Productivity Systems Redux

Productivity Systems Redux

I was browsing my trackbacks and came across Brian Breslin’s post on Getting Things Done, where I found this astonishing offhand distillation of the essence of a productivity system:

[…] its amazing how much stuff you can get done if you just have it written down in front of you.

Wow! That’s totally it!

It’s such a fundamental insight that I think we sometimes lose sight of it. We’re so distracted by all these methodologies and gadgets that purport to focus us—you know, Web Apps 2.0, PDAs, fancy (ahem) printed forms, books, and podcasts, etc., that we forget that what really matters isn’t doing things “the right way” or “the most optimal way”, but just doing them at all. So let me say right now:

  • There is no optimal way to do things, as far as you’re concerned, when you’re doing it for the first time.

  • There is no right way of doing things, when it comes down to getting something done for the first time.


p>Yes, this flies in the face of what your bosses, managers, professors, friends, and parents say. But you know what? They have no idea what you’re facing, and they probably don’t really know how you think and work in the first place.

After you do something for the first time, though, you’ll have a better idea of optimization and correct procedure.

But I digress. Brian’s insight that just having stuff written down in front of you is all you need is incredibly powerful. This has lead to a few insights of my own.

Simplicity Revisited

The idea of having stuff written down harkens back to a design principle behind David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: simplicity. But simplicity by itself doesn’t lead to usefulness, which is a mistake that some applications make. I might substitute directness instead as the more critical principle.

Having things in front of you is great because you don’t have to spend so much time remembering complex steps, dependencies, or wonder if you’ve forgotten anything. David Allen is right on the money when he emphasizes that relaxation is the result of knowing that everything is accounted for, and that this leads to the sense of well-being that often eludes us. Why do we want to be more productive? Because we want to relax and feel good about ourselves. Productivity is a byproduct of the active pursuit of change and self-empowerment, not an end-goal in itself.

Anyway, a simple list is sufficient to jog our memory and remember what we’re doing. Our brains are already overloaded with all kinds of other activities. Remembering a list of tasks is something that the average brain is not particularly well-suited to. It’s far easier to just read what you need to do off a list; it’s high-resolution, persistent, and allows our brains to focus on processing incoming visual data. Manipulating objects in space is easier for some of us too; a written list + a pencil creates an effective conceptual workspace, without the need to keep everything in our limited short term memory.

The simple list, alas, starts to break down if it’s not accessed for a few days. The items on the list start to lose their symbolic power, as our memories become filled with more recent events. In other words, we start to lose the context around the tasks we’ve written down; as a result momentum is lost, and the list itself becomes irrelevant. A living list, however, that’s scanned often and maintained, stays relevant; this is one of the principles behind GTD’s weekly review, I think.

Information in Context

Once you’ve gotten things written down, the next challenge is doing the prep work, so you can get on with creating something of value. Different work requires different kinds of context-sensitive material:

  • Line cooks, for example, have to prepare dishes quickly and efficiently so they can serve those plates during rush. They arrange their food garnishes and ingredients in a particular arrangement around them; this is called mise en place: everything in their right place. Certain cooking techniques are so fast that you have to have things at the ready. Stir-frying done right is a good example; the food is in constant motion under high heat in a two-minute cooking window. There’s no time to fumble around for things, because the food quickly will become overcooked.
  • Knowledge workers, in comparison, have to assemble, arrange, and transform chunks of information to create more useful chunks of information. We spend an awful lot of time just converting information from one format to another so we can see what it is. Anything we can do to make our information more tangible, reliable, and easy to manipulate makes our lives easier.

Douglas Engelbart, among others, has observed that a great percentage of our time is spent just doing clerical work; proportionally, relatively little time goes into being “creative” (as in, making things). I mention Engelbart because he’s been on my mind lately, having just watched the so-called Mother of All Demos video, where the computer mouse is first unveiled, along with live video conferencing, hypertext, and chorded keyboard entry…in 1968. Thomas Edison also famously said that “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration”, which I would say also applies to the creative process.

