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Writer Annie Diller called a schedule “a net for catching days.” In The Writing Life, she noted that what we do with each hour adds up to what we do with our lives: “A schedule defends from chaos and whim.”

But the man who has given millions of people a rigorous system for organizing the chaos of their lives through his Getting Things Done approach, David Allen, recently noted that at some point you must be guided by instinct. “Every decision we make about what action to take at any point in time is an intuitive risk. I have 20 minutes before my next meeting – should I call Bob, work on chapter eight or go get Susan’s opinion on the new software?” he writes in his newsletter.

Mr. Allen’s system revolves around lists. Many of us try to prioritize our tasks, perhaps coding them A, B or C or using the features of our to-do app to rank their importance. It seems rational, scientific in a way. But he reminds us those are inevitably simplistic rating systems and miss some important context.

“No matter how organized we get, how squeaky-clean our systems and our processes are, or how current our strategic and tactical planning is, we must ultimately trust our hunches about the best thing for us to do at 10:43 a.m. or 3:22 p.m. today. It’s true that we can utilize those prioritizing frameworks to good advantage, from time to time, to help us focus constructively. But to the degree they potentially limit our options unnecessarily and constrict spontaneous, creative thinking that is dynamic to the moment, they do us a disservice,” he notes.

Productivity writer Mark Forster takes a step further with his autofocus system in which you abandon categories, due dates and priorities. You create one giant list of tasks and then work on whatever your focus is naturally drawn to when you review your list.

“The Autofocus method accurately approaches your to-do list as a rushing stream that constantly carries in new things in need of doing,” Brett and Kate McKay write in The Art of Manliness blog.

“You can’t do all of them. The river will never be ‘done.’ So instead of getting overwhelmed by this endless stream of to-dos, you simply dip your hand into the current and tackle the task you think is the right thing to do right now. Rather than worrying (too much) about the other stuff, you go with the flow.”

Echoing Mr. Allen, the approach combines reason and emotion in deciding what to do. It takes a “little and often” approach to large tasks, they note. You work on something as long as you want, and if you’re not done, cross it off where it was on the list and add it again to the bottom. You can tackle it again when it feels like the right time.

Specifically, they suggest creating this long list of everything you have to do or want to do in a notebook – one item per line. Read quickly through all the items on the first page without taking action on any of them. You just want to get a feel for the stream of tasks in front of you. Go through the first page again, more slowly, until one stands out, and then work on that for as long as you want. If it’s not completed, put it at the end of the list and start the process over again. Don’t move to the second page until you complete a pass of the first page without any item standing out.

Consider trying the autofocus system to see if it’s the right net to catch your day.

Quick hits

  • Want to improve your work-life balance? Ditch remote work and return to the office, argues consultant Terri Klass. It’s hard to separate work from the rest of your home environment when working remotely, but returning to the office redraws the blurry lines.
  • To convince senior executives that your ideas are worth considering you need to have confidence in your own work and believe the proposal yourself, says leadership consultant Alaina Love. Don’t get so wrapped up in acknowledging other people’s works or ideas in your presentation, out of hesitancy and lack of confidence, that you don’t fully present your own.
  • Listening to a moderate amount of white noise – 45 decibels in a test – improves sustained attention and creativity, without increasing stress. A louder level – 65 decibels, similar to laughter or the high end of conversation – improved working memory but increased stress.
  • Keep ignoring feedback and life will keep teaching you the same lesson warns author James Clear.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.