02 Mar 2009

Brain in a Box

Happy St David’s Day, plus one!

I almost missed St David’s Day as the daffodils, my usual seasonal reminder, are a bit late this year. We’re still seeing clumps of snowdrops, normally long since faded by this time, off in the woods, along river banks, although they are past their best. Wild bluebells will be along now any time, followed in quick procession by so many different wild flowers that… Well, I’ll spare you. A botanical list of flowers that say “spring in Wales” would probably be tiresome to read.

We didn’t mark the passing of St David’s Day by either the eating of leeks or the wearing of daffodils on our lapels, because it was Sunday, and we just couldn’t be bothered. The day was as fine and fair as one could want for the first day of spring. (In my world the first day of spring is 1 March, and not the date on which the vernal equinox happens to fall. I’m not sure why this is, as it never truly feels like summer or winter until after the solstices, and the autumnal equinox always feels like the first day of autumn to me. Something about the calendar date, March 1 just feels like spring.) Instead of enjoying the lovely day, however, I stayed indoors, working on implementing the website changes I spoke about in the last podcast, with little to show for it in the end. Sunday actually marked Day Two of the endeavor. I had spent all day Saturday doing precisely the same thing. I had a very successful day of geekery on Saturday, and if I’d just stayed away from the computer, as I had meant to, I’d have ended the weekend on a high. As it is, I managed to break or ruin all of Saturday’s work on Sunday, and ended the weekend feeling like an idiot.

A few weeks ago I came across a couple of time management ideas that stuck, although the source was far less sticky, as I can’t remember where or when I read it. It was an article having mostly to do with getting the most from Outlook. I skimmed rather than read this article as 1) I use Gmail, and 2) in my experience implementing “time management strategies” usually takes more time than it saves. Nevertheless the article suggested something called a “Two Minute Rule” that, simply put, means assessing in a glance whether an email will take less than two minutes to answer. If yes, answer it. If no, save it to a folder, make a note and schedule time to come back to it. With the easy email answered and hard stashed away, the payoff is an empty inbox. As someone who struggles under the weight of email at times, this concept was something of a revelation. It works. And I’m only sorry that I didn’t learn about it earlier.

In the sidebar of the main article was another eye-opener, containing something about the importance of writing things down, but not keeping lists. (As you can probably tell, I do not read articles like this for comprehension.) Although I’m a list maker from way back, I’ve never yet managed to clear the items off one of my lists without the sneaking suspicion that something is missing. That I’ve somehow left something critical off the list in the first place. The article or sidebar or whatever it was suggested a few alternatives, I can’t even remember what they were, but after reading it I was inspired to try a new gadget for keeping track of the things that need to be done. Index cards.

brainboxLast Monday I began the week as I always do, with a quick office tidy and an attempt at organization. Instead of making a list, however, I wrote my projects, ideas and things that need doing on index cards, one thing per card. The cards are not smaller lists, they are one thing that is also everything. They are my brain. (Those of you chuckling, shut up. It’s totally different than making a list. I swear.) I repurposed a little wooden box from my desk, an old handmade thing I’ve had for years, with dovetailed corners and battered edges, that use for odd sewing supplies. I dumped it out, and discovered to my delight that the index cards fit perfectly.

I am amazed at the difference keeping my brain in a box has made to my work flow. Armed with the two minute rule and my index cards, last week was one of the most productive I’ve had in months. Each morning I’d scroll through my index cards, select the few with tasks that seemed most pressing, pull those to the front of the stack, and keep the one that felt most critical on my desk. Sometimes it was a five minute task of something needed to keep a project moving along, sometimes several hours. When done I’d go back to the stack, pull the next cards out and reassess. The weekdays flew by. I got so much done that the weekend ahead really seemed to be mine. A full weekend away from the computer and work is something I haven’t had in ages.

Well, the best laid plans, and all that. With the weekend free ahead of me, first thing Saturday morning I turned my attention to that website redesign. It was on a card that has stayed near the bottom of the pile since I wrote it out, as it isn’t critical. I was only going to have a quick look, and plan the process, but ended up getting sucked in. I like this work, so it doesn’t really feel like work. It’s very pleasant when all is going well, as it did for most of Saturday. It was fun, and easy and Saturday just sort of slipped away. With Sunday, of course, came the ruination of all, and endless hours of frustration, and now I find myself wanting my weekend back, and wishing I’d made different choices. While the system worked perfectly throughout the week, the fact remains that I didn’t spend my time as I ought over the weekend. Now I’ve a full week of work things ahead of me, and I do not feel rested.

I suppose it’s all part of the process around getting comfortable with having my brain in a box, and learning what needs to go on an index card. The answer is: everything. This morning I added a new index card to my brain to remind me it’s also essential to, say, go for a walk and photograph the spring wildflowers. (You’d think I would know this by now, but apparently it’s one of those lessons I have to keep learning.) Hopefully the one card that says, “What are you working for?” will serve to remind me that none of it matters, unless I also make time in my weekends for play.

Posted on March 2, in Blog


  1. I don’t know… a list of wildflowers meaning spring in Wales sounds rather interesting to me.

    I think my daffodils might bloom this week. Those are always the sign that spring will really happen, becuse crocuses (crocii?) are simply too unreliable.

    Posted on 3.2.09 ·
  2. For me, Spring begins at Imbolc. It honestly always felt like the first “day” of a season fell smack dab in the MIDDLE of the damn season, so I usually back it up to the cross quarter day prior to the official start of the season. That way I feel like I grow into the season along with the changing of the days, instead of arriving at a party that’s already in full swing. 😉

    Posted on 3.2.09 ·
  3. Maux wrote:

    The two-minute rule is part of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I highly recommend it, and it works well as an audio book.

    Posted on 3.2.09 ·
  4. Liz wrote:

    Thank you so much for this post Brenda- I am a chronic list maker, but I really like your index card idea. I’m definitly going to try it- if anything, it will be a great excuse to repurpose a cute box I’ve been hanging on to!

    Posted on 3.6.09 ·
  5. Bonnee wrote:

    My only problem is I’d lose the box. I imagine it would end up wherever my Rollodex of really important addresses and phone #s went to… So I use a day planner w/ a week-at-a-glance. Then I use the tiny post-its and those are my list items. I shuffle the post-its to the day they need doing and the order in which they need to be done. I know I waste a lot of post-its by doing this, but there’s terrible satisfaction at tearing off that post-it and tossing it out once the job is completed. Then I can move on to the next task (post-it). Works for me. Course, as we all say when it comes to knitting, there is no right way or wrong way. Just the method that works for you!

    Posted on 3.8.09 ·

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