My wife has started keeping a list. She’s documenting every time I ask her something she just told me, or I look for something where it was kept years ago, or I fail to notice some “obvious” change she’s made. I think it’s all part of a secret plan to have me committed.

But like I tell her, I’ve always been this way. I’m absentminded by nature. It’s not that my brain is deteriorating — it’s just always thinking about something else. I’m not alone — this tendency is so prevalent among us geeks that the character of the absentminded professor has become almost archetypal. Absentmindedness affects us geeks more than the general population for at least two reasons:

  • Hyperfocus: When we’re thinking about a problem, we tune out everything else. This trance-like state often accompanies us when we leave our desks to perform other mundane activities; we can’t concentrate on those activities while we’re hyperfocused on something else, so we rely on unconscious habits. When those habits become disrupted because somebody moved the toothpaste to a new drawer (even if it was six months ago), then we’re comically (in everyone else’s eyes) confused until we can shift our focus to the utterly unnecessary problem at hand and locate said toothbrush.
  • Filtering: We have so many mental tasks to perform every day that we often ignore issues that seem unworthy of our attention. It might be something that we consider trivial, or that we have mentally stamped “handled.” Other people can get pretty angry over their inability to distinguish between these two reasons for our filtering. When I don’t remember what time my wife is leaving to take our child to the doctor, she may think that I don’t care about his condition; I do, but since that task has been delegated to her, I don’t let its details consume my precious CPU cycles.

To test the depth of your ability to concentrate, watch this video and count the number of times a basketball is passed from one person to another.

While it’s often inconvenient for our loved ones and even sometimes for ourselves, absentmindedness has its benefits. Besides enabling us to concentrate deeply on technical problems, it also keeps us from overloading our brains with mundane details. For instance, I didn’t see the gorilla in the video, did you? Now that I’ve pointed it out, you won’t miss it again — but it’s also a lot harder to concentrate on counting the passes now.

Get focused by asking “big picture” questions

IT consulting is not all about solving technical problems — people and business issues frequently require our attention. Lots of gorillas cross our field of vision, and if we don’t notice them and give them a banana, they’re likely to get vicious. We need to respond quickly to our clients and to new opportunities and vulnerabilities, and we need to be sensitive to people’s feelings (which control their business decisions more than they realize).

To be successful as a consultant requires a hybrid between the hyperfocus of the geek and the “big picture” thinking of the business owner. It may not be possible to do both at the same time, so I advise setting aside some time each day to ask yourself a few “big picture” questions:

  • What’s important to each of my clients right now?
  • How is my business plan working out?
  • Am I missing any opportunities?
  • Is something about to bite me in the you-know-what?
  • What else am I forgetting?

Stay organized with SOPs, apps, and software

The “big picture” questions could easily consume all of your time, so again, you need to lean on habitual behavior to enable your “zone” periods. Besides setting aside time for the global view, a number of other standard operating procedures (SOPs) can help you stay organized with less thought required. Here are three SOPs that have been helpful to me:

  • Put reminders on a calendar, and give the reminder enough lead time but not too much (so you don’t forget it again after the reminder).
  • Keep a task list with everything you need to remember to do.
  • Every day, make a daily task list. This not only forces you to review your overall task list, but it also tells you what you need to focus on today.

I used to use Microsoft Outlook for all three of these functions. It’s not bad for the calendar with reminders, but the Task list drove me crazy. I spent way too much time updating the Task list, and it eventually become so overgrown that I started ignoring it. To make a daily list, I added a custom checkbox field so I could create a view that would show me only those tasks (because I like to sort the list by client), but it was a pain to keep that updated, too. I’d always gravitate back to a handwritten list.

Then I discovered the Remember The Milk application, which easily combines the calendar and task-list functions into one. The Overview page automatically provides a list of work due today, so that bullet is just a matter of review and revise. Or, you can set up and save a “smart search” to filter the tasks any way you want. Even though it’s a Web app, it’s very responsive, thanks to its liberal use of JavaScript and Google Gears.

Of course, software can be used to prop up our absentmindedness in a lot more ways than just remembering to do things. Good systems for version control and automated builds mean that you never have to remember a lot of details, such as what files you’ve changed in what ways or what needs to be rebuilt when certain files are changed. While these systems sometimes take a bit of time to set up properly, there is a handsome return on investment for ongoing projects. The less absentminded consultants have to remember, the more we can concentrate on the things that really make a difference.

What techniques, tools, and applications do you use to stay organized? Which techniques, tools, and applications have you found to be a waste of time? Share your experiences in the discussion.

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