Essays on Technology and Culture

What Systems Are For

I’m as much of a sucker for the personal productivity game as any other geek enraptured by systems and organization while suffering from ADHD symptoms. In my procrastination reading, I’ve read a fair amount of pushback on complicated task management systems. I don’t think it’s indicative of a trend, just different people coming to the same set of realizations at different times. The latest for me is Seth Clifford’s “The sickness of efficency”, which makes a lot of great points about workflow tweaking.

All told, it’s harmless if all your tweaking and playing with workflows and apps doesn’t get in the way of doing stuff. After all, isn’t the whole point of this personal productivity stuff is to give us more time to do the stuff we really want to do? When personal productivity becomes a goal in itself, we miss the point. If we can get our work done in six hours, instead of eight, that’s two extra hours to live—or at least work on something else we want to do.

I’m reminded of the great John Cleese talk on creativity. (Transcript] In it, Cleese talks about “open” and “closed” modes of thinking and working—how we need to be an open mode to be creative and create new ideas, but a closed mode to implement those ideas. And also tells a bunch of terrible lightbulb jokes.

Part of the push back against systems and heavy task management is that is far too easy to put yourself in a straightjacket. We can get so caught up in the act of productivity to enter that “open mode” of thought that makes creativity possible. Something I’ve banged my head against multiple times in figuring out just how the hell to keep me on track with creative projects is how to fit them into my system. The trick for me, it seems, is to fit the time to be creative in my system, not the act.

Systems are great for putting everything in place to clear up the time for that “open mode” thinking. Though, no matter how good we get, we can still sit in our creative space and get bupkis. Or worse, get distracted. As John Cleese says, “…[A]s we all know, it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking.” And, for us geeks who get off on systems and organization, and all that jazz, we’ll probably end up thinking about our systems, and how to tweak them for optimal efficiency. So, the cycle continues.

There’s a happy medium somewhere for all of us. Some of us will use OmniFocus, some of us will write stuff on a 3×5 card, and some of us will just be able to keep all this stuff in their heads. If there was a real, one-size-fits-all solution by now, I think we’d all be using it, and there would be no more of this hand-wringing about systems. Certainly, there’d be fewer apps in the App Store with checkmark icons.

I love reading about people’s journeys to that happy medium, and sharing my discoveries. If we can avoid prescriptivist nonsense, and avoid tweaking our systems to the detriment of actual stuff we both need and want to do, we’ll be halfway there. To be honest, I think the only real solution is to find the people who don’t need lists or task managers and eat their brains to gain their powers.