Produce with Flow | Blog Home | Fractal Planner

Your Personal Productivity Questions And Comments (Open Thread)

Hi all.

I want to hear from you, so I can help you (and perhaps receive help from you as well). I’ll get to that shortly, but let me put my question in context.

I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon the Fractal Planning method. It has completely transformed my relationship to my work. It has made me more productive with less stress, unlike anything I’ve tried before.

If I take an honest accounting of my influences, the main ones are these:

  • David Allen (for his clear mind procedure),
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for his emphasis on working with “FLOW”, and for articulating 3 of the biggest conditions for flow,
  • Tony Schwartz, for his emphasis on managing your energy as you manage your projects.
  • and Brian Arthur, for showing me how all human creativity can be understood better with fractal models.

Combining these insights together, plus focusing more on “just in time” saw sharpening instead of “proactive” saw sharpening (‘saw sharpening’ is a term borrowed from Steven Covey), has led to the Fractal Planning Method.

The method is very simple. In fact, the day-to-day system is very plausibly the simplest productivity system in the world. If you’re not yet familiar with it, you can still get the overview for free in “Clear Mind, Effective Action”.

However, there are many nuances, and I’m working those out on this blog.

Now, . . ., I am the kind of guy who can get lost in abstractions if I don’t take steps to put my feet back on the ground once in a while. And that’s where I need your help.

The whole reason the Fractal Planning Method excites me is because it helped me solve real problems I was facing — problems with stress, overwhelm, uncertainty, impatience, lack of clarity, and a lot of other negative emotions that used to show up all too frequently in my work.

I don’t want to lose sight of that.

More than having a platform for explaining the theory of Fractal Planning, this blog is here to help real people with real problems.

So, I want to hear from you.

Please leave your comments and questions in the comment box below.

What are your problems? What is the most frustrating aspect of work for you? And, also, what do you currently do about it?

Also, if you want to chime in and give advice to others as they post, feel free.

Or, if you just have a tip or two you want to share that will help a lot of people in general, feel free to share that as well.


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  1. Jim Stone
    Posted June 10, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I’ll start. The biggest problem I had was with being overwhelmed with too many thoughts going through my head. David Allen’s procedure helped — when I would use it. However, because the procedure was a little confusing, with too many lists to put things onto, I didn’t use it much. Once I started managing my life from a single fractal structure, it solved the problem. I have been running with a completely clear mind most of the time ever since. It’s made a HUGE difference to all aspects of my life.

  2. Posted June 10, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I’ve Allen’s Getting Things Done for 10 years. Makes perfect sense to this day.

    Tried using it with paper. Worked for a few days, then stopped using it. Used different digital tools to implement Allen’s strategies… same thing.

    I’ve been getting your emails, Jim. Because of the past attempts, I’m wary. Stressed as I am, taking to time try it and wasting money keeps from trying your fractal approach even today. Seems like adding even more to my full plate to add all the task/items online. You might consider a trial period for people like me.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted June 10, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Hi Jan.

      Yeah, it’s a common thought with David Allen’s system. It makes complete sense, but it feels a little over complicated.

      Having a trial period is something I am considering. I still need to figure out exactly how the process should work, and get the time to implement it.

      You can start fractal planning with a spreadsheet. You just have to plan ahead and leave columns available for indentation. Then you just insert new rows when you want to add a new task. You can even create data groups to facilitate opening and closing sections of your plan to aid in focusing on particular parts better. That should help a lot. Once you get comfortable doing it with a spreadsheet (or even an outline in a word document), you can decide if it’s worth it to subscribe for a little smoother system.

  3. Posted June 10, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    My own problem involves narrowing the focus to shorter term accomplishments. I tend to accept progress on multiple fronts for long-range success, but inevitably end up with too many pies and not enough fingers.

    My current approach is essentially this: 3 files for Current Tasks, Daily Disciplines, and Major Milestones. Plus another review file for my big picture Project List.

    I also use Mind-Maps for brainstorming and reviews.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted June 10, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Gavriel, the series I just started is on this very issue (narrowing focus to a shorter term accomplishment). I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions on the posts in that series as I publish them.

