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Honoring the Imagination,Widening the World, & Getting Organized

Resource: Thoreau on Writing and the Splendors of Mystery in an Age of Knowledge
Description: Selected musings from the diary of Henry David Thoreau


Scientific descriptions and explanations for observable phenomena are useful, but there is more to life and humanity than the mere consideration of what is useful. There is a poetic and mystical side to us all and this side needs to be spoken to as well. The linguistic and conceptual apparatus of science is optimized for the intellect, but it does speak to the imagination. To approach the universe from a vantage point that honors, nourishes, and inspires our fuller self, we have to celebrate and create labels and mental models that are rooted in the imagination. Consider the value of a poet’s description of a steam engine to an actual mechanic. For Thoreau, this is the value of a scientist’s mechanical description of sunset. Incomplete and inadequate. We must embrace the knowledge and perspective that science offers us, but not at the expense of our capacity for the mystical.

Writers should spend more time struggling to express those parts of their psyche and philosophy that are still unclear. We place to much pressure on ourselves to take what we’ve observed/learned and make immediate sense out of it. It’s almost as if we believe that it’s impermissible play with ideas, explore ideas, be stressed out by ideas, and wrestle with ideas because our ideas aren’t valuable until we’ve converted them into practical insights that can be used to further our careers or make money or whatever. According to Thoreau, instead of only seeking after clear answers and insights, we should spend more time seeking after interesting questions and open-ended musings that haven’t quite crystallized yet.


“I, standing twenty miles off, see a crimson cloud in the horizon. You tell me it is a mass of vapor which absorbs all other rays and reflects the red, but that is nothing to the purpose, for this red vision excites me, stirs my blood, makes my thoughts flow, and I have new and indescribable fancies, and you have not touched the secret of that influence. If there is not something mystical in your explanation, something unexplainable to the understanding, some elements of mystery, it is quite insufficient.”

“It would be a truer discipline for the writer to take the least film of thought that floats in the twilight sky of his mind for his theme, about which he has scarcely one idea (that would be teaching his ideas how to shoot), faintest intimations, shadowiest subjects, make a lecture on this, by assiduity and attention get perchance two views of the same, increase a little the stock of knowledge, clear a new field instead of manuring the old; instead of making a lecture out of such obvious truths, hackneyed to the minds of all thinkers.”

“We seek too soon to ally the perceptions of the mind to the experience of the hand, to prove our gossamer truths practical, to show their connection with our every-day life (better show their distance from our every-day life), to relate them to the cider-mill and the banking institution. Ah, give me pure mind, pure thought! Let me not be in haste to detect the universal law; let me see more clearly a particular instance of it!”

Resource: How the News Distorts Our Worldview (Video 4:29)
Description: Alisa Miller, CEO of Public Radio International, breaks down the way in which news shapes the way we see the world.


U.S. Network and Cable News Stations tend to focus overwhelmingly on the U.S. and a few other countries when discussing international news. Miller shows the following two maps to illustrate the difference between what a map of the world looks like and what news stations focus on:

This is what the world map looks like:

On the other hand, this is a map of the world as covered by U.S. News:

Miller says there are several reasons for this disparity and cites the low number of foreign bureau for news networks, how inexpensive it is for networks to focus on celebrities, and the number of recycled stories that many news sources share. She ends with a call for everyone to think more critically about the view of the world they’re presupposing when they get their information from the news and makes the claim that we can and must do a better at expanding our concept of international news coverage.

Resource: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen (Book)
Description: David Allen’s infamous GTD system for managing the things that demand our attention


Organization — Putting things in their proper place after you’ve decided what they are, what you intend to do with them, what being “done” means, and what “doing” looks like.

Tools for organization: 1) Tools for actionable items and 2) tools for non-actionable items.

Tools for actionable items

Project list/file — A project is anything that needs to be completed within a year and that requires more than one action step to take. You need a way of keeping your projects separate from your normal to-do lists because projects will still hang over your head even when many of the necessary and important actions have been done. A good project list will identify the project outcome, the project deadline, and a breakdown of the things that need to be done.

Calendar — A calendar is only designed for three things: Time specific action items (ie Attend Terrence’s birthday party on May 8th at 7pm), Day specific action items (ie. Call John when you have time on Friday), and Day specific information (details about the first two items).

Calendars are NOT the place to keep your to-do lists. Calendars are sacred. They are only for appointments. Things that need to be done on or at a specific day/time.

Using your calendar for a to-do list is a recipe for guilt, stress, and confusion. It blurs the distinction between what needs to get done at a specific day/time and what needs to get done as soon as possible.

The process of having to rearrange your calendar to account for non-appointment work that didn’t end up getting done is a demoralizing and unnecessary activity. A good next actions list will take care of all the needs related to this.

Next actions list — This is the list that organizes all the things you need to get done whenever you’re not bound by your calendar items and whenever you have the opportunity to tackle them. A next actions list must be properly prioritized and arranged in order to account for things that are most urgent and time-sensitive.

