My playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.

sort-a-complexproblem-into-pieces-1

Object: Breaking a complex problem or idea into manageable parts

What Didn’t Work: Starting a project with the first step that came to mind, trying to hold an entire problem in my mind at once while playing with possible solutions, hoping a solution would show up if I simply “thought harder.”

My Aha! Moment: When I first rolled up my sleeves to try David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, the piece that sounded most ridiculous to me was the suggestion to “write each to-do on a separate piece of paper” as part of a general brain-dump. Umm … I thought, That’s going to be a whole ream of paper, and an overwhelming stack to work through.

However, the brilliance of the suggestion became quickly clear. As I wrote each item on a separate piece of paper, the tangles in my mind loosened. Snarl by snarl, the tasks and projects unwound themselves until I had a clear vision of my situation. Even though the pile was overwhelming, it was also complete. It turns out one piece of paper is easy to handle. Dealing with one to-do at a time is efficient and satisfying. Sorting tasks became much more simple, too. I could make a project stack, and put the tasks in a general order.

Since then, I’ve applied this one idea per paper idea to many projects. Most of the time, I use index cards rather than full sheets of paper, as they are highly versatile and also small enough to allow me to see a full storyboard of sequential ideas. Sometimes I use paper index cards, but often, I use one of my favorite iPad tools, Cardflow+.

How I Play:

  • I start with a general list brainstorm. What are the parts of this problem? What are the pieces of this idea? I write one idea or question per card.
  • I spread the cards out on my carpet, or zoom out from my digital storyboard until I can see the full picture.
  • I consider how I might sort the cards. Could the questions be put into categories? Could the tasks be sorted into stages? Once I come up with an organizing plan, I start to sort.
  • Sometimes, my sorting plan fails. Maybe the idea only fits half the questions. In that case, I look at why my plan failed and decide how I might alter or revise my approach.
  • Once I have my ideas sorted, I look at them again and decide whether I can now create an action plan, or whether I need to break some of the pieces down even further.

Player’s Notes:

  • I decide whether to use digital tools or paper ones based on the level of mess. When I have a highly tangled knot of a problem, I generally use paper to start.
  • When I start with paper, I often transfer over to digital once I have the first round of sorting done. That way, I can take my ideas with me and continue to adapt the plan.
  • I particularly like Cardflow+ with the Apple pencil on my iPad because I can doodle pictures and write words on my cards. The entire process reminds me very much of storyboarding a plot.

Take it to the Next Level:

I’ve found that the more I list and sort, the better I become at categorizing. Also, I’ve become more daring about the sorts of problems I’ll take on, knowing that I have a way to break down the challenges into steps. What kind of challenge might you use index cards or an app such as Cardflow+ to help you tackle?

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