Roomba Productivity

Roomba Productivity

I’m hitting a busy time right now, feeling a bit behind the 8-ball. The number of things going on makes it difficult for me to plan easily, and as a result I’ve let the house slide into a rather unpleasant mess.

An insight:

The difficulty of planning, due to the number of projects with unpredictable elements coupled with my own ad-hoc scheduling, makes me less likely to want to plan. Because it’s all for naught. A waste of time!

Usually I power through this somehow, remembering that starting anywhere and maintaining momentum is enough to dissolve the blockage. This time, it’s a little different, because I have enough things going on that I feel a sense of doom about ever hoping to get everything done in a “reasonable” amount of time. Being able to TRACK everything isn’t particularly reassuring either…again, I’m back to the tyranny of the to-do list staring me in the face.

Time for a new strategy! Impatient readers can just skip to the very end for the summary, which I think is pretty interesting.

The Tried and True

My process for getting things done has, traditionally, been to face tasks head on or outflank them. In terms of American football, you might think of this as the running game versus the passing game. In the running game, you rely on brute force and power to plow through the defense. In the passing game, you rely on having agility and the option to throw to any one of a number of different possible receivers. The general consensus is that you need both types of strategies to have a well-rounded football team. And so, I have tried to form a well-rounded body of strategies for being productive, though I would probably say that metaphorically I tend to favor the passing game.

In both scenarios—meeting the opposition head-on versus outflanking them—the objective is the same: gain yardage. Get some more tasks done. Advance on the goal, so you can get within striking distance of scoring some points. Football is, like many sports, very goal-driven.

It occurred to me that part of the pressure I’m feeling is not so much the goals themselves. it’s time. Do I have enough time? Will I have enough time to “score” my points? Do I know when that time will be available, so I can schedule my projects so i have enough time? This is another source of uncertainty; while GTD addresses the not knowing what to do question, it doesn’t quite address dealing with knowing how much time** you have. All we know is: we don’t have enough time. That is the **underlying assumption ** of productivity. Yet I don’t think we talk about it much.

The traditional approach is to do one of three things:

  • Triage. Do only the things that are important. Forget the rest. This is part of the philosophy behind The Printable CEO™’s Concrete Goal Tracker form: Focus on the things that really move my business forward.

  • Improve Efficiency. This has been on my mind a lot recently, since I’ve realized that a lot of my processes are not scalable to, uh, “the enterprise level” of efficiency. By formalizing them, I can probably achieve greater scheduling efficiency because I can think less. Thinking, while useful, is not very good for Getting Things Done, as David Allen points out in his “Processing” stage notes. Package the thinking into process, then execute.

  • Strategic Targeting. When you’ve only got limited time and resources, it sometimes makes sense to strike goals a little “upsteam” of your actual target. So, your army of one is outnumbered 100:1? It’s suicide to hit that head on, but maybe you don’t need to engage those odds. Maybe you just need to change the conditions of the game, and target something much smaller. In terms of sports, this is like moving the goalposts in your favor. Heh heh.

Again, all these approaches tend to include time as a limiting factor. But what if you could redefine the importance of time itself?

Reassessing the Role of Time

Time is a player here, which also means it’s a variable that we can play with. Let’s consider a time / goal matrix:
  • Time Specific / Specific Goal: This is the traditional model of productivity. Getting Things Done!

  • Time Specific / Unspecific Goal: This is the traditional model of grad school :-) Ok, I’m kidding, but there’s a difference between having a very specific (as I like to say, a “concrete” goal) and just doing busy work. When you’re just doing busy work that does not result in change—you will not feel very productive. I’ve commented before that productivity is as much a feeling as it is a measurement of how much “work” you do. Real Work is what you can touch and see, something you can kick and stand on and revel in its very solidity.

Here’s the second part of the time / goal matrix, which is new (to me, anyway):

  • Time Unspecific / Specific Goal: Also known as It’s done when it’s done, favored by companies and individuals who have, in the past, proven that whatever it is they’re doing, it’s going to be worth waiting for. A good place to be, if you can pay the bills in the interim. Portions of the vidoe game industry are driven by this; Id Software comes to mind, as does Blizzard Entertainment.

  • Time Unspecific / Unspecific Goal: On first glance this seems utterly useless, but I think there is actually something here. It depends on how one defines goals, so let’s consider that.

Goals and Direction

One problem that people have with goals is that they often are, from the point of view of a project manager, too unspecific. They are not concrete. They do not measurable, or tied to tangible results. When you’re running a project, the whole point is to produce something tangible: a product, software, a marketing strategy, what have you. When you ask someone what their “goals” are, they might answer like this:

  • I want to make better software
  • I want spend more quality time with so-and-so
  • I want to make more sales
  • I want reach more people with my music
These are not concrete goals, which I define as a specific achievement that actually contributes toward the desired end-state. I have tended to discount these type of goals in the past as “wishful thinking”, because you still need to define the actual tangible accomplishments that transform these desires into reality. In terms of this discussion, however, I’m realizing that there’s a better way to describe goals of this type:
This is called DIRECTION
Duh. Direction is awesome! This is another way of labeling an unspecified goal. And as much as I go on about how unspecified goals are wishful thinking, my entire career path has been pretty much shaped by this. I’ve always had direction, not specific goals. I wanted to be a game designer, not “a successful game designer working on triple-A titles at a major studio by the time I am 30 years old” (which didn’t quite happen). As time has gone on, the direction has shifted from “game designer” to “interactive developer” to “designer” to “information designer” and now, it would seem, to “writer” and “storyteller”. I’ve been in pursuit of direction for a long time, and with each transition I seem to get a little closer to finding out where this is all leading. And, with each iteration, what I do becomes a little more satisfying. I feel a little more productive. The mystery unravels just a tiny bit more.

