If you can’t see the forest for trees, get a chain saw
Have you ever noticed that advice for steering your life on the path towards success tends to focus on the big picture – as if though lofty, futuristic goals will improve upon your current situation? Granted, the the grand scheme is important, but a map which shows destinations but leaves out the roads is hardly useful.
Reality as we know it
The vast majority of us lead busy, fragmented lives with a multitude of responsibilities, commitments and desires which all extract a grave toll upon our attention. In a world of seemingly limitless to-dos, opportunities and distractions, it can be difficult to achieve a state where choosing what the very next thing to do is as effortless as pouring a glass of water.
And yet, the ability to do so is critical step to the process of simplifying ones life to the point where the big picture becomes second nature.
To have everything that is currently on your mind under control means to move from task to task effortlessly, being certain that one is performing the appropriate task at the right moment. If you can manage to do so, thoughts regarding the bigger picture will flow to the surface naturally, as your brain is no longer strained in an attempt to keep track of the daily grind.
To explain how such a state is achieved, let’s borrow a page from David Allen for a moment, whose GTD methodology states the importance of relying on a trusted system to store and retrieve all possible actions and reference material – with which I could not agree more, as our brains excel at quite different things than storage.
3 simple steps from junior scout to forest ranger
Structuring ones life, as with building a house, is a bottom-up affair: getting the roof up first would indeed be impressive – and an illusion. Such, also, is the case with lofty goals. What you need to get a proper view of the forest is a system for collecting everything that you need to make a decision about (whether now or later) or store for future reference, and that is secure enough for you to trust it whole-heartedly; otherwise, your brain will attempt to retain a copy. Which is bad.
Secondly, you need to process your system on a regular basis in order to categorize and prioritize what’s in it. Compare the difference between walking into a garage that has been used for band practice for the last 5 years and one that belongs to a mechanic with OCD, and you’ll get a picture of the level of transformation we are aiming for.
Depending on the number of items on your plate, processing the system can range from picking the three things that will make you survive another day to neatly organizing your reference materials on the art of muffin baking. The first rule, however, is to make sure that your system is capable of spitting out the very next task which requires your attention within a matter of seconds. When it does, the brain will naturally facilitate thoughts concerning the bigger picture, as it is able to trust the system you have created.
In essence, you have delegated yourself… to yourself.
Rest assured that steps one and two may require several failed attempts before the results are to your satisfaction – to which I can personally attest. Do not give up. When you do get it right, the reward is, quite honestly, incredible. And, when you complete the two first steps, you can move to step three, which is to remember the importance of quietude. Nothing facilitates big picture thinking quite like juxtaposing a trusted system with a distraction-free environment.
Hopefully, this will give you a foundation upon which to build your house of simplicity; I’ll be posting more about how to fine-tune such systems to make your life simpler at a later time. For now, I’ve got a little challenge for you: Collect a few of your best friends or co-workers, have them devise 15 cognitively challenging tasks, and have them visit you at random times throughout the day to insert these into your workflow.
Which do you think works best; juggling it all in your head, or inserting it into a trusted system which is primed for constant reevaluation? If you decide you have to try it out before resolving an answer, please do let me know how it goes.