A loud taskmaster lives in my head. I’m going to tell you a little bit about this madman, because I think he might live in your head too. He gets around.
The taskmaster is always on the lookout for things to be done. He has lists and a list of lists. He keeps a calendar of the days, and while I’ve not seen it I can feel his judgment of each day coming out of the number of checkmarks made on that day. If he didn’t do this sort of compiling, listing, and judging, he wouldn’t exist anymore… those activities are his very lifeblood.
The taskmaster has no discretion. Any task can be proposed from any source and for any reason, and he’ll add it to his lists. It could be completely vital to our missions or be absolutely pointless, he doesn’t care. He just wants to draw boxes with short sentences by them and make checkmarks. He’s a secretarial version of the Mad Hatter, but a lot less lovable.
Finally, the taskmaster is essentially lazy. He talks all day and night about getting all this stuff done, but he’s more concerned about his little papers than actual progress. His profound love for completed lists of tasks is contagious, I admit. Even still, I won’t let him punch holes in all of those completed lists and add them to the dusty notebooks of eventual projects that clutter up the top shelf in the closet. That guy loves filing – it’s a mindless sort of perpetual task.
He’s quite a roommate of the mind, this taskmaster.
Managing the Taskmaster
Do you know this guy? It appears that some people haven’t met him – some people are driven on by other mental weirdos, spooks who are focused on physical pleasure or who have completely given up in the face of the chaotic whirlwind of life. But I’m thinking you know the taskmaster, if you’ve made it this far into the post. There’s not much pleasure or gothic despair in the description of the taskmaster.
The thing is, the taskmaster is completely ineffectual. I’ve deeply experimented with his brand of productivity, and haven’t become better because of it. Sometimes he says something that sounds particularly clever, like “Hey, you should work over the weekend so you have less to do during the week”, and I’ll buy it again and then laugh at myself when I’m surprised another scheme of his didn’t work. But those times are becoming few and far between, because I’m on to his game.
The taskmaster’s end-game is really just working more. Tasks propagate under his management like rabbits in Australia. Every one of his tasks has a pre-task to get ready for it and a post-task to recap the lessons learned. The lists get longer and longer when he’s the primary resident of our egos. He’s a master of schemes.
We need to manage him. He doesn’t deserve to be just completely fired – he’s likable enough and he’s a damn good clerk. Besides, I’d much rather have him fill out my insurance forms than have to do it myself. He’s better at those kinds of things than I am, and he has a sort of instant communication with other anal-retentive blowhards. No, he just needs to quiet on down when there’s real work to be done or real life to be lived.
We should also keep a leash handy, since he tends to get rabid when things don’t get done.
Working Early and Working Late
The taskmaster has that old-guy idea that working early or working late will somehow make it so that we accomplish more. I get it – it’s just number evaluations. If working on something for 4 hours is good, then working on it for 5 hours is better. Right. Just like eating healthy should parlay into some religious desert hermit’s version of a diet, and exercising works better if you’ve got an Arnold Schwarzenegger poster on the wall (I hope he’s talking about young Arnold, old Arnold isn’t quite the same inspiration).
It’s not true, though. Days are zero-sum games. If you work more, you have less time to spend with your family. If you exercise more, you have less time to meditate. If we listen to the taskmaster’s little pokes at getting things done, we’re giving up the better things in life for him. And if we listen to him all the way, we’ll end up in the dreaded rut. Nossir, he’s a terrible life counselor.
Now, I know that the idea of all that work being worthless offends some people. Sacrifice is a time-honored tradition, after all, and it certainly has huge spiritual connections. But – and I’m sorry if I’m the first to tell you this – the “company martyr” bears no resemblance whatsoever to the saints and prophets of yore. There’s a line in the sand for any sort of work – be it professional work, exercise, or a hobby. Once you pass it, you start burning out other parts of your life and mind – until you’re nothing but a taskmaster-ridden automaton of whatever sort of thing you’ve martyred yourself for.
I don’t mean that you should never work early or work late. By all means, you should do so if you’re truly called to it. But if you’re sacrificing other parts of your life to something so that other people will be happier or that you’ll be more successful, then it’s just an ego trip. Don’t do it.
Leave the stuff you have to do on Monday for Monday, and know when you’ll be done before you start.
I like to let the taskmaster jot all of his thoughts down into written lists. When you let that guy get all scribble-happy, then he rests knowing that you’ll remember it all. If you don’t become a tool of his automatic writing, he’ll just keep gibbering on in your mind. Let the guy make his lists, it’s what he’s all about, so he’ll shut up.