Tools for non-actionable items:

Trash — If something isn’t useful to you as reference materials/tools or as a future project/interest to be considered at a later date, then you need to be aggressive about getting rid of it. The inability to trash things you don’t need will quickly undermine your system. And don’t forget to take out yout trash.

Reference — This is where you place tools and other items that you will need in the future when performing certain kinds of tasks. A dictionary or a screwdriver would be examples of reference materials.

Incubation — This is where you place things that can’t/won’t be acted upon in the immediate or near future, but that you may want to come back to and reconsider.

Two types of incubation files: 1) Someday/Maybe — this is for general non-committal interests like learning Spanish or buying a piano or writing a book. 2) Tickler file — this is for stuff that’s down the pike, actionable, but too far away to worry about now. Examples include going to see a play during the holidays or anything else that you need to be nudged about when time gets a little closer.

The weekly review is one of the most important aspects of the GTD system. Every week you need to review the things you’ve captured, clarified, and organized to make sure you’re clear and concrete about whatever you need to be clear and concrete about.

The weekly review is essential for building trust in your system. If you don’t establish and stick to a routine of review, your mind will stop trusting you and it will take back the job of trying to remember everything.

Much of your day-to-day life is spend up close and in the weeds handling details. The weekly review allows for the opportunity to step back and view the big picture. What’s working? What’s not working? What needs to be cleaned up? What needs to be reconfigured? The weekly review will help with this.


“I define a project as any desired result that can be accomplished within a year that requires more than one action step. “

“if one step won’t complete something, some kind of goalpost needs to be set up to remind you that there’s something still left to do. If you don’t have a placeholder to remind you about it, it will slip back into your head. “

“You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done.” The list of projects is the compilation of finish lines we put before us to keep our next actions moving on all tracks appropriately. “

“the next-action decision is central. That action needs to be the next physical, visible behavior, without exception, on every open loop. “

“Reminders of actions you need to take fall into two categories: those about things that have to happen on a specific day or time, and those about things that just need to get done as soon as possible. Your calendar handles the first type of reminder. Three things go on your calendar: time-specific actions; day-specific actions; and day-specific information .”

“No More “Daily To-Do” Lists on the Calendar Those three things are what go on the calendar, and nothing else! This might be heresy to past-century time-management training, which almost universally taught that the daily to-do list is key. But such lists embedded on a calendar don’t work, for two reasons. First, constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment. Trying to keep a list on the calendar, which must then be reentered on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. The Next Actions lists I advocate will hold all of those action reminders, even the most time-sensitive ones. And they won’t have to be rewritten daily. Second, if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do. If I have to call Mioko on Friday because that’s the only day I can reach her, but then I add five other, less important or less time-sensitive calls to my to-do list, when the day gets crazy I may never call Mioko. My brain will have to take back the reminder that that’s the one phone call I won’t get another chance at. That’s not utilizing the system appropriately. The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all. The only rewriting should be for changed appointments. “

“So where do your entire action reminders go? On Next Actions lists, which, along with the calendar, are at the heart of daily action-management organization and orientation. Any longer-than-two-minute, non-delegatable action you have identified needs to be tracked somewhere. “

“It’s one thing to write down that you need milk; it’s another to be at the store and remember it. Likewise, writing down that you need to call a friend to find out how he’s doing after a significant event in his life and wish him well is different from remembering it when you’re at a phone and have some discretionary time. “

“You need to be able to step back and review the whole picture of your life and work from a broader perspective as well as drop down “into the weeds” of concrete actions to take, as needed, and at appropriate intervals. “

“For most people the magic of workflow management is realized in the consistent use of the reflection step. This is where, in one important case, you take a look at all your outstanding projects and open loops, at what I call Horizon 1 level (see page 55), on a weekly basis. It’s your chance to scan all the defined actions and options before you, thus radically increasing the efficacy of the choices you make about what you’re doing at any point in time. “

“Review whatever lists, overviews, and orientation maps you need to, as often as you need to, to get their contents off your mind. “

“Everything that might require action must be reviewed on a frequent enough basis to keep your mind from taking back the job of remembering and reminding. “

“All of your Projects, active project plans, and Next Actions, Agendas, Waiting For, and even Someday/Maybe lists should be reviewed once a week. This also gives you an opportunity to ensure that your brain is clear and that all the loose strands of the past few days have been captured, clarified, and organized. “

“You have to use your mind to get things off your mind. “

“Most people don’t have a really complete system, and they get no real payoff from reviewing things for just that reason: their overview isn’t total. They still have a vague sense that something may be missing. That’s why the rewards to be gained from implementing this whole process are exponential: the more complete the system is, the more you’ll trust it. And the more you trust it, the more complete you’ll be motivated to keep it. The Weekly Review is a master key to maintaining that standard.”

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