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The Power of Repetition – Creating Flow, Clearing Clutter, and Avoiding Deadline Pressure

on Sep 2, 2009

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This entry is part of a series, Using OmniFocus»

The discipline to stay with any system, such as Getting Things Done (GTD) or otherwise, is similar to any exercise. Including it as part of the daily routine makes it easier to continue and even enjoy.

The draw, though, is not just in the habit. The desire to continue also stems from the fitness and health felt by a good functioning system once in place. Experiencing a clear mind and an ease of flow is an excellent motivator for a task management system. An area of repetition can aid in getting to this state.

 

The Power of Repetition

notesRepetition is a major building block in music just as it is for life, in general. It is used in the establishment of patterns which build into larger patterns. It carries structure from which new themes can arise.

Though there is sometimes a fear of suppressing creativity with repetition, I personally note a definite increase in not only being able to create but also being able to follow through and complete projects. This is true for endless tasks such as practicing music or exercise, or for defined projects such as writing a post like this one.

Repetition, in this sense, is not about doing the exact same thing each time. It is about a regularity of bringing oneself to a task. What happens when there can and will change.

(Before going on, I want to mention that GTD is “tool agnostic.” It can work with simple pen and paper. I happen to like and use OmniFocus, so this post and others include examples using it. Of course, feel free to adapt to your own system. Click here for other articles I’ve written on OmniFocus.)

 

“General View” Reviewed and Adding the Tickler File

The General View idea introduced in Part I is a pattern around which projects can evolve. Having a general view with tasks of maintenance provides a daily touchstone which can promote and maintain a regular use of the system.

There is one simple but major point I failed to mention in Part I’s introduction to the General View: it incorporates the Tickler File.

Briefly reviewing, the General View (aka General Maintenance, aka Treading Water) has the following filter components (using v1.7):

 

Picture 1b

 

The power of the General View comes from the selective use of start dates. Anything I want to do today has Today as a start date.

The result looks something like:

Gen View 3

Doing so allows me to use the General View as a tickler file. If there is something that I want to look at 1 week from now, I enter something like “1 week 8a” in the start date. It will now show up in the General View at 8am in 1 week.

A reason for including such simple tasks as these is in the GTD concept of having everything off of the mind. But, there are, in fact, additional benefits.

(Notice that there are multiple contexts in the example above. I have not highlighted specific contexts in the left pane. The contexts highlighted can be whatever is available at the time. Several perspectives can be used highlighting certain contexts here. For example, if I’m at the office, I have @office, @calls, @laptop, and a few others highlighted and set to a perspective.)

 

Batching routines – An example in Web-Comics

I enjoy a series of web-comics – about 15 or 16 of them, actually. I’d find myself, throughout the day periodically remembering that there was one that I hadn’t seen lately. Sometimes I was wrong in not seeing it and had actually just read it that morning. It doesn’t take long to read a comic, but it is an interruption to attention. That it interrupts attention is likely as important, if not more so, than the time it takes.

To solve this issue, the comics are now compiled into 2 folders on the toolbar of my web-browser. In addition, I’ve added a repeating task called “Comics!” every day at 10am (one of only two tasks with an exclamation mark – the other being “Coffee!”). Doing this, I’ve now batched all of the comics into a single place and time. It also means that unless there is something extremely pressing, I can keep pace with the comics I read. It is a small, but significant, treat in the day, that does not interrupt attention dedicated to another project.

 

Clearing Clutter

Other routines can certainly be added. Which routines and when are, of course, unique to the individual.

“Review today’s schedule” in the morning allows me to have a general idea of what the day will look like, so there are no major surprises. “Clear Desktop” reminds me to put everything into some folder so it doesn’t inadvertently grab my attention. Often, putting a file away is also accompanied by creating a task with an alias to that file or its folder. It is another way to ensure that all task and project reminders are concentrated in one location.

Doing things daily means that things do not pile up. Clutter simply does not have an opportunity to form.

