I’m Chanpory, and this is my site on how to live and work better as a designer.

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quicksandI came to a realization yesterday. It’s something I’d understood on one level or another for a long time, but this was the first time I’d articulated in a way that really sank in:

I create new tasks faster than I could ever accomplish them.

Coming to this realization gave me a tremendous sense of freedom. I imagine other addicts feel the same way when they hit rock bottom and realize it can only go up from here.

Face It: You Are Your Own Worst Manager

Imagine a boss who doesn’t do any work himself. He just sits at home all day thinking of what you’re doing wrong, what you should be doing next, and giving you new projects and tasks constantly without any thought to how busy you already are and how much you have left to do. This boss has no concern for your personal life, couldn’t care less whether you have enough time to spend with your loved ones or simply play and relax. As far as your boss is concerned, your a lazy good-for-nothing who needs to be constantly whipped into shape.

That boss is inside you. It’s the part of your brain that worries in the most literal sense of the word, worrying away at your problems like a wolf gnawing at a wound. You can go to the movies or have a drink with a friend, but if there’s the slightest friction in your life, your brain is in the back there trying to find a solution. When a potential solution appears, a new task gets added to the notepad and processed into your system.

Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should

The problem is, we GTD-ers get a little too good at capture. Everybody has those moments where they think “Wouldn’t it be great if I did X?” But most people don’t write each of those ideas down immediately, process them, and then attack them methodically. They usually put them aside and go on with their day; only the most pressing ideas (i.e. the solutions to problems that are actually problems) keep pinging them until they finally put a solution in action. People who embrace GTD are generally very smart people who are frustrated by seeing good ideas go to waste. Personal progress is very satisfying, so we use a methodology that helps us efficiently capture each idea and see it through.

But the strength of GTD is also its greatest weakness. We get so good at capturing and executing tasks that we get sloppy. We throw everything into the machine. Where most people rely on inertia and friction to filter out the stuff that doesn’t really need to get done”saving their sanity”we reduce those obstacles until our task-accomplishing runs up against the one limitation that GTD can do nothing about: Time.

(If you’ve ever looked around you at people who don’t use GTD, and marveled at the fact that they have jobs, pay taxes, and in general get through life just fine, and also have time for hobbies, while you feel like you’re doing tasks every minute of every day and never seem to catch up, you know what I’m talking about here.)

We use all our time up, because there’s no opposite force (beyond divorce, anxiety attacks, heart problems, and so on) forcing us to save enough of our time for ourselves. Like smoking, unchecked GTD is a habit that feels good in the present, with long-term health consequences.

Eliminate Productivity Cruft

According to Wikipedia, “cruft” is a term used by computer programmers to refer to code that duplicates “code elsewhere in the system, is unnecessarily complicated, is a poor solution to the problem it solves, is left over from a previous change, etc.” In his wonderful little book, In the Beginning…was the Command Line, Neal Stephenson talks about how operating systems become increasingly weighed down by cruft as the software gets more and more bloated with each new feature.

Adding capabilities to a system is great, but if there’s no simultaneous, regular process for simplifying and reducing it at the same time, it will eventually spiral out of control and collapse under its own weight. This is one of the main reasons Apple decided to start from scratch, so to speak, with OS X. To make a fast, modern operating system, they had to sacrifice backward compatibility and begin from square one. It was a painful transition, but the result was a marvelous piece of uncrufty software.

Purging Isn’t Enough; Hire Yourself an Agent

OK, so your “worst boss” is the part of your brain that’s been trained to capture every thought and idea and turn it into action, building a pile of tasks far faster than the rest of you can accomplish them. Every once in a while, I get totally fed up and strung out and, in a fit of pique, cull my task list ruthlessly.

A good task purge makes me feel better right away, but within a day or two I start coming up with new tasks and projects at an even faster rate. “With all that free space on my task list, I must have a lot of time to spare!” Wrong.

The trick is to automate the task removal process, too. Imagine an agent, someone who’s in it for you, who comes into your office and yells at your boss and says “No, you don’t need him to do these four tasks. Life will go on. He needs to sleep. He needs to play. He needs to walk his dog. Forget the someday/maybe list, just get rid of it.”

Make this step an essential part of your Weekly Review, and put it at the end of the process, because an empty list is a temptation to add even more tasks.

The Rejected Task Killfile

Keep track of the tasks you’ve removed in a killfile, so that you don’t keep adding them. For instance, you might keep telling yourself you need to organize all the photos in your iPhoto database according to some new, better scheme. But during your weekly task cull, you decide it just isn’t worth it: you can find what you need and three hours fussing in there just isn’t necessary.

Problem is, if you don’t record the fact that you at one point decided against doing that task, your brain will keep reminding you, and you may even add it back to your list, only to remove it the following week. So keep track of all the tasks you’ve at one point decided simply weren’t worth the effort, and respect your own past choices. Sometimes, even the best of us have weak moments.

The fact is, we often add tasks to our lists as a way to stave off anxiety. The first sign I’m really anxious is that I start adding new tasks left and right. Guard for that behavior.

At the end of your weekly review, go through each and every task on your list with the following questions in mind: What will happen if I don’t do this? Chances are, nothing much.