Once the taskmaster writes a list, though, it doesn’t suddenly become gospel. We need to filter those damn things down. In fact, once he gets used to the idea, the taskmaster starts to enjoy crossing-outs just as much as checkmarks. Either way, it’s a thing that needed to get done that no longer needs to get done, in his mind. At first, though, the taskmaster will protest and try to get you to add the things you crossed out back into the list. Usually, he’s wrong.
So, let the taskmaster make all those crazy-making lists. This is what I want to get done on the blog. This is what I want to get done on Tuesday at work. This is what I need to buy at the store. Things to try to draw. Places to take my son. Write ’em all out, get them out of your and your taskmaster’s head.
Then, whenever you pull out a list – before you start in on it, first go through it and cross stuff out. Just exercise the discretion the taskmaster lacks. Does this really need to get done? Do I really need to answer or follow-up on this? What would happen if I stopped buying these? Whittle it on down… the taskmaster makes blocks of wood, but we can’t be productive until we learn the art of whittling.
When you only do what you really need to do, you suddenly have a lot more time.
Easy Things First, Hard Things First
The natural instinct for all of us, I think, is to do the easy things first. Get them out of the way and you only have the big, hard things left. This usually doesn’t work out, though, because if new easy things happen to pop up, then the difficult things don’t get done. That usually means treading water and keeping lists alive.
At some point, some clever soul noted this and started talking about doing the hard things first. Sounds great, doesn’t it? If we do the most important thing first in the day, or all the hard things first, then the rest of the day will be easy. This usually doesn’t work out either, though, because it means that we have to jump right into the raging waters of the hard thing without doing any sort of warm-up or stretching. Then the hard things take us much longer than they would if we just did a few of the easy things first.
That leads to a sort of intentional organization where one might do some easy things, then some hard things, then end with some easy things. This, just like the other two, are just taskmaster thoughts – he likes to rearrange things. It’s sort of like filing.
Tasks in lists always come in some sort of order. Emails come in waves. When the taskmaster scribbles out a list, he scribbles the tasks out in the order that they occur to him. Sometimes you need to reorganize the tasks because it’s better to work on similar things all together (better to do all your marketing at one time, so that you don’t spend the day with marketer-head), but usually things appear in a perfectly valid order.
So do things in the order they’re presented, and let the easy things and hard things come as they may.
Life’s Progress Gauges
When I talk with some people about their productivity, I get the sense of gauges in a cockpit. These people are running around talking about making rapid progress at work, needing to spend more time with their family, not having enough time to exercise, and their favorite television programs. So, work’s at 90mph, family’s at 15mph, health’s at 5mph, and their “relaxation productivity” gauge has a healthy 50mph. Erm… what?
My taskmaster gets it. He can see how one might plot out time spent on one axis compared to important parts of life on another axis. He can see how business-minded folk talk about their life from a dashboard view and health-minded folk talk about it in terms of good habits and repetitions. But the taskmaster can have no valid point of view on life – his whole bag is ego, and working from the basis of an imagined person in the middle of imaginary situations. What can the taskmaster say about life? It’s like a blind man talking about the sunrise he can’t see.
Just like the sunrise, the taskmaster has his time. It comes. But also and separately, time with your family comes. Time to blog, or write, or pursue your artwork comes. If you don’t let the taskmaster’s lists trample the rest of your life, the time to sit with the grass in the meadow just comes. The time to start meditating and the time to stop just naturally happen. The clock on the wall doesn’t have anything to do with the bedrock of life.
Life, spirituality, and happiness are matters of quality in paper and ink. They are matters of skill in calligraphy. All that you do in your life is written by the skill of your hand with the materials you furnish. On some sheets, you can make lists, calendars, and agendas. On others, you can write love letters or poetry. On still others, you can draw flowers, birds, and happy little trees. Some, you can leave entirely empty… for they are perfect, just as you created them.
Forget the progress gauges. Today, write or draw something other than a list.
You may also enjoy:
- Days of Labor, Days of Leisure – programminglife.net
- Can’t Let It Go? Write It Out. – programminglife.net
- The dorm-room startup mindset – sethgodin.typepad.com
- Doing What’s Good for Us: What We Need Beyond Discipline – tinybuddha.com
- Why You Don’t Always Need to Listen to the ‘Experts’ – huffingtonpost.com
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