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One System To Rule Them All

One System To Rule Them All

Sticky Notes

    I first became interested in what is now known as lifehacking because of a simple problem: I wanted to be able to get through all of my emails in 15 minutes, rather than the 15 hours it seemed to take. Then I became interested in personal finance. After that, it was study skills, and then project management. These areas are fairly disparate, but my exploration of each came down to the fact that I just wanted to make my own life a little easier.

    Most of us take winding paths to productivity, subdividing our searches into different areas of personal development. If we are entrepreneurs, we’ll spend months on improving that skill set, but we’ll also explore personal finance separately. The problem that I’ve run into, time and again, is that my life is not so compartmentalized. If I have a problem with managing my time, odds are pretty good that I’ll have an equally difficult time managing my money — whether for my business or for my home life.

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    A System Here, A System There

    I like Mint’s money management interface. I think Remember the Milk may be one of the best ways to control my tasks. And TiddlyWiki (or another wiki) is just plain perfect for project management. But do I really need to flit back and forth between all these different systems? Now, I don’t think that the perfect productivity suite, able to handle every type of lifehack rolled into one piece of software, has been written yet — if you disagree, point me to your recommendation in the comments please. But some systems can do double duty, and eliminate a little of that virtual running around.

    Multitaskers and Unitaskers

    I’m a big Alton Brown fan and, if you’ve watched even one episode, you’ll know that man hates unitaskers — kitchen gadgets that do just one thing. Many admittedly awesome web applications share that flaw. Sites like Mint are cool, but they only handle one facet of the big pile of productivity options that is your life. Instead, we want multitaskers wherever possible.

    We won’t be able to get rid of all unitaskers, of course, unless we really want to roll our own productivity suites. And, honestly, considering the tools already out there, building our own may not be the most productive use of our time. So, where can we start?

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    Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

    Take a good look at the sites you go to on a daily or weekly basis. Personally, half of mine are Google-based, along with several very slick web applications. Most important to my day is Remember the Milk. It’s the second thing I check in the morning, only because I’m a bit of an email addict even after years of working on that particular problem.

    I’m not entirely sure if one is allowed to stop using Google products after one starts, but I’ve noticed that my usage of Google Calendar, at least, has significantly dropped off. I used to plan out my day in extreme detail on GCal, but I’ve slowly moved more towards listing appointments as tasks on Remember the Milk. It’s a matter of simplicity — I can Jott a reminder of an appointment to Remember the Milk from anywhere I have cell reception. I still use Google Calendar to an extent — Remember the Milk isn’t practical for long-term planning, but most of my short term planning is now organized as tasks.

    Making the Best of Complicated Situations

    It can be extremely difficult to narrow down the tools you use to the ones that actually help you. As a general rule, any time I have type the same information twice, I probably don’t need a given tool. But specifics are far more complicated. The great thing about applications like Mint is that they do all the hard work for you — they pull a whole bunch of information into one place for you. And if your multitasking solution would require you do all that aggregation by hand, I have to tell you to ignore my advice to consolidate.

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    But it may make sense to bring other solutions together: for a single project, do you really need both a project wiki and a Basecamp account? Even if you’re storing different types of information in each, it seems likely that creative tagging or page creation would allow you to consolidate to just one project management option.

    Downsized

    Many of us rush out and try each new productivity application. It’s fun to see what people come up with. But staying loyal to the absolute minimum of tools can help reduce the amount of running around we do online — the amount of time we spend measuring our productivity, rather than actually being productive.

    This week, I managed to downsize my personal toolbox by two tools — two unitaskers that I used to help myself keep track of ideas and information. I’ve been dumping the same material into a special list on Remember the Milk and I’ve already noticed that I’m more likely to actually do something with that information now that I don’t have to open another tab to find it.

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    I’ve still got a few unitaskers I rely on — I’m torn on whether email is actually a unitasker or not, though I’m leaning towards a yes. Some I don’t see ever being able to get rid of, but I am enjoying having to keep track of a few less tools.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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