This past week, the number one list item in my inbox was—surprise, surprise—an email. Not by me. It was by my husband.
As we read the emails, we pondered how we managed to create so much to-do stuff. And this is more than just a conversation about usefulness: It’s about finding out what it is that we need to do to be happier and more productive.
We’ve tried several methods over the years, but the one we’ve always liked is called flow, and it was inspired by Pygmalion, the story of a classical master who wanted to teach his students ballet. In Pygmalion, time is flowing smoothly through the city and Petruchio’s tutor, Iago, notices that he is less than eager to take on a more challenging assignment. Iago stands over Petruchio’s shoulder and shouts, “A human being is a human being and gets what he does, despite the effort.”
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Iago is right, even though the effort it takes to do one thing very well is a lot of effort. So Pygmalion creates a kind of flow: It disrupts the flow of time by stepping in for Petruchio, reminding him of the depths of what he’s trying to do and possibly giving him a little push. His tutor praises him, saying that his efforts were rewarded by creating a new and more effective way of doing something.
Flow isn’t just about getting things done. As Prof. Bryan Caplan and Phyllis Korkki note in their recent book, Process: Bringing Science to Business, it is about high-level activity. In a busy world that’s filled with action, what makes people feel productive and happy is high-level activity. For example, scientists researching complex things understand, in many cases, that they cannot do the whole research project in 24 hours. Once a project is underway, they have to spread out their research to get more data. This is referred to as data warehousing, in order to maintain the status quo.
I find it easy to work in a flow state. It’s hard to work at this rate without a quality of mind and quality of intuition. I can let go. As time moves by, if I hear no one from a long way away—or if I get a call from my husband—I can block out the time and go right to work. Everything else, all the to-do list items, it all fades away.
We have a lot to do, though. And we still need to manage some things at the end of the day. In order to give the slow bits of work their due, I know that I can’t continue to read everything in my inbox. I also need to catch up on work left over from the day before, and not feel paralyzed by the tasks piled up on my desk. Also, I know that I need to balance that next list item with several important tasks I need to get done today, and not feel overwhelmed by the last item.
So today, I am prioritizing my inbox messages by priority and timeline, keeping a check list, and deciding exactly what to do with them. In order to help me choose the right items from the pile, I set up a sorting system. I just look down at my smartphone and my screen tells me which priority message I am working on at this moment. By letting go of my inbox, I am also letting go of a lot of tasks on my to-do list. I don’t care if I don’t accomplish everything today. In fact, I like it better if I don’t, because that’s the point.