Task Cards vs Cognitive Load vs Balance

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.


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.


  1. Amanda Pingel 13 years ago

    So here’s a strange question:

    What do you mean by work-life balance?

    and as a follow-up…

    why do you want it?

  2. katrina 13 years ago

    This is why I read your blog, Dave.  This is just so beautiful.  I am going to reread this post a few times … such brilliance and pure genius … wow!

    Yeah, what he said …

    I was starting to think that the problem with GTD is simply that we are humans, not machines.  And as humans, any system that depends on me doing the same thing, time after time without end is doomed. 

    I need a way to supplement the regimen of GTD with some kind of meta view that rekindles my interest and taps into my core sense of happiness and contentment … or something.

    Thanks for pointing to my blogs.

    Lots to think about …

  3. katrina 13 years ago

    Okay, I posted(!) in the forum about this and so I tried my hand at modifying the CGT to see if it helps me with that meta view.  I will try it out for a week and let you know what happens.


  4. Josh 13 years ago

    This post really makes me wonder whether or not the structure of the form itself needs to just emerge naturally from behavior. Perhaps different people just have different categories that their behavior and tasks fit into, and you can’t really begin to create a work-life balance until you analyze exactly what you “do”.

    I think what I’m seeing as a confusion or weakness with the CGT form, especially after reading this post, is that there are a lot of “shoulds” in the form, without acknowledging what is actually happening and how you feel about it. Some days are going to be balanced; some are going to lean heavily to different areas. I think more important than what you’re actually doing is what you feel.

    I feel limited with the structure you’ve been working on. What I’ve been doing recently is just having a list of “done” things for the day, with little numbers and categories showing what kind of task and how I felt about it. I’m hoping that eventually I’ll be able to see a pattern with how I feel about categories, and then maybe naturally things will start to shift.

  5. Stephen Smith 13 years ago

    I used to have a hard time with balance, until I started freelancing. Now I schedule work and play in my calendar. Especially those time when I get to spend time with the lovely bride, as she still has a “job” and her schedule can be a little irregular.