Fela’s First Things First

Above: Fela, the original Black President, has words of inspiration and a killer Afrobeat to organise your working day.

BitDepth#1041 for May 17, 2016

O l’oun t’awa se n’yara, Je k’abere

For decades now, when I’m about to start a difficult day and don’t really feel up to it, I’ve muttered those words, the title to the very first song I ever heard by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Let’s Start.

The words are actually the title of the song, and translate literally into “Let’s start what we have come into the room to do,” as clear a directive as any I’ve ever heard from a task management guru.

Of course, most personal organisation experts don’t have the crisp horns of Afrika ’70 backing them, nor do they have the urgent, driving drumming of that band to urge a reluctant soul onward.

The only other words of advice that have stuck me as long was a short bit from Peter Drucker’s book The Effective Executive, which urged young shirt and tie aspirants like the younger me to begin their day with a list of items to be done.

I’ve gone back and forth when it comes to making lists, going digital with them as far back as the Palm III and continuing to this day, but there’s something quite visceral and, well, tangible about confronting a sheet of paper and writing things out then triumphantly crossing it out.

To this day, I still create to-do lists with little checkboxes to the left of each item, but I never use them, I just love the feel of crossing a particularly sticky item out…it smells like victory.

There are only a few digital to-do list managers that I haven’t tried at least once, most of them abandoned because I didn’t care for the way they logged information and presented it to me.

Software that wants to handle your working agenda strictly according to the tenets of the Getting Things Done movement feel too authoritarian to me, though faithful followers of David Allen’s system will find them useful in planning their working days.

I’m still working with two digital receptacles for action items, the Mac and iOS only Things and the multi-platform Wunderlist, acquired last year rather sensibly by Microsoft, but still maintained as a synchronising software solution that spans the Mac, Windows, iOS and Android with considerable grace.

Here, it might be useful to consider exactly what a to-do list is supposed to do for you, because just writing stuff you haven’t done yet out can seem like a very depressing way to face it all down.

The first and most critical step is to separate projects from tasks. Paint the house, for instance, isn’t a to-do list item, it’s a collection of tasks that merits its own listings to break out and manage the process as discrete items.

I’ve come to appreciate the “night before” approach to crafting lists. When I’m tired from the day that’s largely done, I find it useful to clear my mind by writing down everything that’s gone unfinished and has arrived for attention.

I sleep better knowing that I don’t have to remember it all, though I occasionally wake with a start to add something I’d forgotten to add.

When I craft a list, and it’s usually recrafting an existing list; I also heartily suggest eating the frog first. If you can get the most troubling, difficult thing out of the way while you’re fresh, everything else seems more approachable.

I bounce back and forth between pocketable lists, usually five by four inches in size and full-sized lists that fill a letter-sized sheet of paper.

You can grab the current version of my full page list template in Pages, Word and PDF formats here.

It’s normally printed the back of paper that’s been used on one side and generated on demand. Because my life is governed less by specific appointments than a range of actionable tasks, it’s weighted that way.

There was an earlier version that I would type entries into before printing, but that never felt right.

Hasty handwriting has a kind of desperation and urgency all its own and should never be underestimated as its own special motivator.

This is one of the things I came into the room to do. Now the rest.

(Post-publication note: It’s been drawn to my attention that the mischievous Mr Kuti intended Let’s Start to be more of a Let’s Get It On urging than a call to business.)