Zen & the Art of Work – review part 6 – “Setting thoughts aside”

This is the sixth part of a sixteen part review of Kourosh Dini's excellent "Zen & the Art of Work", which you can find out more about right here. The idea of the review is to go through each of the modules, the video chapters, and review what they are about and how they have impacted me.

But first, let's look at what "Zen & the Art of Work" appears to be, seen from six sessions in.

State of play

Zen & the Art of Work is a guided exploration as well as quite a hard core set of instructions into optimizing your work. But rather than focusing on productivity, as most approaches do, it focuses on the quality of the work you can do, by working on the entire set-up around and about your work which will lead to better, deeper, more meaningful and ultimately more productive work. Because at the end of the day, what does productivity matter if it does not lead to more relevant results for you, right?

In this approach, Kourosh Dini, the author of Zen & the Art of Work, goes beyond some of the ideas that are presented in Getting Things Done (more commonly known as GTD) by David Allen. In my opinion, he comes closer to the essence of the Taoist thoughts that underlie the GTD approach.

In the first four video chapters, Kourosh focused on explaining the entire concept of deep, focused work and why it is relevant. In the fifth chapter, which I reviewed prior, he offered a first tool, a quite important one: the reminder to support buffering a session: ensuring there is ample time to do a proper wrap-up of a session an all the loose ends generated during that session. This chapter offers a new tool. Let's find out what it is!

What this chapter is all about

This video chapter is all about the concept of an inbox and how to use it in the context of a session, a delineated unit of work.

The premise is quite simple: Kourosh explains that even if you start a session with a settled mind, your mind can be triggered at any time during a session by some kind of interruption. Commonly, such interruptions will kick you off track during your session, and you will lose the value of the investment made in going in settled. The way in which you deal with such an unsettling of the mind will determine the quality of the session. You need tools to "protect" the session, to protect your state of mind.

The purpose of a session, as established previously, is to become truly focused on a task you decided on earlier, with no specific anticipations on outcome other than to continue the work at the end of the session in case it is not finalized yet. What you aim for is to take one step forward on your thousand mile journey, so to speak. Or, as Kourosh explains it, you need to "touch the keys" of your piano.

But during such periods of focus, things may happen or may occur to you. After all, not all "interruptions" are necessarily bad, but they are likely to push you off track. You should not dismiss them, but you cannot necessarily answer them either. So you need to have a tool to help you deal with them. Kourosh introduces the concept of the inbox as a place to store these interruptions during the session.

The relevance of the inbox

The inbox is a key capturing tool which is a part of a valuable support structure you can and should build around your capability of remaining in session. This is a component to session success and relevance, just like the reminder was another tool.

To put it another way, Kourosh is not teaching you the magical mystery of doing great work by giving you a trick, a shortcut. Rather, this is more "wax on, wax off" for those of you old enough to have seen, and appreciated, the first, real Karate Kid movie.

Kourosh explains the ways in which one can handle ideas that are generated during a session. In essence, what it comes down to is a settled decision on whether or not to integrate them in the session. That's a choice you need to make in that moment. In the latter case, they go into the inbox.

An interruption unsettles our thoughts and takes us away from the work we anticipated doing. But you cannot just ignore these ideas, these interruptions. Even ignoring them without given them a proper place will introduce some type of worry and hence a distraction which leads to suboptimal presence in the session.

His answer is again simple but highly relevant: you need to capture the thought in a low friction manner and then get back to the session. The best way to do this is to build tools into your session which are integrated with it and accessible without perturbing your flow too much.

Consequences of using an inbox

There is of course a consequence of using an inbox, and it's a consequence David Allen talked about at length in GTD as well. You need to regularly review what is in the inbox, otherwise it will cease to be part of your trusted system. In essence, this is about hygienic attitudes towards inboxes: they are not about letting things fester in there.

Examples of using an inbox

Kourosh gives a couple of examples of good inbox use:

  • When reading or studying, you are often confronted with lots of unknowns. Formulating questions and capturing these in your inbox helps you to get a handle on understanding the material. If you capture your questions with limited friction in your inbox, you can review them one by one later, perhaps in a separate session.
  • When optimizing systems, you can become easily distracted. Instead of tweaking your system during a session which was not about that. Well, I've been down that rabbit hole too often. Kourosh correctly states that thoughts about your system is not doing work, although you may think or want to believe it is. Capturing these ideas in an inbox is a good way of dealing with them without offering up your entire work session.

The relevance of the tool "inbox"

An inbox thus becomes an essential tool in supporting flow during a session. It's a wonderful approach, subject to proper hygiene: anything in the inbox is not yet in our system. First it needs to be addressed, which, as Kourosh explicitly states, does not mean it needs to get done. But it needs to be considered.

Key insights for me

There were a couple of important lessons in this session for me. Let's go through them:

Respecting the sanctimony of the session

Entering a session takes an effort, as described in the previous video chapters. Getting to that point expends a certain amount of energy, and wasting that energy by giving in to disruptions is a suboptimal approach to work. The inbox is a tool that helps us to respect the sanctimony of the session.

Capturing the hum of your mental engine

Using an inbox in the context of a session is not just about throwing everything that comes to mind but is not immediately applicable in a big box. Rather, it is about capturing the hum of your mental engine which is being triggered by something during the session.

Losing that information would also be a waste of potentially relevant ideas or avenues once further developed, and would lead to significant distraction.

Dealing with the 2 minute rule

A such, the use of an inbox as Kourosh proposes it in this video chapter has helped me deal with a key problem I've always had when applying GTD: the 2 minute rule.

The idea that David Allen proposed was that any task that took less than 2 minutes should be handled immediately, if relevant. It's an interesting rule, but whether 2 minutes during a session or not, it still constitutes an interruption which required me to retool and which in turn led to lost time and concentration.

The inbox is an excellent capturing mechanism for any ideas or questions, whether they would take 2 minutes or less to answer or would take days, without necessarily leading to a fundamental interruption of the session flow.

Final thoughts

Coming back to my Pomodoro reference from an earlier chapter review, I've always struggled with distractions during a Pomodoro session, often leading to Pomodoro's being broken off and me feeling like a failure for not complying with an approach I've imposed on myself.

This inbox approach provides a great solution for that. I urge you to watch Kourosh videos and try it for yourself.