Creativity, as I use it, refers to the act of creation, not “novelty” or “originality”. We tend to associate the word with famous artists and top designers, but I like the everyday quality of “making things”. And making things generally involves having everything you need ready in one place; you may have spent days gathering everything together for just a few minutes of the creative act, but once it happens BOOM. Think again of mise en place.

There are a few levels of creativity that I can think of that involve the manipulation of raw material:

  • Assembly — Building a model kit, making a fire, washing the car, assembling a report…these are all creative tasks that consist primarily of putting things together with the expected results known in advance. You need to have your materials in place so you can actually get it done. If you’re missing anything, you can not proceed unless you improvise.
  • Discovery — This is a little different, because instead of putting things together in a known order, you’re using your raw material to create something unknown. This is getting closer to the popular understanding of what “creativity” is, if you add the notion that whatever emerges is something that takes on a life of its own. It could be something that solves a problem or evokes a feeling. What’s important is that the “something” is emergent, and we assign some value to it after we see it.
  • Synthesis — Yet another kind of creativity involves using the raw material as an interactive workspace that augments your brain’s ability to see patterns and draw conclusions. In other words, you put your thinking process outside in the real world and direct your assembly and discovery activities toward the solving of a problem. As you assemble and discover, your brain sees new things and makes new connections that it may not have made without the direct experience of it. You’re creating new elements that augment your raw material, mixing them with new ideas and creating something that’s never been seen before in the world. This is the highest order of creativity, but it’s evident in the simplest of tasks. The real drawing process, in my opinion, is not about “copying what you see in your head onto paper”, but about using the paper as a visualization space, experiencing what you see as you draw it, and making adjustments based on how you react. It’s the same, I think, with any act of creative synthesis, be it programming, design, leadership, or whatever.

What does this all have to do with lists of things to do? The raw material of the knowledge worker is information. Anything you can do to get information out of your head and into a directly-manipulable space is incredibly powerful. You could use post it notes, software, pieces of clay, marbles, people wearing symbolic hats, WHATEVER…just do what you need to do to get the problem space out of your head and in front of your eyes. It takes some effort to get that information in front of you—the 90% perspiration—but once it’s there, your brain can then get to work doing what it does best: play with stuff! And that is the power of putting things out where you can see them.

It’s worth noting that the idea of processing in GTD is based on the same idea: once you get everything organized and processed, your brain is free to do it’s thing. I might even go as far to make the following definitions:

  • WORK is energy expended to reconfigure the world to a set plan, relationship, or ordering of things in a way that it wasn’t before.
  • PLAY is energy gained by exploiting existing plans, relationships, and ordering of things.

GTD processing is work in the sense that we’re putting information in an order such that we can really see what we need to do with absolute clarity. If we’ve done it right, it’s EASY to just starting getting things done and feeling good about that.


  1. Mike 18 years ago

    Great post. I also use the list technique. My method varies from paper to a Word document depending on the environment and situation. Working in IT, I carry a moleskin notebook rather than a PDA because it suits me.
    However, on issue I have run into is that it is equally important to overload your brain with too many lists. A list is an ordered device. The signal of the list can easily be overwhelmed by the noise around you. A list rarely calls your attention. Phones, emails, automated appointment reminders and coworkers do this.
    For the list to work properly, your space needs to be as ordered as the list. To borrow from your chef analogy. The best chefs, if they forgot one ingredient, know where to go and what to do if they forgot something and could do so fast enough that it would not hurt the process.
    In my case I find that it is very difficult to keep my physical workspace uncluttered. It’s something to work on though. In order for the list to work for me, I have to keep my master list in my digiatl workspace. My computer desktop is very neatly organized. I keep my master list for the day in a txt document on the desktop and refer to it whenever I have a moment. Then I can call upon emails, other documents or my moleskin for clarification.