I’m doing my weekly task cull now. Wish me luck. If you have success with this, let me know in the comments.

9 Comments

  • Jeremy

    gravatarDec 6, 2007
    4:51 am

    This has been common knowledge on many sites, but you’ve put it in words better than any other I’ve read. I hope Mr. Allen stumbles across this.

  • Derek

    gravatarDec 6, 2007
    11:24 am

    Isn’t this the purpose of the “Someday/Maybe” list? A place to stick this task cruft?

    Prior to the rise of GTD, there was a productivity system I attended training for call Mission Control (they’re still around – http://www.missioncontrol.com). One of the founding principals of their system is that in this day and age, we have too much stuff to do or handle. You cannot get it all done – end of story. Until you accept and admit this, it will be a key source of stress in your life.

    Their system is fairly simple and has many parallels to GTD. Capture everything that comes into your life that you have to do or handle. Do this with only one capture tool (the founder was very found of digital voice recorders.) With the rise of email, they allowed you to add your email inbox as a capture tool. In GTD – this corresponds directly to the –œinbox–.

    Once a day, you empty your capture tool. I seem to remember they allowed the same as GTD where if a task was only going to take two minutes or less, to do it immediately. Other wise, process until there is nothing left in your capture tool. After you are rolling, this should take more than 15mins.

    This is where the system diverges from GTD. As you process your capture tool (inbox) things end up in one of three places. Stuff you are going to do, need a –œnow– scheduled for them. A –œnow– is the point in time when you would say, –œI’m doing this now.– In practice, this meant scheduling a task on your calendar as opposed to just throwing it on an ever growing to do list. If there is no room on your calendar, then you don’t have time to do it. That is where the next two lists come in.

    The –œnot doing now– list is stuff you are not doing at any point in the future. This was always a bit nebulous for me, but typically was where my –œwaiting for follow-up– stuff went. I wasn’t doing it because something external prevented me from scheduling it, so there was no –œnow– in the future.

    Finally, there was the –œnever doing now– list. This is where the stuff you consciously said, –œI’m never going to do this– went. There was something very liberating about having this list. You got the task out of your head, and it got handled. Today, this is what I use the –œSomeday/Maybe– list for.

    Ultimately for me, the Mission Control system caved under the weight of the “now” list which had you scheduling every task on a calendar as to when you were going to do it. Well this is very helpful in quickly coming to the realization of “I want to do this, but there is no point in the foreseeable future that I have time to do it” it became tedious to maintain, especially went I’d have a lot of tasks that I didn’t know how long they were going to take.

    Today, when I stick to GTD (which admittedly I’ve fallen off the wagon recently), I’m honest with what I will and will not have time to do in my weekly review, and move tasks and even whole projects to the “Someday/Maybe” list.

  • Jennifer

    gravatarDec 6, 2007
    12:23 pm

    Excellent article! Too often my next actions list is really a “pretend I’m going to do” list. It’s so much less stressful when you’re honest with yourself.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 6, 2007
    1:04 pm

    I agree, Jennifer. It’s all about reducing the gap between who you are and who you think you should be. Kill unrealistic expectations and you start feeling better right away.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 6, 2007
    1:08 pm

    Derek–good points (I’d never heard of Mission Control, but it looks interesting, if ultimately impractical), but the someday/maybe list hasn’t really worked for me in the past. If a project isn’t really worth even beginning now, I’d rather just forget about it. My someday/maybe list always ends up housing pie-in-the-sky “should be” projects like “learn to play the saxophone” or “organize my iPhoto database.” Who needs the guilt? I know deep down I’ll never do those things. I’d rather just cut those loose. But if it works for you, and you successfully bring things off the someday list and actually do them, that’s the important thing.

  • felix

    gravatarDec 10, 2007
    12:31 pm

    Great post! There is definitely a discrepancy between what we would like to do and what is actually do-able in real life. I use a very loose version of GTD that handles this discrepancy well:

    Each of my to-do lists is ordered by priority. New to-do items are usually added on top of the list, but when I come back to the list I will move things around based on what’s the most pressing. This means I often end up with a pile of low priority items sitting at the bottom of my lists. I am aware of them and can trim them if required. This system is not as binary and definitive as real GTD, but it works for me.

  • Joy

    gravatarDec 13, 2007
    4:57 am

    The night before, I prepare my fab five to do list for the next day. Only five no more no less (exercise is ALWAYS one of them). Amazing how they get all done. When we write it out while keeping it to the five most important and valuable to do’s they really can get done.

    Try it! Life is too short to live by a very long list of not so important stuff to dos.

  • Kristi Holl

    gravatarDec 29, 2007
    7:27 am

    Great article…it really made me think. Having done all the to-do lists and capturing of ideas for years, I am starting now to focus more and pare down the lists of things I think I need to do. All that list making did help me get more done, but I can’t say I enjoyed life more. Or actually wrote more, which is my work. I liked the idea of cutting down the list to the things you’re best at and having less to organize. Focusing feels good–and for me, produces better writing. (I still do the capturing for an “idea file” however. If you don’t, the ideas get lost.)

    http://www.Writers-First-Aid.blogspot.com

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 29, 2007
    2:41 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Kristi, and for the link to your blog. Looks good. I’ve subscribed.