  4. Matt
    Posted June 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I have a lot of trouble getting started on tasks, both ones I want to do, and ones I don’t. It’s like I get this giant knot in my chest, and I just don’t want to start. If I can push myself through this, I can usually get to a point where everything starts flowing, but it’s often an uphill battle.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted June 10, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      That’s funny, Matt, I have the exact opposite tendency. I’m a great starter, and not so good at finishing.

      One idea would be that you are having trouble starting projects because you lack clarity about them in some way. The solution, then, would be to 1) break the project down further, and 2) to see if it really fits with your other priorities.

      It might also be that you have something like 50 ideas in your mind of other things you “should” be working on, and you’re always worrying if the one you picked is the best one to work on. In that case you should try clearing your mind, and moving a bunch of stuff to a “maybe later” list so they get out of competition with the things you choose to work on.

      Feel free to write some follow-up thoughts about whether my suggestions make sense for your situation, and feel free to provide more detail if that seems helpful, and we can narrow it down further.

      • Matt
        Posted June 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        I finally broke down and got the fractal planner. Wow. The clear mind wizard seems to be working very well. I can write down how damn stupid this part of the project seems. Then I can look at how it relates to what I’m trying to accomplish, break the first step into microscopic pieces so I actually get started, then write down how good it will feel to be done and have accomplished it.

        I mentioned that I can eventually get flowing, but I was so focused and fast it scared me (kind of like driving on the highway for the first time as a teenager). I never realized how many thoughts popped into my head, and how many interruptions (even relevant ones) come up. Instead of managing them all, I just threw them on the plan and got going with what I was doing again.

        • Jim Stone
          Posted June 12, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

          Cool Matt. Yes, it’s amazing how many competing thoughts you can accumulate over time.

          I think you’ll find that after a week or two you won’t need the Clear Mind Wizard as much. For me I used it multiple times a day at first, then daily, and now, maybe once a week. It’s very, very useful when you first get started, though, because most people starting out have easily 50-100 items competing for mindshare at first.

          Let me just clarify for you and others that the CMW is not intended to be the primary means of expanding your plans. Use the master plan for that, it’s much more efficient for that purpose. But, whenever you feel that overwhelmed feeling, and notice a bunch of different open loops, it can bring a calm mind within 5 minutes, pretty much without fail.

          I’m glad it’s helping!

  5. Natalie
    Posted June 10, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    I work in a profession where people are interrupting me all day long- and I need to take care of things for them. I can have incredibly long (and I would call them meaningful and productive days)- yet not ever get to any of the things I actually had planned to do. This is stressful!!!!! However, honestly due to the nature of my job – it’s not really going to change. But I am no longer discouraged about that stress. I started using the Fractal Planner about two weeks ago at work – I’ve noticed that when I can control my schedule – and I’m not being interrupted – I make the switch much more quickly to my agenda because it is so organized. I can see exactly what I need to be doing- how it fits into my overall goals/direction and that effeciency definitely has toned down my stress levels and made me more productive during the times that I am in charge of my time.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted June 12, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Hi Natalie. That’s great to hear! Keep up the good work!

  6. Posted July 26, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Jim. It’s me again. I wasn’t sure how to contact you other than through this thread. I was journaling about flow when I realized something. I have trouble “switching.” Say I’m building a website and really getting into it. But then it’s time for basketball practice. I absolutely love basketball. It’s probably the activity I flow into with the least effort. But while I’m throwing stuff between html tags, I can’t even fathom that basketball is going to be good. I really DON’T WANT TO GO.

    This raises a couple of questions:

    Why would I feel that way even though I know that within a couple minutes of hitting the court, I’m going to be into it?

    Is there an easier way to transition other than practically using a cattle prod on myself?

    • Jim Stone
      Posted July 29, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I have trouble switching, too. I don’t have any set appointments after my morning work sessions, so I can go as long as I want if I’m in the flow. You might consider arranging your schedule so you work at the same time each day and don’t schedule any firm commitments for an hour or so after you think you’ll be done working. In fact, if I have a scheduled call or appointment I have trouble doing anything that takes much focus for a while before that. I think my mind is afraid I’ll miss the appointment if it let’s me go deep into my work, so it doesn’t let me go deep into it.