  2. stampf 18 years ago


    What you’re refering to is also know in the “Lean world” (refering to our mail exchanged) as:
    -visual management: put objectives in front of you all day long, also visible for everybody (more engaging)
    -5S: Sort (useful out of waste that you throw away), Set in order (right thing at the right place), Shine (polish the place: that way, it will be more incentive to work in a nice & clean place, plus you have the benefit of doing the two first S every once in a while), Standardize (clearly define how the three first S are to be done, and keep to it. If you’re expericiencing problems with the standard, update it) and finally, Sustain (force you to audit yourself once in a while to assess how you’re doing in the four first S).
    -performance management: once you show your performance (how well [or bad] you’re doing), you should be incentisized to perform better. When things don’t go as expected, reflect at the end of the day, understand why it went that way, and correct the root problem permanently.

    That’s a basis for personal productivity, I guess :)

  3. Mark Patterson 18 years ago


    The simple list is a great tool. Before the making of the list, however, is the discipline to sit down, take a moment or two, and make the list. My sister-in-law turned my wife (and thence, me) on to the “Fly Lady” a couple of years ago. She started a web site devoted to helping women (primarily) get organized and keep their house clean and their lives in order. (CHOAS = “Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome”).

    The key point I pull from her system was the use of routines to help “automate”, as it were, activities that should be done daily, weekly, etc., instead of trying to remember them, or let them go until they are out of hand. So, you have a “morning routine” for when you get up, an “evening routine” for going to bed, etc. These automate things like picking up the bathroom, doing the dishes in the sink, etc. You just do them until it becomes a habit. These things you must do get out of the way and are addressed by the routines, thereby freeing your life to the things you love without the nagging internal guilt that you should be doing something else.

    Her site is really good for information on how to keep a clean house, by the way—something they do not teach in school!

    I applied this in the working world with my own routines: My start the work day routine (which has as its first step creating a new Emergent Task Tracker), my end of day, my weekly routines (staff meetings, office cleanup, magazine review), bi-weekly, monthly, and quarterly. These are things that must get done, and it is a waste of energy to have to recreate the list each time you have to do them (you have to remember what they were, write them down again, remember what order they need to be in, etc.) Better to create the routine (which is really a task list that recurs), and then schedule the time to do the list, so that it becomes “automated.”

    I modified your Emergent Task Planner to look more like your “Resource Task Quantizer” in that it has the space at the top to allow me to lay over the Weekly Resource Scheduler. On the space at top, I put my “Worth Doing” list on the left, and my routines list on the right. The Weekly Resource Scheduler lays over these, but I can flip it up to remind me of my routines, and what matters most. The ETP has today’s of actions that need to be done. It sounds more complicated than it is. The beautiful thing is that I have the weekly list for the week’s “big picture” and the more tactical daily list, and it is all in front of me in plain view. The first two steps of my daily morning routine is “Create the ETT” and “Create the ETP.”

    Which comes back to the topic, which is, it really is effective to have a simple list written down in front of you.

  4. Mark Forster 18 years ago

    You’ll find a useful article about how to manage this sort of list on my website at

  5. clgerst 18 years ago

    I found your Printable CEO series through posts from The emergent task tracker shows me where I’m falling short.
    Your simplicity focus in this segment reminds me of another thought leader, FlyLady AKA Marla Cilley. Her website and Yahoo! group have a cult following. Her work the past five+ years has been to encourage people to establish routines and a non-perfectionist attitude in doing housework and the business of life. I find her strategies translate very well to working life as well: just start doing it, commit to 15 minutes then take a break, build short effective routines into daily habits, take help from others and don’t criticize their (and your own) every move, celbrate progress…
    I recommend you check out her site for another perspective on productivity. Thanks for your site and insights.

  6. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Mike: That’s an interesting observation about the list being an “ordered device”, and that it can be overwhelmed. This might be why I keep playing with things like the Task Order Up, in an attempt to make it a little more “special” in the world, and not easily buried.

    Stampf: Lean sounds very interesting…I’ll have to look more into it!

    MarkP, clgerst: I’ve been coming across the Fly Lady recently…she does seem to have a lot of interesting (and very encouraging) materials. I particularly like the “routinizing” of tasks too, and the community nature of the site makes it seem more FUN too.

  7. stampf 18 years ago

    Dave: Lean is from the automotive industry, but is more and more used in service industries. I don’t know what could result from a use in a consultancy point of view, but there surely are some repetitive tasks that may benefit from it.