future me gets all the attention

According to my OmniFocus database, I have 1,272 active to do items spanning 197 projects and 93 zip files. Their due dates range from tomorrow to retirement. Every day, I open OmniFocus and it tells me what to do today, so I don’t have to worry about tomorrow. And yet, I have this nagging feeling of dissociation from the present. I think past me planning for future me has left present me with nothing to do.

Case in point: last Friday was a miscellaneous day, where I take all of those to dos that I pushed off from the past couple of weeks and got them done. I had a nice tidy list of 17 of of them, each with carefully chosen deadlines and terse, but effective notes reminding me what I was doing when I last worked on it, why it was important, and what was left to finish. I spent the day firing off e-mails, editing stale paragraphs in paper submissions, submitting travel forms, planning grant spending, setting up Trac for my class in the fall. Yet by the end of the day, I wasn’t really sure what I’d accomplished. When the girlfriend asked me about the highlights of my day, I was at a complete loss. What had I done? Was any of it fun? Was it frustrating? Were there any memorable moments at all? At least to my conscious self, it felt like I’d really only done one thing that day: clear my to do list. The rest was a blur. Past me had present me so prepared to mechanistically work through those 17 items, I hadn’t even formed memories of the work I’d done or the emotions I felt. I was a to do bot whose sole mission was placing checkmarks on a virtual list, all in service of future me’s ever growing workload.

Now that I reflect on this, I think what’s going on is that I’ve separated all of the thinking and deciding about what I should be doing now from the now itself. At least at work, I rarely find a moment where deciding what to do and actually doing it co-occur in any meaningful way. This is never clearer than on the weekends, where I try to let present me make the decisions, instead of past me. Past me had nothing to say about brunch this morning, he didn’t give me a list of chores. It was present me who got to play with my 16 waking hours and decide how to break them down, how to fill them, and when the day was done. And being so involved in deciding about today has led to so many wonderful memories: the arugula hollandaise risotto benedict, the peach dutch baby pancakes, writing this blog post at Uptown Espresso in the Belltown sunshine with my girlfriend. Aren’t these the kind of memories and experiences that life is about?

I suppose it’s a tradeoff, like anything else. What’s more important at work, getting things done or remembering getting things done? I like my job, or at least I like the idea of it, but lately my obsession with efficiency is transforming work that used to be so satisfying into a hazy blur of typing and talking. To combat this, maybe I’ll try inserting little moments of reflection into my day, where I sit and reflect for 5 minutes and maybe write a bit, just to crystallize the concrete in my mind. In fact, I’ll add it to my to do list right now!

2 thoughts on “future me gets all the attention

  1. I like it. It captures very well some of my days where I feel like I have run two marathons with my feet tied behind my back (yes yes, try it, it is hard), but with no real feeling of accomplishment, not even this feeling of: “I’ve cleared those things out of the way, I can better focus on the rest.” Though to be fair, there are times were clearing this to do list can be somewhat rewarding (yet I agree not fully enjoyable). I guess it usually happens when I get to re-prioritize and choose those items in the todo list based on a number of factors, none the least, whether or not it will be useful for anyone, or instantaneously please define) gratifying to me.

    • Today was a great contrast to this. I cleared off my todo list for this week to focus on CHI submissions and VL/HCC and it’s been all wetware decision-making. No past me dictating anything. I felt alive! Well, as alive as one can feel writing limitations sections.

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