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.