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Most of our tasks work like a wave. We need to do them at a certain interval. I need to pee and pay taxes every sometime.
To-do waves have different lengths. There are small waves like I need to pee, eat, and drink. There are daily waves like clean teeth, dress up, move my body. Couple of days long waves like socializing, grocery shopping, and bringing the trash out. And a week, year, or longer waves like cutting nails, refueling a car, renewing a passport, doing a checkup at the doctor, filing taxes. There is a high probability that each day there will be waves from all lengths buckets.
And there are so many different categories of tasks. Taking care of a human pet – an expression from the Wait But Why blog, meaning all the little things you need to do to take care of yourself, essential things for survival, and chores. There are things you simply like and gonna do: internet addictions, watch/read cool things in a save folder, go for ice cream. There are things that are super urgent “I run out of time with a parking meter” or agenda you feel is right to do like helping a friend or going to a protest. There are straight procrastination items – when you pick a thing of least resistance not to tackle a more demanding item. And there are tasks tiny but abundant like attaching a charging cable to devices, refilling a water bottle, or eating a snack. We usually underestimate how many things we need to-do in our lives.
By default, my expectation is that I have this open plane of time when I can work on the important to-do. The reality looks completely different. My life is full of to-do items that it is hard to foresee. In practice I am left with is shuttered timeline and slivers of time where I can try to accomplish something important.
FAQ / what to do about it?
Why this is important? Uninterrupted time as a foundation of productivity
I think we tend to underestimate to what extent context switching is demanding on our cognition. Paul Graham in his text on Good and bad procrastination sees that one of the most overlooked properties of productivity is the number of interruptions one has. I think it works this way because every time we do something complex we need time to load all the variables into our short-term memory. It’s like keeping all the dynamics influencing the outcome in one strain of thought. If we approach the task with many attempts we end up loading the complexities over and over again.
Rest and to-do waves
Breaks are counterintuitive. You are on a full-day hike, 100 km bike ride, or on a weekend silent retreat, and part of your brain is like: “What am I doing here? I have more things to do than the time available. How this not doing can be helpful?”
Not doing, time away is critical to being productive. When you learn something new synapses are formed during sleep. The more immersive your time away the higher quality of the break, and the more creative insights one will stumble upon. More on this in
It’s counterintuitive to schedule breaks. Why would I need to do this when they happen automatically when not doing? But then given the hundreds of to-do waves that are coming it’s easy to get sucked in doing, in being distracted, in a state of half-break half-work – resulting in a work that is not focused and break that is not restorative. Breaks are like a master task that first turns off other tasks and then helps to realign – double down on what’s important and decrease the frequency of things that aren’t.
Fix: Limit, group, wrap the unimportant
To counteract the to-do flood is to discern it is happening. When I realize how many tasks I have and how scattered they will be throughout the day I get motivated. There is this tiny bit of anger arising. I am better at prioritizing, clearing my schedule and avoiding the less important. If I need to do something anyway I batch it or attempt to wrap it quickly. When I realize how little time I have it’s easier for me, as Paul Graham says it, to leave the right things undone 🔗.
Fix: Be okay with the wavy nature of reality
Sometimes I feel frustrated when I have to repeat something over and over again. Say when making a bed in the mornings, cleaning dishes after each meal, brushing teeth twice a day. There are dozens of tasks like this every day. Being frustrated about it can, little by little, drain my emotional energy. Whenever I see this emotion coming up I remind myself that tasks are waves. They are gonna keep repeating. And I switch into meditation mode. I am gonna treat this moment as a vehicle to be more here and now. It is not arbitral. It is an essential part of life. I am gonna treat whatever thing I am doing with care, attention, and love. This seems like a tiny switch but in practice, it feels a lot more consequential. It transforms all these moments from scraps, margins, and unnecessary parts to feeling as if they are the center of life.
Fix: First things first
Fix: Closing loops
If I am doing one type of activity I want to wrap all the things related to it. When I come back from soccer I want to unpack dirty clothes from the backpack. So next time I wash clothes I don’t need to find my dirty clothes or if I want to use a backpack I don’t need to unpack it first.