      Maybe others will have some additional advice on this topic.

      This raises an interesting question. Are there people who are good at work that requires deep focus, and others who are good at bouncing from appointment to appointment, and very few people who can do both? I suspect something like this is true. Though maybe there are some attention management techniques that can help with this “switching” problem that I’m not aware of.

  7. Posted July 26, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jim,
    Really great system you have created here. One of the things I found is that I get a sense of being overwhelmed when looking at the Master plan, the list is sooo immense. Yes, I realize you can zoom in to focus on one area (sub-topic) and that’s a big help. However, for this kid, I find myself selecting way to many tasks to do in one day. Then I get deflated when more than half of them are never finished.

    But heh, there’s good news! Upon reading more of your Blog posts I came across a post about the Agile Scrum. I can’t remember the exact link but from your post I landed at a really cool site where I learned to “choose” do things in ‘threes’. It was a kind of a whack-on-the-head moment for me :)

    So now, I feel like a kid in a candy store with a very strict but helpful parent saying, “you can only choose three for today.” For now, that’s what I’m doing, with much better results along along with that groovy feeling you get when you start getting things done…consistently every day.

    Sometimes doing three “to do tasks” at a time gives me such a great feeling of accomplishment, if time is available, I’ll pick three more tasks to do on that day.

    Just wanted to let you know that the Fractal Planner is super flexible to all the different folks who use it…there is no reason to ever feel bent out of shape.

    (This last paragraph is inspired by David Allen’s Getting Things, 2001, p-40: Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape — Michael McGriffy)

    • Jim Stone
      Posted July 29, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      Hi Ken.

      Yes, I think there is a tendency to think we can do more in a day than we can. When we just look at each task, we estimate a best case scenario, and don’t consider interruptions and unexpected complications. SCRUM for one is helping me some with this. I am putting less on my to do list, because I have an in-between time category — my weekly sprint. So I put things there first, and then, when I’m about to work on a particular part of the plan, I’ll highlight just those items. (I will share more about this in another post soon).

      I think choosing only three things at a time is probably a very good idea as well. (It sounds like you followed the link I had at the bottom of the last SCRUM for one article — the article by Chris Smith on about J.D. Meier’s technique)

  8. Posted May 10, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jim and Matt, I want to address Matt’s concern about switching. (And yours too.) I have the tendency to pack my schedule too tight and then not got everything done. (D’uh!) In talking this out with an organizational expert I hired to sit next to me while I got organized in my life, I realized that I wasn’t making time for transitions.

    Jim, you alluded to this, with the making a free time after a work session, or before an appointment.

    The best example I have of transitions comes from triathlons. In the space of about two years I trained for and did four sprint triathlons, mini baby triathlons, an eight of an Ironman. Not only did we train in each of the three sports — swim, bike run — we also practiced a few times the transitions.

    How do you go from swimming to biking, then from biking to running?

    As you can imagine each transition requires a costume change and a change in motor skills. It was so helpful practicing these. The biggest help was in experiencing the feelings of adrenaline and learning how to pull off a wet suit and don shoes and a helmet and get on the bike while adrenaline is making your body shake.

    All this to share how I am learning how to recognize when I need to transition and design a little transition ritual from task to task.

    Matt, And I so relate to not wanting to leave a creative mental project and go move my body. I’ve learned to consciously remind myself how good I’ll feel after, and during, the workout. It works most of the time! :-)

    BTW, like Ken, I too feel visually overwhelmed by my Master Plan and all its parts. How can I zoom in on only one project?

    Also, is there an easier way to contact you with questions about Fractal Planner? I signed up today and really want to use it, but get a little stumped with these questions. And doubly stumped that it’s hard to contact you, and stressful that I don’t know if or when i’ll receive a reply.

    Thanks! And so far, love Fractal Planner!

    • Jim Stone
      Posted May 10, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Hi Beth.

      To zoom in, just click on the task description.

      I see you found my contact form as well, and I’ve replied to your email question.

      There is a function guide and some video documentation in the help section as well — and the front page video actually demonstrates most of the main things you might want to do (with the exception of dragging and dropping items to new parents — just drag using the area to the left of the red vertical line.)


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