Single File

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s wonderful book on writing, she explains the title with a simple anecdote:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

And, indeed, that works for nearly any kind of project. The whole might be overwhelming, but you can invariably break it down into a series of successive projects (and sub-projects and sub-sub-projects) each small enough that you can confidently take them on.

I’ve long taken that approach to goals, working backwards from five-year (or 25-year) endpoints, to one-year, one-quarter, and one-month waypoints. With that groundwork, I can then focus on just what’s in front of me today, yet know I’m still making progress on the big picture.

Yet I’ve also learned that there’s such a thing as too much sub-division.

Previously, I’d continued all the way back to one-week and one-day breakdowns, starting each day with a list of small tasks across a number of different projects. But because I’d chopped those tasks so fine, I ended up spending my day essentially serially multi-tasking. I never got to spend long Deep Work / Maker Time blocks on a single project.

Now, I stop my breakdown at the month level, then sort the resultant project list by urgency / importance. And each day, I focus only on one single project, the one at the top of the list, for at least the first few hours of the day, before dealing with daily habits (like blogging and emptying my inbox) or small one-off tasks.

Sometimes, it will be the same project for days on end. And though I initially had some anxiety about that – felt like I was leaving the rest of my projects unduly on the back burner – I can now empirically say, having just analyzed a year’s worth of my completion rates with both approaches, that I get waaaaaaaay more done when I take this single-file approach.

In other words, take it bird by bird. But take it by the whole bird, not by the beak and leg.

June 1, 2017