It's a Paradox

Any day I want to be productive, which is nearly all of them, I keep an index card with three to five tasks on it. When I shift off of something, a phone call, an email, a snack, it's hard for me to return to focus. Too much is spinning in my mind. To stop the spinning, I pull out the card, look at the short list, and engage a task.

The list has to be short, or there's too much opportunity for indecision. I create the list fresh each morning, and will recreate it during the day if I complete all the tasks. These tasks are often the next actions to complex and long-term projects, but projects move forward one action at a time. These disposable lists keep me focused on that.

And, if I have a meeting with you, I'll similarly have a card with three to five things that are important to our meeting. We may or may not engage them, but not including them will be by design rather than distraction.

Three to five is a known quantity to cognitive science. In another application of the three-to-five principle, I live by the guideline that only a genius can run a meeting with more than five people. I usually aim for three.

I learned the index-card practice from seeing it in action by the distinguished head of a child health and growth research center at a major university. It was the daily practice of this individual, and I learned from the modeling.

And I commonly reference my sources for learning. In this case, I'm not. This individual made breakthrough advances in our understanding of human learning and growth. These advances transformed a number of teaching and learning practices, and created powerful frameworks for describing learning diversity and matching those descriptions to best practices.

Tragedy is a word used too lightly. At the same time, this individual's life ended in an unfolding consistent with the Aristotelian definition of a tragedy. Their name, their breakthrough research, and their accessible and engagingly written publications were erased. Their death ended the adjudication of the wrongdoing so there was no conviction beyond reasonable doubt. At the same time, there is not much doubt.

So much of my understanding of cognitive diversity and more than one daily practice came from this individual now erased from discourse. "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones” And so it is.

This individual had been a role model for me and many others. I recently told a pastor friend that I didn't know anyone completely good or completely evil. The scholar had once been a contender for completely good.

As for completely evil, one day I was a 20-year-old on a construction site controlled by a mob boss. I was the sole representative of a subcontractor; and, therefore alone in my role. I heard that morning from the consulting engineer that the boss was going to get someone to break both of the engineer's legs if he weren't more cooperative about looking the other way. My job was to run stress tests on the water line.

The testing was long and complicated, and, under the circumstances, stressful. It was a blisteringly hot and dry summer's day. I had no food or drinkable water, and was only hoping to be invisible. At some point I was dehydrating, the boss had a jug of water at his truck. I wasn't going to ask for anything.

"Hey kid," the boss beckoned. This was not good, I thought.

"Have some water." He gave me a cup. When I finished, he said, "Tell your boss to buy one of these." He pointed at the brand name of the container. "Igloo." I finished the job without incident.

He was a made guy. He had bodies to his name.

Almost five decades later, I still remember the kindness from this otherwise evil guy.

With no illusions about evil, today I want to disinter some good.


Francis Sopper

Kairos for Business FAQ Terms Privacy