How to get things done: don’t open your post

This is the pile of unopened post that’s accumulated inside our front door over the last couple of months:

Usually I feel a sort of low-level nagging guilt about this, but actually I think it’s a good thing.

How do we get important things done?

By ignoring all the piffling little things that demand our attention.

I’m not saying that the post won’t eventually need dealing with.  I do glance at each morning’s new crop and open anything that looks urgent or interesting, but the rest just gets left lying around until, well, some time.  And “some time” will arrive — at some stage I’ll need to go through all my bank statements to prepare my accounts, for example.

But the thing is, it doesn’t need dealing with now; and now I can do something interesting: working on a paper, or a program, or a blog post.  (Or, to be completely honest, looking at photos of Redditors’ cats.)

It’s too easy to let the tyranny of little jobs have its way.  Because the thing is, there is always something that you ought to be doing.  You’ll never clear the list.  And yet something in us feels that we ought to clear the list of all the little things before we plough into the big stuff, the important stuff.  It’s a terribly seductive notion, because it feels virtuous.  And it feels — in the short term, anyway — productive.  When you do things like sorting through your post or filing your bank statements, you get to tick off a job that needed doing and is now done.  But this isn’t the stuff that you’re going to look back and reflect on proudly in a couple of decades’ time.

It just doesn’t matter that much.

Some of the stuff that does matters to me is writing palaeontology papers, writing programs, building up a body of blog posts, learning the songs for that jazz gig and hopefully some followups, and, well everything.  We need to get into the habit of prioritising what we actually care about rather than what shouts for our attention.

If that means an unsightly pile of unopened post, I’m good with that.

7 responses to “How to get things done: don’t open your post

  1. First thing that came to mind: how do you get in and out of the house? I guess you must have a back or side door, although it’s more intriguing to suppose you might not :-)

    Most of my post gets shoved straight into a (now sagging) drawer. I sort through it every few years. When I run out of paper, I eventually take letters out of there to write on the back of, which leads to a seperate pile …

  2. Yes, we mostly use the back door :-)

    The front door, in a nice bit of irony, is only ever opened for the postman, when he comes with something too big to fit through the letter-box.

  3. Andrei Vajna

    I’m guessing this post should be the start of a new series – “How to get things done”.

  4. Nice idea, Andrei, except that I don’t really have any other ideas about how to get things done. Feel free to postone urgent-but-unimportant stuff, stay up late working on stuff you love, don’t bother trying to work on stuff you don’t love because it won’t work, and sleep deeply when you do get to bed. That’s all I’ve got.

  5. Andrei Vajna

    There you go, that’s your series right there.

    Also related, maybe you’ve stumbled upon this essay, which has the same idea as your post: http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/index.php

  6. Tagore Smith

    I have a terrible confession. There is a mailbox at the front of my building with my name on it. When I walk to my apartment I can see that there is mail in it (the profile of the waiting hasn’t changed much in the last 9 months though.) I have never collected my mail here though. The postman collected it all and put it in a box in front of my door once, but I threw it away without looking at it.

    I can’t be reached by post (and I don’t have an incoming phone number.) I suppose that’s a very stubborn thing to say, but.. I am easy to get hold of if you have my email address or my Skype ID. I keep worrying that they will find a way to charge me with something for refusing mail though.

  7. Pingback: “The Show” (Vineyard Community Church, Bermondsey, 21 July 1991) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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