Emergent Productivity

Getting back to the idea of “unspecific goals, unspecified time” being something that could be worthwhile, consider the Roomba vacuum cleaner. It goes about its cleaning chores every day, sweeping the room in an algorithmically defined, but not time-bound operation. It doesn’t even have a specific goal, as in “clean the living room”. It just goes and does its thing, which is to vacuum whatever surface it happens to come across. The net result of this action is a clean living room. Amazing. I was also thinking about the approach my Dad takes to cleaning the house. During his recent extended visit, I observed his two approaches: one is to get down and get busy, and the other is to continuously clean whatever he comes across. I tend to view cleaning the house as one of those herculean efforts that requires a commitment on the order of planning a full-scale invasion. Dad just sees things and picks them up, and he sees everything. As I stumble around my house in a production plan-induced haze, he’s spotting scraps of paper from 50 feet away. He senses dirt and disorder, takes a moment to stoop down, and when he stands up, it’s gone. Over a period of time, the house achieves a level of spotlessness that is, frankly, amazing. It is the process of cleaning that apparently has no more process than just cleaning things when you see them. David Allen would certainly approve. This is what actually inspired the Task Order Up, and a lot of recent thinking about developing effective algorithms that do not have a goal embedded into them. They just have a simple behavior that results in a desirable side effect. Time isn’t a factor, at least not in the quantitative sense.

Organic Creativity

Before writing this article, I did a search on “roomba productivity”, and found that Kathy Sierra had already written something similar in her post Organic Creativity. This passage in particular struck me (emphasis mine):
The use of (and audience for) our products is evolving with or without us, organically. And if we want to evolve with it–let alone innovate and add new value that even the users hadn’t thought of we have to be there like that Roomba, always trying and trying and backing up when we hit a wall and turning 90 degrees and always moving moving moving (until its time to recharge).
Like Kathy, I come from an old-school software design background, and I put value on figuring out everything up-front. But it’s oh-so-tiring, and you’ve got to designate so much iteration time up front to even hope of producing a good product. To not have to worry about that…that’s such an alluring idea. I’m willing to give that kool-aid a sip.

The Summary (Welcome, Impatient Readers!)

Let’s see how I can sum this up:
  1. We could say the notion of “classical productivity” has implicit in it the idea of specific deliverables within a specific timeframe.

  2. When we are not aware of the specific timeframe, or of time itself, we open ourselves up to the unease of not feeling productive. This is just as bad as not being aware of what we specifically need to do; GTD addresses this through its sorting and processing stages, the weekly review, and so forth. It partially addresses the timeliness aspect through the two minute rule and Allen’s excellent position on the proper use of calendars, but beyond that doesn’t help with actual time management.

  3. The obvious approach is to optimize the process within the given constraints: optimize process for efficiency in production, and/or focus only on the important things, or more diabolically, moving the goal posts.

  4. The less-obvious approach is to question the very approach itself: do we actually need specific deliverables in a specific timeframe? What if all that’s important is the delivery of useful results? They may not even have to be specific. One strategy of achieving that is to evolve algorithms that have useful side effects, and to practice those every day.


p>And that is what I think of as Roomba Productivity. I tried it the other day, just bouncing around the house doing productive things wherever I happened to end up, not worried about “focus” or “one-at-a-time”. I ended up with a remarkably clean house in about an hour.

The next step will be to apply it to actual production work, evolving personal algorithms so I do get good results in a non-specific, but still very reasonable timeframe. Just like the Roomba. This involves getting away from my very strict notions of “specific delivery, specific timeframe” into something a touch more organic, and of course setting client expectations ahead of time. I think many designers actually already do this intuitively, now that I think about it. It feels so opposite of what I’m used to…which is a sign that it’s exactly what I should try. I don’t think it will replace my current methodology in its entirety, but at the very least this adds a new kind of play to my playbook.

Here goes nuthin’!


  1. Mark 18 years ago

    I think I’m fond of Roomba Productivity, as you’ve described it, when it gets down to time to clean up.

    There’s also Divide & Conquer. This is not so much personal productivity as it is a team organization method. I.e., when it’s time to clean up the house, I vacuum the house and clean up the kitchen; my wife cleans the bathroom.

