Divination is the art of foretelling the future through the interpretation of seemingly random signs. For instance, hieromancy is the art of divination using animal entrails. (I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what kind of entrails are involved in anthropomancy.)
Clearly, ancient peoples had even more anxiety about how they were going to spend their day. Without a clear roadmap, they were apt to turn to the nearest crystal ball, a pre-Gutenberg version of a Filofax.
Personally, there are days I’d rather be elbow-deep in cow guts than take another scan through my to-do list. At least a good hieromancer would give you a clear answer, from “the crops will be good this year” to “you will crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women!“
This got me thinking: perhaps the lessons of divination can be applied to productivity…
Assemble Your DeckIt’s your typical Tuesday afternoon. The week’s almost halfway over and you haven’t accomplished a single thing you’d intended to. You’d planned to catch up last weekend, but instead you spent it running around town on wild-goose-chase errands. You’ve got four deadlines this week, two more overdue, and that’s just off the top of your head.
You realize it’s time to take a deep breath and dive through your task list, figure out what really really really needs doing.
- Take out a fresh stack of index cards and a marker.
- Go through your task list and copy each task to an individual index card, excluding @waiting tasks, tasks that involve other people, and short (5 minute or less), brainless tasks. (If there are more than twenty left, you need to trim your task list. Does all that really need doing?)
- Lay out your cards face-up.
Like a Good Mistress, Let Pain Be Your GuideNormally, you look through your task list at moments like this as quickly as possible because it’s painful (like pulling off a Band-Aid). You may not realize it, but you’re looking for (often in vain) a really important task that will be also be pleasant to do.
Yeah, keep looking.
Usually, you give up and, as a compromise, pick an unimportant task that will be pleasant to do. And thus, an entry on your personal blog about great television shows of the 1980s is written.
What I’m suggesting is an approach similar to the one suggested in Eat That Frog. But in that (very good) book, Brian Tracy advises you to prioritize your tasks, and once you have the most important few singled out, to kill the most unpleasant one first.
I’m taking it a step further. Once you’ve laid out your Task Tarot, divine your next action by picking the ugliest one first, regardless of priority or due date.
As soon as you let those factors weigh in, you’ll start rationalizing your way out of your ugliest tasks. “Well, this one’s due tomorrow, so I’d better do it now before doing this other, uglier, task that doesn’t have a set due date.” Or, “I’d call this one a bigger priority than that one, even though this one can wait until next month and the ugly one’s due tomorrow.”
To Make Progress, Fight the CurrentImagine the fear of doing a particular task as a water current, a gentle and constant pressure on you not to do that task. The task tarot is a way to put rationalization aside and use your fear as a compass. To fight the current, you’ve got to push right into it, and not get diverted by other pressures like priority and due date.
Glance at the ten or twenty cards spread out in front of you and I guarantee that one or two will pop out at you. (Actually, more of a slap than a pop.) Oh yes, you’ll think. That task. The one you’ve been shirking for weeks. It’s probably one of those tasks that doesn’t have a clear and immediate deadline, or perhaps it had a soft deadline that’s passed and you’re already afraid of the possible ramifications of doing it late.
Once the card’s popped, the divination is over. Whether it’s the most pressing concern or not, you’re going to do it, right now.
The PayoffOnce you do That Task, you’ll feel pretty good. What’s more, the rush of satisfaction and joy from killing an ugly task that’s been hanging over your head for however long (and they’re never as ugly as you’re afraid they’ll be) will carry you into an hour or more of focus and abundant. Every task thereafter will feel like a breeze in comparison to the beast, and you’ll probably tear through five tasks in the time it would have taken you to do one if you’d still been fretting.
But if you want to feel really, really good when you leave work, shuffle the deck and do the task tarot again and again as you complete each killer task. You might find a month’s worth of anxiety cleared out in an afternoon.
Photo by jef.