Maybe it’s because our big to-do list item right now is painting the rest of the downstairs (including the kitchen, which has cabinets with crown molding around which I must tape, and as we all know, crown molding geometry descends into areas not foreseen by Euclid, but I’m thinking a lot about the effect of color on my world, and how I use it to keep myself from knuckling under the massive weight of my to-do list. And first thing I think of with respect to color is color-coded sticky notes. I know it sounds like I’ve been eating the paint chips instead of taping them to the walls, but trust me when I say that color-coded sticky notes have led me out of more than one jam.

Black And White In A Sea Of Gray

Anyone who knows me–or any writer–knows how fond we are of words. We like to hone our expression of them–hunting for the right word, articulating in both speech and writing exactly what we want, need, or have planned, and why (and also your role in it, supporting family members, because the Big To-Do List is Watching YOU, too). As a result, our world might easily wash itself out in an ocean of black ink on white paper, of black pixels on white screen, rendering it all into an eventually-colorless blur.

Bob Ross To The Rescue

Listen to the 'fro, man.

Take that ocean of gray–of grocery lists, to-do lists, notes, reminders, and expressions both verbal and written–and do like the famous ‘fro said–throw in just a little bit o’ color and all of a sudden, your attention snaps to like it’s been given a whiff of delicious bacon in a sea of tapioca. Your eyes are drawn naturally to that which is different, that which stands out and demands your attention. We seek out patterns from chaos, and all it takes is a hint of color for our minds to begin making sense of the senseless.

On the big wall board where we keep the guts of the family running, I use colored markers–pink for my daughter, turquoise for my son. In my purse calendar, the tape flags mark my items of interest according to what I’m doing–whether it’s writing related, business-related, or family-related. These little bits of color can very easily offer my mind a pattern. Order to help me navigate through the sea of items all begging for my attention for one reason or another–and aren’t they all equally compelling?

The truth is that energy flows where attention goes, and the corollary is true. When your attentions are being acted upon by equally powerful forces pulling you in eight different directions, you can place good bets on your brain becoming sushi by the end of the day. But offering up some tasty morsels–order bait–for that attention of yours helps direct and trap it in a pen of your own choosing, and harnesses the energy that comes along with it, so you’re not flailing around like a downed power line. Which, face it, might be really nifty to watch from a safe distance, but not the kind of thing you want to handle on a daily basis. Downed power lines aren’t sending that electricity to power the homes around them.

From Bob Ross To The Beatles

My yellow submarine is made of post-it notes

Of course, just like that sea of ink-stained demands on your time can wash you over in a monochromatic tidal wave, those little tape flags can turn from bright pennants of attention to a psychedelic cacophony of “lookit” and render you equally incapacitated. Only with more of a seventies’ feel to it.

I used to buy the four-color sets of post-it notes to use in my plotting. I bought the pastel four-color set and mixed it up with the neon colors set and generally thought myself a right clever little brat when it came to storyboarding. Until I started actively avoiding my storyboards because they just stopped making sense. All those colors and all that cleverness washed itself out because I couldn’t remember whether bright blue was for action scenes or the male lead’s POV. And the rainbow gave me a damn headache.

The trick to using tape flags is to never mark anything simply “urgent.” Because anything that isn’t “urgent” doesn’t belong on your list. It’s all urgent. It all needs to be done. It all needs your attention. But you are the one who’s responsible for prioritizing it. And black and white just don’t fit the bill. Oh, sure, you can offer up a cursory triage as in, “is it bleeding or on fire at this moment” but beyond that, the yes or no answer just won’t do. Anything not “urgent” does not get attended to. Ever. So it all becomes “urgent.”

After you’ve done away with “urgent” you can begin to prioritize according to date. There are items and tasks with due dates that will determine for you when your attention needs to be on them. That’s the easy part. The harder part comes when you have to assign a (sometimes arbitrary) date to a task.

Now, everybody knows the ol’ “set a date” secret. But there are other ways you can prioritize–and use your colors–to direct your attention (and your energy) where you need it to go and when. I have tape flags for tasks that occur outside the home that are different than the colors for inside-house stuff. I’ve got colors assigned to tasks that are kid-friendly (or at least not outright hostile to kids being there) and ones which require a babysitter.

But here’s the trick–anything more than four colors and your brain will cramp. Actually, three is better (at least for me). If I can group or chunk tasks and things that require my attention into three categories–whatever they may be–then the energy generated from that tsunami of taskwork just got a whole lot easier to disperse. Adding just a little bit of color (remember the wise words of the ‘fro, man) will offer up your brain a sense of order in which it can find comfort and focus. Give your energy and attention a well-connected and well-insulated power line down which to send itself and instead of flailing about on the street, you’ll be bringing light and warmth to dozens of homes where all your tasks live on the streets of your mind.

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