When my father died amongst his possessions was a big claret-coloured notebook.
He’d bought it to catalogue his vast record collection, a task that sat on his metaphorical “to-do” list for decades
He had never written in it, and now he was dead.
The paper was a smoothly satisfying alluring cream colour.
It was also lined, which would usually turn me right off, preferring as I do to “freestyle” my way through any required note-taking, often doodling all over the place and deciding, on a whim, to write in landscape and then switch to portrait in the same piece.
This is as adventurous as I get in life.
Many years later I hit upon an idea for the notebook which turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned about productivity.
When a colleague told me about a friend whose way of dealing with pressure at work was to go and sit in the toilet until the trouble died down, I recognised something of myself in him.
My toilet turned out to be the notebook.
For years I had been suggesting to people who feel overwhelmed that they need to start with their “To-Do” lists.
“How many things do you have on your list?” I might ask.
“Too many,” someone would tell me.
I’d suggest that they restrict themselves to a maximum of five each day and, only when they were complete, would they allow themselves to add a new one.
I had found that staring at a long list of things I can never get through was a source of tremendous overwhelm.
I’ve been pretty good at keeping to this rule.
But reading a number of pieces on the subject of productivity written by Oliver Burkeman I’ve realised that Dad’s big red notebook helped me in another more obscure way.
Burkeman points out that we benefit from having two lists. The first is a “master” list of everything we want to accomplish, and a second “working” list compiled by pulling items from the master list with which we then construct our daily agenda.
What he doesn’t point out is a hidden benefit of the master list which became clear to me when I made mine in the big notebook.
Writing the things I wanted to accomplish in it made me feel a sense of security that they wouldn’t be forgotten. Then, each day, I would select some tasks from the list to work on and possibly add new ones to the master.
Over time, a lot of tasks that I had once deemed essential didn’t get done until, eventually, I rubbed them off the list because they no longer were or felt important thus saving myself both the time and the angst I would have spent either doing them or worrying about not doing them.
While slinking off to the toilet when it all gets a bit a tense might not be the most pragmatic way of dealing with overwhelm, taking a notebook with you and making a long list of everything you’re worried about while you’re in there, just could be.