Unexpected lessons from a children's classic

On the morning of his departure he put his planet in perfect order. He carefully cleaned out his active volcanoes. He possessed two active volcanoes; and they were very convenient for heating his breakfast in the morning. He also had one volcano that was extinct. But, as he said, "One never knows!" So he cleaned out the extinct volcano, too. If they are well cleaned out, volcanoes burn slowly and steadily, without any eruptions. Volcanic eruptions are like fires in a chimney. 

On our earth we are obviously much too small to clean out our volcanoes. That is why they bring no end of trouble upon us. 

The Little Prince

One doesn’t usually think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s children’s classic The Little Prince as inspirational productivity literature. But I realized something when this passage ran across my mind: the Little Prince is a great example for all of us who struggle with putting together a regular routine or wish our lives were just a little less hectic. His simple routine of cleaning out the volcanoes on his fictional planet (B612) can inspire a new way of thinking about our daily activities: getting ahead of them before they “bring no end of trouble upon us.” Whatever your volcanoes—credit card bills, packing lunches, or even larger challenges like a big move or a marathon race—you can take a leaf out of the Little Prince’s book to tackle them with much more peace of mind. Follow the steps below to learn the Little Prince’s ways:

01. Identify your volcanoes.

He possessed two active volcanoes; and they were very convenient for heating his breakfast in the morning. He also had one volcano that was extinct. But, as he said, ‘One never knows!’ So he cleaned out the extinct volcano, too.

We all have a volcano or two: a task that never crosses the mind until it’s just about to be a dire emergency. Credit card bills are the classic example of this. Probably all of us have had that terrifying moment when we wonder whether we in fact paid the bill this month, or whether we have enough funds to cover it, or even encountered that sickening feeling that we have absolutely no idea what the state of our finances is. But there are other, more slow-burning volcanoes as well. Personal fitness can become a health issue if we don’t keep an eye on it, as can eating unhealthy food. My personal volcano for a long time was a monthly work newsletter I was responsible for writing. I would always forget about it until the eleventh hour and then be frantically cobbling it together. What are yours?

As you identify your volcanoes, think of the Little Prince. His volcanoes “were very convenient for heating his breakfast in the morning.” Remind yourself why your volcanoes exist. Why do you need to write that newsletter? What are your long-term fitness goals? Are you trying to save money to get out of debt? To buy a new house? To go on your dream vacation?

02. Set yourself a volcano schedule.

On the morning of his departure he put his planet in perfect order.

The Little Prince has an advanced schedule strategy: he’s employing the if-then technique. When he leaves his planet, he rakes out his active volcanoes (he also weeds out the baobab trees that threaten his planet, and waters his rose, if you’re interested). Try this technique yourself by setting yourself an if-then statement that will help you keep track of a pesky task you forget often. Here are a few examples to get you started: If I am leaving the house in the morning, I water the houseplant next to the door. Whenever I watch Downton Abbey, I fold laundry. As soon as I get up, I drink a glass of water.

I love this trick because it’s perfectly framed to help us with a very common problem: decision fatigue. If you have to wake up every morning and decide whether you’re going to drink a glass of water, that’s one more decision you have to make in your day. If you decide ahead of time, then you never need to make that decision again.

And then there’s the good old-fashioned schedule. You hardly need to be told that if you pay your credit card bill every month at the same time, you’ll never be stressed about it (theoretically). The problem with basic scheduling methods is that they just tend to slip through the cracks. You might know you should wash your sheets weekly, but even if you write on a piece of paper somewhere that you are doing that every Saturday, your Saturday-night brain is very likely to ignore it (or worse, selectively forget it.)

There are two ways to combat this: set yourself reminders that you cannot ignore, and reward yourself. First, it’s easier than you think to set yourself a reminder that’s very difficult to ignore. I actually love the Alexa function for this: she just keeps talking (and making an annoying chime sound) until you tell her to stop reminding you. You can try the app Carrot (billed as “the A.I. construct with a heart of weapons-grade plutonium”), or revert to old-school methods—ask your roommate or husband to take your phone away at 9 p.m.; or tell your kids that if you go for your morning run today or write a quick blog post (and they cooperate) everyone gets to do something fun. (Seriously, tell the kids. They will be merciless.)

03. Rake out your volcanoes.

If they are well cleaned out, volcanoes burn slowly and steadily, without any eruptions. Volcanic eruptions are like fires in a chimney.

This might seem like an unnecessary step—but trust me, it isn’t. All the schedules and reminders in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t actually do the task ahead of you. Often, the reason volcano-like pesky tasks don’t get done is that we don’t really understand how to do them, or we don’t have the necessary tools, or we are missing crucial information (tax forms, anyone?)

Invest some time in making sure you have an efficient, realistic, and crystal-clear method for tackling each of these tasks. Spend some time researching the most efficient way to fold laundry or recipes for quick, healthy meals. Research is the fun part—then implement your plan. Actually do the thing. Recurring tasks can be frustrating, but it’s helpful to remind yourself that a recurring task is still something you’ve gotten done. You really have accomplished something, and if checking it off a to-do list or giving yourself a small reward helps you realize that, then reinforce your effort in these ways! Give yourself credit for a job well done.

As the Little Prince reminds us, all our pesky little tasks don’t need to take over our lives and our attention. “If they are well cleaned out, volcanoes burn slowly and steadily, without any eruptions.” Think back to the last “eruption” of a neglected task in your own life (I’m with you! It happens!) and set a game plan so that this task, even if only this task, can simmer happily in the background while you carry on with your life on this excellent planet.