi Filing System: Designed by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, the Noguchi filing system relies on the vagaries of use habits, rather than the alphabet, to sort your files. The idea is simple: instead of filing material in traditional folders and drawers, you put every document (or bundle of related documents) into a 9×12 (or larger) envelope, label it, and file it upright on a shelf. New folders go on the left-hand end of the shelf, and every file you remove goes back not where it came from, but again, on the left-hand end of the shelf. As you use the system, the left side will fill up with material you use the most often, while material you useless often will move to the right. Every so often, you can box up the right half of the shelf and archive it, or shift them into long-term reference sections by subject (Noguchi color codes his reference files, and moves them to their own shelves to be ordered by use once again).

    Though it seems crazy, in testing Noguchi says that access time is almost always faster in shelves sorted by the Noguchi system. That’s because material you’re most likely to need is going to be material you’re most likely to have used recently, and that material is all on the left. The rarely-used files to the right might take longer to find, but since you rarely need to find them, on average you’ll save time – not to mention the time you save by not filing in any particular order in the first place.

    Bananaslug Fever: Searching on Google is pretty straight-forward – if you know what you’re looking for. But it’s easy to get stumped, trying search after search around a topic and coming up with a bunch of not-so-inspiring pages. Enter Bananaslug. The brain-child of my fellow UCSC alum (Go Fightin’ Bananaslugs!) Steve Nelson, Bananaslug works like Google – in fact, it is a front-end to Google – but adds a random keyword from one of a dozen or so categories to your search, creating some interesting – and maybe even inspiring – results.

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    For example, a search for project planning on Google turns up the usual assortment of Wikipedia and blog pages, plus a book or two. Useful, if you’re looking for basic info, but what if you already know all that, and you want to learn something new? When I enter “project planning in Bananaslug and ask for a random keyword from the category “great ideas” (it chose “reasoning”), I’m introduced to whole fields of project planning I didn’t even know about: quantitative reasoning, semi-quantitative reasoning, geometric-based reasoning, temporal knowledge representation, and so on. I could get the same results from Google, except I’d never, ever have known to add “reasoning” to my search terms.

    Change something: Ever try to change a habit. Man is that hard. Experts say if you keep it up for 21 days (or 30, or 28, or 45, or…) it becomes a habit, but that’s clearly BS – the time it takes for something to become a habit varies by the habit itself, the personality of the person trying to instill it, the motivation, and so on. Some things never become habits, and some habits are born in a minute.

    A lot of psychologists, coaches, and other counselors don’t advice their clients to adopt new habits, because habit-creation is rarely under conscious control. Instead, they advise their clients to just change one little thing, anything – move your computer, talk to someone new, try something that’s off your regular routine. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same thing every day, either – the idea is to create enough chaos that your regular habits become indistinguishable from the new non-habits. Try one new thing every day, and see what happens.

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    Brainstorm: Stuck for an idea? Try “blue”. Or “propeller”. How about “traction ankle”? Throwing a random word or idea or phrase into the mix and forcing yourself to seriously consider it, no matter how far off-topic it might seem, can create a cascade of associations that finally circle back to something useful. For example, according to Eric Abrahamson in A Perfect Mess, the word “blue” was the key that led an advertising firm to develop a safety-focused campaign to reach out to the previously-untapped market of female auto insurance buyers. How? Who knows, and who cares? The important thing is that it works.

    Unschedule: Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have a schedule. If you want to see him, you call his secretary, and if he’s available right now, you come on over. If not, try again later. How crazy is that?

    Of course, your life is a lot more complicated than his, I’m sure – he only has a state to run and movies to make. For you, maybe instead of a “non-schedule” you could try an “Unschedule. Popularized by Neil Fiore in his book The Now Habit, in an Unschedule you schedule only the things you want to do. In the gaps in between, you work on projects, writing them into your schedule after you’ve worked a solid half-hour on a single project. At the end of the day or week, you can see how many hours of productive time you’ve racked up – surprisingly, it’s often much  greater than people manage with a much more orderly, less random schedule. (You can see an example of an Unschedule at Fiore’s site.)

    When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Weird

    Like anything, randomness is best in moderation. Try adding a dash to your otherwise orderly day-to-day and see what happens. One thing about randomness, it’s flexible – that little bit of weirdness might be just helpful today, but one day, when the going gets really weird, you’ll be ready to go with it. You may even go pro*!

    (*With apologies to Hunter S. Thompson)

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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