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Deal with something once.

May 1, 2014

Cross-posted from my article on the Pastry Box

If a task can be done in less than two minutes, do it right now.

I find myself consciously procrastinating more than I would like. I’ll read an email, a GitHub issue or pull request and think “I can come back to this later. I’d rather just code”. Over time the items on my mental to-do list start to build up until I have a decreasing hope of ever getting them complete.

You see, to-do lists are like a burrito. If you fill it with too many things it falls apart and then you cry and they kick you out of Chipotle.

This week I’ve started trying to change that. Rather than saying “later”, if I really mean to get back to something, I’ll deal with it right away. Even if it means the reply or review is shorter, at least the task gets pushed on a little and I’m not a bottleneck for progress. I want to start dealing with things immediately.

There’s this story I recently read about Susan O’Connell — a Zen Master who’s taught the “deal with it only once” principle.

One of her students was meeting with her and they talked about getting tea sometime soon. Rather than dealing with it later, she pulled out her notepad and set a date right then and there. Her idea was that you should deal with something only once. Do it now. Once done, it’s off your mind and you can fully focus on the next matter at hand.

There isn’t really any science behind this. A lot of us will say “I can decide on that or reply to that later” to many of the tasks we end up each day, but we put them aside for later. Avoid putting off those small decisions so they don’t weigh at the back of your mind.

If you read an email, write a quick reply to it right away. Don’t let it sit there. Add thoughts, even if brief, to ongoing pull requests. Schedule those meetings you really want to get into your calendar. 

Related is another useful rule I’ve read about by David Allen — it’s called the two-minute rule. If a task can be done in less than two minutes, do it right now. You could stretch that to five minutes, but it just means one less thing to worry about.

Take actions, move onto the next thing, rinse and repeat.

_ _

I hope that some of this has been useful. If not, I apologize. I decided to deal with this post once and now must return to the rest of my to-do list:

[  ] Find out why “apps” isn’t short for “appetizers”. Why would I buy a phone if it can’t download nachos?

[  ] Say “your right” to the next person that argues with you. They’ll think you said “you’re right” but you didn’t. So, you win.