Thomas Edison famously said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. But that’s old economy thinking: for the web worker, working hard is no longer enough. These days, genius is one percent attention and ninety-nine percent stack management. Whatever your online field of endeavor, if you can manage your personal stack more effectively than the bulk of your competitors, you’ll stand out as a genius.
Effective stack management requires two things. First, you need to have the most important stuff at the top of the pile at all times, ready to work on. Second, you need to make sure that the less important stuff doesn’t get lost as you concentrate on the top of the stack. Both halves are critical to being smarter than the average bear. Fortunately, there are all sorts of ways you can help make yourself a better stack manager. Here are four of them:
To-do Lists – This may be our all-time personal favorite here at WWD; we’ve covered 20 different ways to track them. Whatever method you choose for tracking your to-dos, make sure that you can easily access the list, keep it up to date, and that it’s well backed up: losing the list is like suffering a painful bout of memory loss.
Getting Things Done – The goal of the GTD system is simple: it tries to present you with the one next thing you should be working on at all times, by applying a series of principles to keep your stack organized. Even though GTD doesn’t work for everyone, if it clicks with you this system is a great way of making sure that you don’t lose the important trees in the forest of your task list.
Browser Tabs – As a web worker, I find the tabbed browser interface to be one of the greatest inventions for stack management ever. My daily work has me constantly running across blog postings, articles, and other URLs that I should read when I have the time. With Firefox (or insert the modern browser of your own choice), I just pop them open in a new tab for later. A quick scan of the tab list shows me what I’ve got stacked up awaiting my attention. As far as I’m concerned, this beats using a bookmarking service like del.icio.us, where things tend to fall prey to “out of sight, out of mind.”
Use Deferred Email – If you know you’re not going to need to work on something for a week or a month, get it out of your inbox and file it away. The trick then is to make sure you get a reminder when it should come back to the top of the stack. One possibility: send yourself an email in the future. If you’re a Google Calendar user, you can schedule an event and then go into Options and set an email reminder, though this does have the side effect of cluttering your calendar. You can also use an external service such as FutureMail, which lets you send yourself time-delay e-mail. The advantage of this method over simple putting a task with a deadline on your task list is that it gets the future task completely out of your face until you can actually work on it.
A short explanation for those of you who aren’t programmers: a stack is a way to store information in a computer program where only the most-recently added item is available at any given time; older items are pushed down like a stack of dishes in a cafeteria (a simile that is becoming increasingly obsolete in these coffeehouse days). Our brains function much the same way, as the famous magical number seven research indicates: we can only concentrate on a limited number of things at one time. Add a new thing to the mix, and an older thing drops out.