Outsource Your Future: Productivity, Right Now
Storytime: 10 p.m.
You’re idly reading on your phone, winding down for bed. You see an article about the futility of multitasking. “Multitasking isn’t really possible,” the article says. “Over time, it actually makes your attention worse.”
From now on, you think as you doze off, I’m going to focus on one thing at a time.
You’re jolted awake by the sound of birds chirping. You chose that alarm because it’s gentle, but you still wake up like someone fired a cannon.
You stumble to the dining room, pop a pod in the Keurig, and plop into your desk chair. Your intention from the night before wanders across your mind: One thing at a time.
I’ll start with the Malone project, you think, referring to important work for your biggest client. But as you double-click on the Malone folder, you remember another project: I told Jeff I’d have him a proposal on Monday and now it’s — you check your laptop screen, because you don’t have the slightest idea what day it is — Friday!
So you leave the Malone folder and search for Jeff’s proposal, which proves tricky because you didn’t put Jeff’s name or the word “proposal” in the filename.
The Malone folder, Jeff’s proposal, three Chrome tabs related to getting your car’s brakes replaced, five more Chrome tabs about entirely unrelated topics, and an image of a flamingo are open on your computer screen.
You, on the other hand, are leaned back in your chair staring intently at your phone. Wordle isn’t going to play itself, you know.
One thing at a time
My friend and fellow coach Ed DeCosta calls “Do one thing at a time” the single biggest secret to productivity. The problem is, so much is vying to be that one thing. Work on the Malone project? Or Jeff’s proposal? Or getting the car’s brakes fixed? Or Wordle?
Multitasking is Productivity FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out. We’re afraid in part because we don’t know which task is most important, but that’s another (future) article in itself.
This article addresses the other problem: We multitask because we’re afraid we’ll lose track of any task we aren’t working on RIGHT NOW. And our lives are so chaotic, we don’t see any alternative.
Let’s start with a step back.
The Ever-Present Now
There is no past.
There is no future.
There is only the Ever-Present Now.
That was one of my Dad’s favorite sayings, but I’ve never been able to find the source. Dad attributed it to Lloyd C. Douglas, but I can’t verify that. Regardless, it’s central to the question we’re exploring.
The only instant you can control is this one. Right now. Your past Nows already happened. Your future Nows are yet to come. For you, Now is all that exists — and all that will ever exist.
The only real question you need to answer is this: What am I going to do Now?
To be clear, I am not saying that the past and future aren’t important. I’m saying that, from a productivity standpoint, the past and future are important primarily because they influence what you do Now.
Too often, we become so obsessed with scouring our past and micromanaging our future that we never accomplish anything Now. We lose the thread of past work and spend ages picking it up. We spread ourselves across fifteen tasks we want to accomplish by the end of the month and never make progress on any of them.
The past is valuable — we can learn from it. The future is valuable — we can design it, to an extent. But the past and future can overwhelm the Now.
I’ve talked before about how productivity is communication between Past You and Today You or between Today You and Future You. If you want to engage with your past and future without being consumed or distracted, you need a system to standardize that communication.
You need to…
💡 Outsource your past and your future 💡
☝️ That’s your weekend upgrade.
In Getting Things Done, David Allen uses the analogy “Mind like water.” When he’s in the moment, deciding what to do, he is calm. He trusts his instincts, and chooses the work that “feels right” to do Now.
When you outsource your past and future to a system like David Allen has, you can get closer to that calm frame of mind, too. It is far easier to focus on one thing at a time when everything else is safely outsourced and you trust it’ll show up when you need it. Your Productivity FOMO is under control.
For this to work, your system needs the ability to…
- Review — receive communication from Past You.
- Plan — send communication to Future You.
- Review and plan efficiently, not obsessively.
- Standardize communication so you don’t get lost or stuck.
How can Tools for Thought help?
If you’re new to the Weekend Upgrade newsletter, I explore how processes can be created in Tools for Thought (TfTs). TfTs are apps optimized for linking your ideas, thoughts, notes, etc. — apps like Roam Research, Amplenote, Logseq, Obsidian, and Craft.