Clutter can also be slowly reduced. In the General View image above, notice the “Import a folder into the Computer.” Here, I am using repetition to slowly wear away at the file cabinet which I am importing via a scanner. (I’ve decided I really don’t like file cabinets and prefer computer file systems.) At some point, the file cabinet will be completely imported and the task will be removed.

I could sit down and go through the entire file cabinet in one fell swoop. In fact, this would probably be better GTD practice by remaining in a context. However, I don’t particularly want to spend this amount of time doing something so un-stimulating.

A repeating task of a discrete amount of work in the Project means I can do as little or as much as I want while maintaining its flow.

 

Creating Flow

Repetition can create a flow for a specific project itself and can allow pursuit of multiple projects.

“Practice music” is a daily repeated task. Every morning, I go through the process of powering up the instruments and the software to record. I may play for a minute or an hour. I may only sit at the keys and touch them briefly. Regardless, I sit at the keys, if only for a moment.

Repetition allows me to optimize the conditions for creativity. I don’t have to perform. I don’t have to do anything other than be there with some regularity. Any amount of work counts as something towards checking off the task.

Clearly a longer period of time or increased frequency allows a greater flow through whatever the project may be. But having some frequency creates the flow in the first place.

In this way, one can pursue multiple projects. In addition to the daily practice, there are papers to write and talks to prepare. As daily repeated tasks, I treat them similarly as the practice. I can sit there and type nothing, a sentence, or more. More often than not, once I start more follows. At some point, I feel “that’s enough for now,” close the program, and check it off the repeating task list.

This is actually a rather powerful way of working. More than two, or maybe, three creative repeated tasks somehow becomes too much. Your mileage may vary. The simple daily reminder to put oneself in the position of creating, establishes a flow in which the creativity and its follow through can proceed.

 

Avoiding the Pressure of Deadlines

There is yet another benefit to repetition in this sense. It’s not always the case, but I find more often than not, I avoid the pressure of deadlines.

I mentioned in a prior post that I do not like to see the orange and red reminders of due dates. They are only put in as a reminder of last resort. Instead, setting up a repetition early on, where the pressure to perform is less, where I can simply sit at the Project or task on a regular basis, often allows more than enough time to complete the work. As a result, my Projects list rarely has any tasks listed as due soon or overdue.

Of course, unrealistically short deadlines do appear from time to time. This is not about those times. In those scenarios, I find shouting obscenities as useful as anything else.

Working with regular frequency of visiting a project also gives a better sense of the time the project will take. One never really knows the exact time needed for a project but having some flow established means you can adjust the frequency of sessions from a better understanding of what’s involved.

The frequency of sessions can be adjusted to aim for some comfortable buffer under the due date. This can be used when studying for an exam, writing a paper, or other project.

Some things do not need a firm deadline. I try to be honest with myself as much as possible. Though I may want to complete a CD of music, I would not write a task of “complete a full album of music.” Doing so would annoy me. It takes on the air of an artificial deadline. It creates a dissonance in me which, in an odd way, leaks into the music itself. The resultant rushed music often gives me a headache and winds up being tossed. A similar concept applies for any project.

In this case, I would use “Complete a CD of Music” as a Project, while the daily “Practice Music” provides a venue for new works. I work on it for at least a moment or for as long as it doesn’t otherwise interfere with the day’s schedule. If a particular session seems useful towards the album, I’ll include that session in the CD project and add tasks of editing and post-processing for that particular work.

The project will be done when it’s done. I try to allow the project whatever time it takes.

There are those who say they “need the pressure” associated with a deadline or procrastination. However, I would suggest that many who say this have rarely experienced the joy of creating, completing, and escaping that pressure, but are are instead, caught up in acting out an unconscious, or even conscious, resentment of the deadline and its associations in the first place.

Make no mistake, real deadlines are irritating impositions upon the desire to be free of any such responsibilities. But, repetition, especially when started early on, can be a powerful way to reduce their pressure.

 
 

This post is now transferred to UsingOmniFocus.com. Further commentary may be made at that site.