Task Cards vs Cognitive Load vs Balance

Excellent discussion on using index cards has been taking place on the recent index card post. Katrina Messenger even created a whole blog post about finding balance, with a followup article about living in balance. Katrina’s articles poignantly lay out all the problems that plague creative thinkers who lack the bandwidth or willpower to get it all done. This triggered some new thoughts about the broader context of task management, which lead to three observations:

  • We focus on tasks because they produce results and invite immediate action (we don’t like being stuck). What’s interesting is that tasks are a form of communication. You know the saying: “Deeds speak louder than words.” Through tasks, we are engaging with other people who are depending on those tasks, or merely expecting them. Ideally those people also matter to us, but when they don’t tasks become a chore. While we tend to think that tasks are about us, a good amount of the time tasks are really about other people. How well you do a task, how fast, whether you meet that deadline…all these attributes of task-doing communicate something about you to them. At the same time, we’re communicating something to ourselves at the same time; the subtext of perfectionism, of responsibility, and of social value within a community. Yikes!

  • Balance is the sense that you are doing what you need to be do to live a good life, however you might define that. When this sense is sustainable and secure, a feeling of well-being results. A relative few tasks are about producing enjoyment, once you’ve carved out a bit of time and energy to do it. A lot of tasks are devoted to carving out that bubble of security to make it possible. The wriggle room is in how you define a task in the first place, and what parameters you place on their fulfillment to discern “success”.

  • Cognitive Load is, in my layman’s understanding, our brains ability to process information from both internal sources (our desires and memories) and external sources (our senses telling us what is going on). This is a limited resource at any given time, so learning how your brain reacts to certain stimuli is a good thing so you can manage it. I once had a partial insight related to this when I once compared myself to a go-kart with a certain set of performance parameters. Time management is a subset of this; really we want to manage our cognitive load such that our available time is productive.

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p>These are different approaches to the task management question, and it may appeal to a different kind of productivista. It invites comparison. For example, David Allen’s GTD system is explicitly engineered to process the elements of productivity in a methodical manner. It reminds me of a computer programming concept called Model View Controller (MVC), what’s referred to as a software design pattern in the field. Roughly speaking, the MVC approach is to divide a program’s code into three functional areas of responsibility: a “model” that organizes data within computer memory, a “view” that displays that data on the screen, and a “controller” that waits for “input events” (i.e. clicking a button on the screen) and interprets them as commands that update the model or change the view. This is a cycle repeats over and over again. The beauty of MVC is that you don’t mix the function of manipulating with the function of showing, thus avoiding a certain amount of error-inducing confusion; if you’ve ever tried cleaning up a pile of magazines at home and got stuck reading them instead, that’s the kind of functional mix-up I’m talking about.

Anyway, if you replace the word “task” for “data” in that description, you have a pretty accurate description of the GTD methodology. Where GTD gets interesting for many people is in the way that the model and view aspects are handled; this is perhaps why programmers get so excited about it. For example, how do you model the tasks and display them in such a way that the controller can be as elegant as possible? Answer(s): With a new Todo List application! Or with a tickler file! Or with index card bleachers! You get the idea.

Stretching the metaphor further, GTD puts you in the role of the “computer”. You are running the efficient GTD program, which is a kind of productivity operating system. So long as the human computer is reliable, GTD works. And that is also its greatest weakness, if you can call the need to be self-reliant and dependable a weakness. The Model-View-Controller programming pattern is effective when it comes to creating functional interactive software, but it doesn’t guarantee that the software will be pleasant to use. It’s just a pattern, and it has no soul of its own. That’s where Design comes in, structuring the elements of productivity in a way that naturally flows with our actual underlying desires and proclivities, at the same time elevating our expectations and abilities.

Secondly, from just a functional perspective, a great number of us are not very good at running a process consistently. The GTD system quickly destructs when not tended to in a task-by-task, weekly-reviewed manner. If you are not doing your weekly review, you’re dead in the water, and you lose the wonderful feeling of knowing exactly what you need to do. The GTD system is not at fault…it works great by design! It’s easy to point the finger back at ourselves and say it’s our fault, but perhaps we should have designed our productivity system to work analogously to computers in real-world situations, with unreliable connections, stormy weather, and intermittent service availability. We’re human. Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling On Happiness reminds us that our mental hardware is, in many ways, broken and unreliable when judged by the standards of computing machinery. However, it’s those same quirks of our mental processing that makes magic possible. Productivity is, to some degree, an illusion that we create for ourselves. Some of us are so good at it that we create impossible illusions, and the trick there is to keep from falling for them. Perfectionists, I’m talking about us.

I think these observations on tasks as communication, cognitive load, and balance are nascent building blocks for a different kind of pattern. There are a different set of constraints, which requires a different set of operating principles. It might be a pattern that is designed to be opportunistically yet sporadically productive, like a kind of weird flowering desert plant. The various Printable CEO forms, now that I think about it, draw on this idea already. Making it more overt in the new forms in development may be fruitful.