October 08, 2019

Like many nerds I’ve used many productivity systems, and naturally it all started with Getting Things Done. David Allen promised to provide a flowchart for life, capturing all the chaos, saving every fleeting thought, and reigning in forgotten commitments into a rational system. His promise is tantalising, and yet like many such mystics (Marie Kondo comes to mind) the fervour he inspires eventually succumbs to the entropy of the everyday.

Why is this?

Tools always look so shiny when they’ve not been used. And I’ve used a great many. Some I’ve tinkered with excitedly for a day or two before forgetting all about them; others I’ve filled until they’re bursting at the seams.

Long ago, I liked the simplicity of the text-based tools, like todo.txt, or a spinoff of that I hacked together, or the more featureful Taskwarrior. Now I use Todoist, and for some time I’ve been using Complice and Workflowy to manage daily todo lists — officially forbidden by GTD, but which have, for a period of a few years, worked quite well for me. In Todoist, on the other hand, I’ve hit the 300 item limit for the inbox.

All of these tools are great. Am I the problem?

One thing I’ve noticed about posts on this topic, even introspective ones that seem to get at the heart of the matter, is that (like me) people seem to get excited by a system for a while, then it seems to grow slowly out of control.

Too much attention to the systems themselves seems to result in indecision, and constant switching between them, which fails to confer the clarity that one seeks, and is frankly a waste of time. But even if one doubles down and sticks steadfastly to a system for a year, it typically still accumulates irrelevance, and, over time, becomes a mess. For me at least, this seems to happen regardless of whether I have a regular review — though of course it happens more quickly without them.

Maybe this is a normal cycle. There are lots of things we have to do periodically, but which won’t cause serious problems even if they’re not attended to for quite some time. Haircuts, for example. Or closets. It would be overkill to review all the contents of a closet every week, but if you never do it, it can take a kind of psychic toll, as Allen and Kondo no doubt warn.

Is this a problem? There are a few who write in defence of mess, at least in one’s office. As someone who writes in a slovenly room, this too is tempting: just let go.

When I was young, not having encountered such systems, I did just wing it, and for periods I probably did not even use a calendar. I certainly never reviewed notes. But without a system I missed opportunities. And I feel differently about non-physical systems, where ambiguity seems somehow more paralysing than does a mess in my physical world.

Maybe it’s just that productivity systems just need some attention every once in a while, and it really doesn’t matter whether you switch to a new tool or just declare a backlog, and clear out the old one. Maybe it’s like getting a haircut: you can kind of do whatever whenever, and the effects aren’t permanent anyway.

Or that’s what I’m trying to tell myself, as I agonise, like all the rest, over which one to do.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.