    Similar to your dad’s method of tidying up here and there and everywhere keeping things spotless is “clean as you go.” I’d be interested in seeing you translate this to practice if I didn’t overlook you doing so already above. I.e., if I’m cooking or we’ve just had dinner, I do not leave the kitchen until dishes are done (we’re in between dishwashers right now), all messes are cleaned up, all materials are put away, everything’s wiped down. I suppose this would be akin to wrapping up a block of time coding by checking things into source control, documenting what you’ve done, and outlining the next steps for when you resume. That’s hard to do if you’ve gotten into a groove and have a train to catch and found yourself coding right up to 5:15.

    As with all things, these tend to require, in my case at least, getting into a groove or a zone, having some space to focus.

    Finally, as an aside, I love my Roomba and hate micromanagement but I do find that I have to be something of a hands-on manager with ours. If I don’t go around and turn on 2 virtual walls and position a few chairs strategically he gets quite flustered and sometimes trapped. Parameters must be defined for one’s subordinates I suppose. I like to run him while I’m home, in a difficult space (like the smaller bedroom and under the bed), unattended, but supervision from a small distance is required.

    Perhaps it’s not Roomba Productivity that works for me. It might take a while for us to get around to cleaning sometimes, but I think we tend more toward an organized plan of attack. It’s time to set aside some time, divide up the list, and go into motion so we can be done with it and on with our day. (Cleaning typically takes place on a weekend.) And the most efficient methods follow a top-down approach. You want to dust first so you can vacuum that up later.

  2. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Divide and conquer would be a great strategy, except I have to divide it with myself, which isn’t nearly as fun :-)

  3. Troy F. 18 years ago

    Interesting…I do this all the time, but I never noticed the similarities between my seemingly aimless bouncing around the house and my beloved Roomba!

    I don’t just clean when I do this – I spot other items (hang that picture, fix the slow drain in the bathroom, etc) and either do it, or figure out the next action so I can make a note of it (like get some picture hangers so I can hang the picture).

  4. Cheryl Allin 18 years ago

    Wow – I’ve been following your posts for a few weeks now, having stumbled upon you somehow from digg and it is frankly eerie how you’re echoing my exact situation.  Too much work, too little focus time – being a gemini, I tend to want to run out of the room screaming and pulling my hair out.  LOL Thank you Dave – just knowing someone else is facing similar troubles and trying to work through them (very skillfully, mind you) is inspiring.  Keep up the wonderful work, I think you’re helping more folks than you know. 

  5. Tina 18 years ago

    Dave – have just found your site (from an article in the Globe and Mail) and I have to say – I think I love you!  This is this stuff I love and your tools are exactly what I’ve been looking for!!!  I’m a fairly well organized person but suffer hugely from procrastination.  Your task tracker and the (forgive me – I forget what its called) time tracker are things I will implement tomorrow at work.

    Thanks for sharing the excellent stuff that comes from your brain!  :)  And I loved your philosophical moments too.

  6. beth 18 years ago

    Here I thought this post was going to be about the Roomba.  No mention of Roomba or Scooba haha!

  7. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Troy: That’s interesting…I haven’t thought of actually trying it with actual tasks. INTRIGUING!

    Cheryl: Thanks for the kind words! I think a lot of us are in the same boat, and it is cool to know that other people are rowing with you (or bailing out water, as the case may be :-)

    Tina: Aw, shucks! Thanks! You’re very sweet :-)

    Beth: Didn’t you post once about vacuum cleaners? I don’t have a Roomba myself, so I have to pretend I’m one. Me and my imaginary Roomba. I’m, like, 7 years old or something :-)

  8. Ged 18 years ago

    “Time Unspecific / Unspecific Goal”

    What you describe is also at the core of fundamental research, or science.  What is important, I find, is the process and principles followed while doing. If you have a sound process, with clear principles, you can do pretty much anything.  This is, I believe, why good scientists are so rare a breed; but also why great minds tend to come up with novel ideas in many different areas.

  9. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Ged: That’s a very cool insight…thanks for posting that! I have been very much on the side of “applied science” as opposed to pure science, but now that my eyes are open to it I’m very intrigued.

    Really neat!

  10. Senia 18 years ago

    GREAT POST!  Totally interesting!  Reminds me of a thought I’ve used before and liked a lot, “How you do anything is how you do everything.”  So even a small task can be done fabulously well, the way you would want to do your major tasks.  In fact, I’ll think about this today!  Best!

  11. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Senia: Thanks ye! That’s an interesting thought. I think the way I do anything comes from looking at it from all sides, including the INSIDE and the OUTSIDE, and then figuring out where to whack it. Lately I’ve been interested in just the whacking of things immediately, because that’s often just as effective for a broad class of tasks.

  12. beth 18 years ago

    Haha yes I did, I got a Dyson.  But I’ve always been curious about the Roomba (more so the Scooba) because I’m lazy, and because my dogs would go bananas.

  13. Do Mi Stauber 18 years ago

    This is basically how I am currently approaching my life as someone working in many fields simultaneously (aka a scanner, per Barbara Sher in her new book Refuse to Choose I work on my freelance money work (indexing) for a while, then get up for a break and work on music or art or housework or writing, pretty much at random. Sometimes I try to plan this, but at random seems to work better. The amazing thing is that a clean room (finished indexes, songs, pieces of art, letters, plans, designs…) is emerging! I love your roomba metaphor—it’s just right!

    Do Mi