I’m going to discuss two ways TfTs can help you outsource your past and future. First, we’ll use dates to provide reminders and structure your work. Second, we’ll see how workflow templates can standardize your past-to-present-to-future communication.
One of the most powerful features of TfTs are backlinks. When you refer to a [[page]], the reference will appear in a designated area of that page — usually marked “Linked References” or “Backlinks”. For example, if I make a note to add contact information to the [[Malone project]], when I go to the Malone project page, the note will show up there, no matter where in my TfT I took the note.
That feature allows us to outsource future tasks to our system, knowing that Future Us will get the message.
Let’s imagine you have to write a report for a class. Create a page for that project —[[Write report for class]] or something similar — and then lay out the important waypoints. It could look something like this (the exact method will vary depending on your TfT of choice):
- [ ] Gather reference material for report [[April 20th, 2022]]
- [ ] Write outline for report [[April 22nd, 2022]]
- [ ] Write first draft of report [[April 25th, 2022]]
- [ ] Write second draft of report [[April 28th, 2022]]
- [ ] Polish final draft of report [[April 30th, 2022]]
- [ ] Submit report [[May 1st, 2022]]
As you arrive at each of those dates, you’ll find the relevant task waiting for you in the Linked References/Backlinks. As long as Future You knows to look there (see below), you’ve successfully outsourced that report to your system.
Now, imagine you had to write ten similar reports over the course of a year. Each time a report comes up, you could generate the entire workflow from a template.
Here’s a real-world example. I write my Weekend Upgrade newsletter using two Tools for Thought. I plan, brainstorm, and structure in Roam Research, then draft and polish in Obsidian. I built a SmartBlock in Roam which lays out all the important dates of the process. By outsourcing the workflow for my future newsletters to my system, I know the right tasks will show up when I need them — my FOMO never gets a foothold.
The same concept applies day-to-day. When you have a template for your daily startup and shutdown workflows, you can review yesterday, and know exactly where to look and what you can expect to find there. You can plan tomorrow, and know exactly how to lay it out so Future You can understand it and get to work.
That‘s the “(see below)” from the last section: “As long as Future You knows to look” is handled by including, as part of your daily startup workflow, a reminder to check the Backlinks to that date.
This also works across longer time-frames. On the level of projects, templated workflows bridge your communication from one work session to the next, or from one project into a similar future project. On the level of big-picture goals, templated workflows help us translate from distant aspirations to actionable steps.
Why use TfTs for this?
Wouldn’t a dedicated app for task or project management be better? Maybe, but that depends on you.
Dedicated task apps will certainly standardize your communication with yourself. The drawback is this: you have to conform to the way the app works. If that’s not an issue, then yes — find the app that makes sense to you and use it!
The magic of TfTs is that they conform to you. You can create templates, insert them anywhere, adapt them, adjust them, scrap them and build a new one, all without missing a step.
Plus, depending on the type of work, you can review, plan, and work all within the TfT. Doing everything in one environment makes it easier to stay focused — you avoid the “context switching” costs of bouncing between apps.
No Mo FOMO
Once your system allows you to review, plan, and do those in an efficient, standardized way, you will trust that your future and past are safely outsourced.
And when you trust it, you don’t have to do everything at once. Your multitasking productivity FOMO is kept at bay.
One last piece: Make it easy to write down projects and ideas when they come to you, and then make sure one of your workflows reminds you to review what you wrote down. I call this my [[Inbox]], and my morning workflow reminds me to process everything in it. This prevents the sneaky FOMO of “I’ll do it now so I don’t forget it.” If I have an idea, I write it down and deal with it later.
What do I do next?
(1) Take 2 minutes and answer this question: What’s one thing I learned in this article that I can put into practice right away?
By committing to a specific action, you make it much more likely you’ll do it.
(2) Create two workflows: one for reviewing yesterday’s work, and one for planning tomorrow’s work.
Then, every day next week, start your day by centering yourself in what “Yesterday You” prepared, and end your day by creating a path for “Tomorrow You.”
Excerpted from my bi-weekly productivity newsletter, Weekend Upgrade.
More about R.J.: rjn.st/links