Too Busy to Finish This Sen . . .

Posted: May 25, 2015 in Medical School
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How long will it take before you decide how much of this to read? Even to get to this point, you made a calculation: I’ll take 5 seconds to click on this link. But if you’re anything like me, you may wonder whether you are doing what you should be doing at any given point in time. And how do we know that? I recently completed an excellent book called Getting Things Done By David Allen and its ideas are striking.

Now, I’ll admit that the title did not grab my attention at first. Getting Things Done seemed to lack a little imagination. It’s like a mechanic writing a book called Car Repair or a college instructor titling his book Teaching. But I came to appreciate how this book gets to the point. Most of us have more to do than we seem to have time for. How do we handle that? What is interesting about this book is that the focus is not on productivity as an end itself but rather on why productivity matters. The central premise of the book is that until we can get some kind of control over the mundane thoughts that run through our minds, we are not truly free to explore the higher levels of purpose and thinking that we would enjoy and, in fact, we are not even free to be totally present with those we are around. The book offers a framework based on the concept of an “external mind” that is taking the time to “capture” everything running through our minds that we know we need to do. These items are organized into a series of meaningful lists that work very differently from simply “to do lists.” We then clarify those items and ultimately engage them in systematic way. One advantage I have seen right away is feeling a little more comfortable with what I’m NOT doing. There is a plan for those items, in a system that I review regularly, and so I do not need to keep thinking about things that I am not acting on right now. Getting_Things_Done So why would I want to talk about one of the thousands of time management systems out there? Well, this happens to be one recommended to me by my wonderful sister and its philosophy, creating free mental space for what matters, resonates with me. But beyond that, busyness is such a consuming part of modern culture, especially in the US and I often notice how much of a trap this can become. I look at people walking in the street, sitting down to a meal with their families in a restaurant, meeting a friend for coffee and I wonder how present they are in those moments. And if they are not, I can understand that battle. But should we really settle for this pseudoengagement? In acting, being in the moment is the holy grail, not focusing on how a line has just gone or anticipating an upcoming tricky monologue, but rather just being there. That is the center of the powerful performance.The neurosurgeon, too, must navigate the brain with extraordinary attention to the present moment, just as the clinician in the clinic cannot afford to fast forward without compromising an opportunity to catch a critical diagnostic clue from the patient.

But none of this is controversial. Of course, a dad should be mentally present with his family  and a doctor should be present with her patient. The big question is how? Up till now, I have assumed that being present is a matter of changing one’s mindset, being “mindful” to use a phrase that is popular right now. And to be sure, I think consciously rethinking about how we engage the world is part of the solution. But I think books like David Allen’s challenge us to be honest about something else: we must confront the mundane. If we really want to smell the roses with complete engagement, we have to find a way to deal with the thoughts about the car repair, the college application, the birthday party, the big meeting . . . so I actually tried one of Allen’s suggestions which was to sit down for 2 hours and “Capture” every thought about what I needed or wanted to do in life. I placed those thoughts in lists or categories such as “Home” “Office” “Someday/Maybe” (for example, learning a language) and “Waiting For”(items that depend on another person’s action first) etc.

Items on the list are then first attacked based on a simple rule. If something can be done in under 2 minutes, do it immediately. That could clear 15 items of your lists in 30 minutes. From there, the choices on what to do become more layered, but the focus remains on clearing your mind from grappling with disassociated recall, which it was never designed for, to engage instead in creative free thinking and experiencing. We’re not going to stop being busy really, so something has to give.  I’m still in the early stages so I can’t yet speak to its long-term impact but the early steps have given shape to those many obligations that did not have a home and created more space for me to think more creatively.

Here is what I have resolved: My moments with people I love are too important to half engage. But believing in that ideal alone won’t will my mind into shape. I must plan for the mundane and get those reverberating tasks, big and small, out of my mind and into a workable system, so that if my son takes an extra 15 minutes to eat his clown-cone ice cream because he doesn’t like whipped cream and has to meticulously wipe each molecule off the cone with an essentially non-absorbent napkin (a totally hypothetical example), I can still be 100% there right with him. Now, the larger question, of course, is how anyone cannot like whipped cream. But shouldn’t my mind be free to ponder that? What else matters? Clown Ice Cream

  1. Thanks for this great post JB! I’m so glad you found the book helpful! I love how you summarized the premise of the book. The ideas presented in the book also helped me to manage a stressful work schedule where the list of tasks to do was mounting up on my desk and became overwhelming. But just knowing that you have allocated the tasks (either by delegation or labeling as urgent, waiting for, someday/maybe etc.) takes a lot of the pressure off, partly because you know nothing will be forgotten. I loved your example about the whipped cream (was that Cammy by any chance?). I have to remind myself to be in the moment with my kids even when I know there are so many other things to be done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kurlz! It’s funny you mention work, because I am curious how these principles may apply in residency. Will have to try them out when the time comes! And yes, the whipped cream culprit was Camz😉

      Liked by 1 person

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