Essays on Technology and Culture

Knowing and Doing, Fixing the Flaw in my System

When I go to work and sit down, I know what I need to do, when it needs to be done, and how to do it. I don’t need a task management system, GTD or otherwise, to make my job go. It’s everything else I need a system for.

Without looking, here’s a brief list of the “projects” on my plate: I have a redesign of Sanspoint I’ve been working on, a site I’m creating for someone else, a podcast to record, edit, and post, a novel to write, two short stories to revise, an album review to write, posts for Sanspoint to write, music to listen to (for myself, and Crush On Radio), and more. Most—though I freely admit, not all—of this stuff has ended up in my task manager. When it’s in the system, it’s everywhere: my laptop, my iPhone, and my iPad.

And it stays there. If the stuff in my task manager were organic material, it would officially qualify as either a biohazard, or a compost heap.

This is untenable.

I’m not the only person with this problem, and in the last few months I’ve seen several articles on the web on how to fix it, or hack around it. Off the top of my head, there’s:

And, lord, I am not going to reiterate my struggles with finding the right GTD application. It makes no difference what app I use if the work doesn’t get done.

There’s two disconnection points: getting stuff into the system to be dealt with, and then dealing with that stuff. The first is easier to deal with. In fact, after I wrote the first few paragraphs of this essay, I loaded up the Trigger List and went through, and had a short brain-dump, gathering various open loops and putting them into Here’s a sample, my own internal syntax included:

  • Comms
    ** Reply to REDACTED review
    Call, re: DNS issues with

  • Writing
    * The Residents Project (ongoing)
    Sanspoint (ongoing)
    * Non-Rez Pro Kittysneezes (ongoing)
    Crush On Radio stuff (stalled)

Evaluating the writing side, I went back to a great essay by Antony Johnson called “Getting Things Written”. It shows off a lot of the shortcomings in GTD’s workflow and the bothersomely open-ended nature of writing tasks. Unfortunately, I don’t find Antony’s solution to be workable for me. Job sheets only work when there’s a physical thing. There’s very little physicality to the writing I do, which is almost exclusively for the Internet. [1] He makes a point though: “the definitive nature of NAs being ‘done’ or ‘not done’ simply doesn’t suit work where something might only be half-done, but can’t be finished by merely putting more hours in.”

By way of example, here’s what a typical writing project looks like for me in Things. [2]

A writing project in

First, a few words of explanation: the “@anywhere” context means that I can do this part of the task, more or less, anywhere I am. I’m on the subway? The album’s on my iPhone, so I can give it a listen. I’m laying on the sofa with my iPad? I can type up a first draft, or revise the one I have. It’s lunchtime at work? I can export the manuscript, copy and paste it into the shared Google Doc.

Going from this task list to actually a finished thing is the problem. These tasks exist in an odd state of being as defined as possible, and still nebulous and open-ended. I try to keep these articles around 500–600 words, but that’s neither a minimum or a maximum, and the time it takes me to write those words can vary. There are days when even the best of us struggle to put down one good line of text on paper.

Obviously, the two failure points in this system, the disconnects on stuff getting in and stuff getting out, are really only one failure point: me.

I talk a big game about GTD in this essay, but I’m actually quite terrible at GTD. For example: I don’t do reviews. For a while, I had a Morning Review project that popped up every morning, but it wasn’t exactly great: check my tickler file [3], check my e-mail and add stuff to Things, check the projects in Things, and add tasks to my Today list. I have no Weekly Review. I have no Nightly Review. As it stands right now, I don’t even have a physical inbox, but I also don’t have much physical content to address.

The point of GTD reviews is to shake out the last parts of what is rattling in my head and formulate a plan of action for the week ahead. When I know what I have to do, I can do it. Like at my job. Every morning, I come in, sit down, and know exactly what has to be done, and how to do it. I’m also finding ways to improve my workflow there. There’s also the context shift that comes with going to work. When I’m there, I’m there to work, and they’re paying me for it. [4]

Making that context shift at home is going to be the tricky part—I’m not about to impugn upon my employers goodwill and start writing the novel in my down time at the office. This is going to involve more hard landscape stuff, working with timers and scheduled work periods. Something not dissimilar from when I was looking for work, and firewalling off time to search for jobs, only getting to dick around on the Internet when my work time was up. I accomplished that with a Safari extension. Perhaps I should look back into that.

Knowing and doing are the foundation of actually getting things done. (Lowercase intentional.) They have to work together. One alone does not productivity make. I can know I have a review I need to write, and not do it. I can do a lot of writing, but if I don’t know what to write about, it’s not likely to go anywhere. I can also fix the metadata on my MP3 collection, but that’s still going to leave me in the same spot. I need both. Now I know.

  1. The novel isn’t at a state where I should be worrying about a physical product yet, and I’m not even sure I’m going to go for traditional publishing. These are concerns better suited for a finished product.  ↩

  2. In this case, it’s my part of an article for The Residents Project, an ongoing series of articles at Kittysneezes reviewing every album by The Residents. They have a lot of albums.  ↩

  3. Yes, I use an actual, physical tickler file, with all forty-three folders. I experimented for a while with a ten-folder setup: one for each day of the week, one for the next week, and one for everything after that, but it was more of a hassle to do it that way.  ↩

  4. The day after Hurricane Sandy passed through New York, and the subways weren’t running, I worked from home. One day of it was enough to swear me off of remote work forever. There’s too many distractions, and a I have a suboptimal home office environment.  ↩