The 12-Day Cycle

ActionOutlineI’m midstream the 4th time around my 12-day cycle and it’s going well. In fact it’s going so well I wonder how I ever handled my computer life any other way.

At the beginning of the year, I made a tongue-in-cheek resolution to be more productive and reduce stress.  Only because I assume that’s everyone’s resolution. How to cram more and more into less and less time.

This method actually meets my needs. I’ve tried quite a few others and 40 days is a long time to last. I still think the 30-minute timer is a good idea. We need to wake ourselves up periodically and look around.

Last year I presented the idea of the desktop mind map. Similar concept; working around a circle. ActionOutline, that I use for organizing my lists now, has the advantage over mind mapping of being a word processor with lots of writing space.

When I split my lists into 12 categories I didn’t pull those categories out of thin air. I started a few years ago by doing a broad sort of everything on my computer and the categories naturally created themselves.

When I realized I was overwhelmed (more than ever) and spinning my wheels I split my days the same way:

  • to create space
  • to create focus
  • to better control my computer time

I’m not suggesting this will work for teamwork. Some of the concepts may apply but not the application. There’s software specially built for teamwork; Asana, Basecamp, Wrike

If you have a job, if you spend a lot of time traveling, your mileage will obviously vary. My life is very home-centric so this works for me.

If you’re a genealogist, maybe one of your categories would be the family history book you’re writing. If I was writing one, I’d give it a whole day on my wheel because I couldn’t get my mind in and out of it any faster than that.

Create Space

It’s fine to have to-do lists that go on forever. But, what happens to anything that’s trying to come in? You can’t lock yourself away with a to-do list for very long because Life will keep getting in the way.

If Life suddenly threw you a curve ball or a new opportunity, how well could you handle it? Or is your life already so full there’s no room for anything new?

When you’re closed in around your to-do list how do you know if Life is trying to offer you a better alignment? (Here wanders off into the philosophy of …)

Somehow your to-do list has to be open-ended. That seems paradoxical but I’ve found it’s possible.

First, you have to know that not every idea that crosses your mind will get done. I think computers delude us into thinking that all things are possible. Just because my hard-drive can run at 7200 rpm it doesn’t mean I can. When I looked at my 12 lists and what keeps getting added, I realized that I can reasonably work on one per day.

Leaving aside time for the obvious dailies (cooking, eating, sleeping, exercise, family …) my focus throughout each workday is only interrupted by what else has to be done. Email and phone calls that can’t wait, for instance. Appointments on my calendar. Otherwise anything incoming is filed to wait for its turn on the wheel.

Sometimes waiting a week to answer an email is a good idea. It might stop me from ripping off a reply to someone who’s irritating me and smacking them over the head.

If I finish my commitments early, good. It’s called Optional Time. Breathing space. Optional does not necessarily mean my optional computer list. Maybe I’ll take a nap instead. Most of us are sleep-deprived.

Create Focus

Obviously some things don’t need to be written down. Eating, sleeping …

Since everything else on my mind that I have to, want to, could do is written on a list, I spend zero time wondering what to do next. Working on one section per day instantly killed multitasking. Constantly checking email stopped. There’s no point. I clear my Inbox first thing in the morning and once in the evening. In between there’s nothing to look at. When did email become a variety of telephone that can ring at will?

Focusing on one area per day allows me to dig deep where I am instead of flitting from one thing to another in sniper mode. Sniper mode doesn’t just waste time, it kills focus.

When I lapse into nervous clicking around I know I’ve lost focus for some reason. It’s better I get up and walk around, wash a few dishes, do some laundry …


Somewhere, I heard David Allen say that most people don’t know what their commitments are.

Something along the lines of: If you don’t know what you’re already committed to you have no perspective. And if you have no perspective, you’re living in chaos.

It took about two weeks for that concept to sink in because I’ve never thought of myself as a disorganized person. I’m not trying to follow GTD but it seems I may have stumbled backwards through the fog into at least a small part of it.

That’s really step #1 as I see it. Write everything down and then check off your commitments.

Being able to clearly see the difference between commitments and optional to-do’s gave me instant perspective.

Commitments are your have-to’s, your promises to other people and the things that you’ve fallen into that have to be maintained. No-one else can tell you what those are but if you think about it you’ll know you have them. If you don’t like your commitments or you’ve got too many, start cutting them back.

It doesn’t mean breaking promises. I hate when people do that. It means responsibly and respectfully un-committing. I’ve stopped email from people who are interesting but talk way too much relative to the amount of time I have for listening to them. Do what you have to do.

Once you know what your commitments are you have a reality check with Time.

You don’t have to put them all on a calendar but you do have to have a general sense of how much time they’re going to take and where you’re going to find that time. In other words, if your commitments are adding up to 150 years of 15 hour days, I’d say you’re overbooked.

I don’t prioritize my lists by number. Life changes too fast and I’d end up spending more time renumbering my lists than actually doing anything. All I need to know is where I’m committed and where I’m not (yet).

Control Computer Time

Some days are more demanding than others. Some days there are too many items flagged “commitment” to do in one day.

I simply work on the most important, acknowledge the reality of time and leave the rest for the next time around. When I go to bed I have a feeling of satisfaction about my day’s accomplishments. I don’t look back and I don’t look forward. Tomorrow’s another day and another tab in the cycle and I’ll get there in the morning.

12 Day Cycle, ActionOutline

Within another month or so half of them may not have any commitment flags other than the cyclical check list. They won’t even have optional items.

So, do I tighten up my cycle into 6 days? Probably not. I may fill that space with things that don’t involve a computer. Clear space is welcome.

The only guideline I’ve made for myself is that I don’t shift between tabs in the same day except for quickly adding things that come up. Because, if I do, I’ll be right back where I was running around in dizzying circles all day.

Some things obviously have the potential to go on forever in a 24/7 kind of way; the ancestors, my website and other Internet interests.

My simple daily plan is to start with the day’s check list. I put it in red font and then turn each item back to black as it gets done. The less I have to think or remember the better, even for something as simple as this. Then I move onto other green-flagged items or yellow-flagged (optional) if it’s still early in the day and I feel like it.

Taking into consideration my health and my energy level, I work as hard as I can on the day’s focus area and then I quit.

Over a 12-day cycle I hit the high points and file the rest. This way I know I’m getting the most important things done.

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