Today I’m going to discuss , task list coherence, and internal coherence. Just as a drunk on a street can be babbling in a near foreign language, despite knowing enough english to ask for a dollar, task lists and thoughts too can be incoherent and in that state it’s about as effectual to achieving goals, as being drunk while driving. Coherence is also a type of light, lasers have coherent light, all the waves headed in the same direction, so that laser beam is still a spot even though being shown across a football field. A standard lightbulb on the other hand produces incoherent light that goes everywhere and bounces off everything. We are like that laser beam in that we can only do one thing well at a time, yet often instead of laser like focus on a particular problem we are diffuse and scattered trying to illuminate everything at once and not affecting anything. Tim Ferris has a great line “how would you do it, do it like your life depended on it”.

The real point of making lists

Lists, be it tasks goals or ideas, serve a few purposes, in the end the two most important is task coherence and internal coherence. Task coherence is the more common use, that the list and order of tasks is reflective of the work to be done, and ordered, prioritized and strategized so the velocity of achieving them is relatively smooth, be it putting on underwear before ones pants, or opting not to put on underwear if in a rush to get out the door . Internal coherence is that the same list of priorities and scheduling is held in ones head and accurately reflects the coherent task list, as ideally when out in the real world the subconscious is going to be looking for ways to make that list happen.

Take a grocery list for example: ice cream, bananas, tomatoes, milk, bread, pasta. A priority might be making sure the bread doesn’t get squashed, and ice cream doesn’t melt. Another priority might be making sure that we spend as little time in the store as possible so we can do other things, which leads to path optimization, so getting milk and ice cream when we are in the diary section and bananas and tomatoes in the fruit section, keeping it under 12 so we can get in the express checkout with one bag. This part of the path planning generally needs to happen before you get to the store, and if written down would be a well ordered coherent task list, with a decent memory or some memory tricks, you won’t need the shopping list at all. Contrast this with shopping with my Dad, having gotten a list from my stepmom, who assembled it out of 3 recipes for the eve, with quantities like “1/2 cup of flour”, or 2 eggs. and he generally goes sequentially through the list.. and it can take forever as we spend time criss crossing the store, converting into appropriate quantities, calling my stepmom for clarification (2% or skim?)

Task list/wikis that in particular exhaustive ones that cover ideas from first inception to final creation , or rapid idea storms become incoherent quickly. It’s entropy in action, and can be a full time job maintaining it (anybody who has worked with Microsoft Project is familar with this). However the real power is not in the list, or managing the list, but keeping the list in peoples head. Lists don’t do anything, they are just ideas, they need to be coupled with bodies that understand them to actually do useful work.

Keeping the list of ‘goals’ even if they are simple as shopping ingredients, is critical to smooth progression in goals. Just like in shopping, in searching for things on the list, sometimes you find things you need that never made it onto the list. Like that person in line who becomes your next business partner, after striking up a conversation on the kale salad you just bought. Or that half off Bailey’s for the upcoming holiday party.

Coherence via MindMapping with Pen and Paper

While task lists are useful, one of the best ways to build internal coherence is mind mapping/daisy chaining, this engages visual intelligence (which occupies much of our brain) on everyday problems and make connections in things that would be hidden when dealing with sequential outputs like voice recording and journalling. I’ve tried various mind mapping software, but I have always gone back to using free form paper. There is something about drawing that makes things solid. I usually do a second pass to Shadow Plan for things that need to be tracked that way.

Today I bought 2 paper black bound binders, some highlighters and 2 ballpoint pens, as I’ve filled one binder, used up my highlighters. At first, this completely goes against my ‘go digital’ paperless philosophy, especially since I do own a TabletPC which has several good drawing programs. However I’ve found that the size of surface allows me to connect more dots, a pen I have higher control to detail, and in the end this is more important. Highlighters are great at making some concepts that would be impossible to convey via shading or crosshatching. Keeping the binder to 9×11 and making sure I don’t put to fine of detail means it’s easy to take a digital picture and then rework it when/if that need arises. Frequently it doesn’t.

Just like drawing pictures, I’ve also found that there are 2 modes to approaching it. Sketching without regard to making it pretty or coherent is the way to start, as it’s arrogance unless you have a perfect vision to start with bold solid strokes and expecting them to come out. To reinforce this, I also use black ink so there isn’t the temptation to erase and rework. It amazes me when I do this, despite my ability to draw reasonably clearly, how near illegible my writing becomes, yet the energy conveyed in the strokes, but it doesn’t matter, I find even if I can barely read the writing I know what I meant (though it will be indecipherable to anybody looking over my shoulder). The act of getting it out onto paper, is like creating ripples that like zen like strokes, form ridges in the sand. After a bit and the thought stream dies down, I do a second pass I start with a new sheet and take my time, making it more ordered, and decorating it with more details, this often brings clarity and additional revelations. Overall it doesn’t really take that much time.

Then next day, or if it’s a new subject, or behavioral change a few hours later, I start from a blank page again! A binder with just these drawings is a great way to journal ones progress.

The Morning and Evening Coherence Exercise

Internal coherence means that we KNOW the subject AND the connections/order. This is tricky, everything on that page/list is in our head somewhere, but like that phone number for that first boy/girlfriend sometimes it’s in there but not immediately accessible when we need it, when we are out in the world. In the background while we work, sleep, our subconscious is constantly working out solutions to problems from everything to that shopping list to what we want to eat, and who we want to be in a year. Especially on new problems, tasks, and worse on novel ones like new ideas, or new behaviors, it’s very easy to forget. Especially in ideas, if it were common then it would already be done! So the act of starting from a new blank page is a way to see how much you remember. That you check against the previous page as the ‘answer key’.

For this phase/exercise often I use a combination of LiveJournal and MindMapping. I will start out with a blank page, give myself 5-15 minutes and tell myself to start typing/writing with no regards to order. Sometimes I will seed the thoughstream with nodes like

  • self
  • work
  • finances
  • love
  • friends
  • family
  • health
  • questions
  • todo

asking leading questions as what I’m thinking about in each of those categories, at the end I will check it against the previous entry. And in the case of daily todos mark it done or put a note as to what happened with it.

As a separate exercise (which Peter Drucker recommends) , it’s useful to do something similar to predict ahead what you think you will get done in a day, week, month, year, and then tag it, then after that time period has passed review. Spend some time figuring out what went right, what got you, and why etc.

3 Responses to “Coherence”

  1. Colin Says:

    For larger projects, these methods sound very useful, but your grocery store example reminds me of xkcd :)

    This is a common problem for me — that the effort I put into planning is disproportionate to the difference in payoff between the unplanned and planned executions of whatever it is I’m doing.

  2. Daniel Says:

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Coherence, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  3. Henry Says:

    Hi, Interesting stuff. I just bookmarked this page. I will read it later, Im at work now. :P

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.