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A conversation with Mark Hurst, web usability expert and author of "Bit literacy"

Recently I had a nice conversation with Mark Hurst, a leader of the online "customer experience" movement, and author of Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload (see the book's site and sample chapter). Additionally, he's contributed to the web usability field in many other ways. For more, see his bio, his company, his newsletter, and his blog. (You might also enjoy his 2008 Gift Guide & Almanac, which is fun has a few more good tips.)

Bit literacy is a good, short book that I've mentioned before [1]. It has helpful ideas around managing email, documents, file naming, photos, and more. I particularly like his file naming scheme [2], which I shared with client who found it helpful as a kind of simple version control convention.

Mark stresses that the book is not just about email and getting the inbox to zero (a major change for most of us). It's about managing effectively all the bitstreams coming into our lives. Mark says the world has changed, but most people haven't caught up yet - the always-on lifestyle, urgency, and haste make us neither effective nor sustainable. Here's how he puts it:
Five, ten or twenty years from now, the bits will increase exponentially: email, web, phones and PDAs. Without proper training, users everywhere will face an increasingly urgent problem of overload. Now is the moment to learn bit literacy. It's like getting in shape on a slow-moving treadmill before it speeds up to a sprinting pace.
I hope you enjoy it.

On getting started

From early on, Mark noticed we aren't being served well by current technology, and found that there is a more fundamental and insidious problem with it today: people do not have the skills they need in order to do practically anything. Beyond using the web, we lack the skills to survive in a world dominated by email and other digital communications.

Over the years, these observations about technology (plus an admitted "obsessive interest in being efficient") led to his perspective on the process and cost of creating bits, and his eventual development of what Hurst calls "a simple, fast, and easy to learn system for being bit literate." He says it took him about ten years to develop that system.


Mark lists Richard Saul Wurman's Information Anxiety as a tremendous influence, a book he says is still pertinent. They met through a mutual friend, after which Mark wrote an essay for the 2000 edition. He then spoke at TED in 2001, which Wurman founded. He says the experience of speaking at TED was a big influence in his later starting Good Experience Live (Gel) conference.

He says the culture of "UNIX Geeks" was extremely influential, especially its design principles, how it is built, and the pervasive use a simple file format.

Definition of productivity

On what productivity means, Mark says people have a certain amount of stuff they need to get done, so the faster they get it done, the more time we get to spend on our personal lives - playing games or spending time with friends and family. He says there's a reason they call it work :-) Because of its contribution to quality of life, Mark says there's a bit of paradox; if you want to focus on things outside of work, then you really need to first focus on work itself - how effectively you're doing it. This leads to important feelings of liberation, his readers claim, from the "shackles of email," endless to-do lists, or whatever was dragging them down. This being able to be free to live life in a more meaningful way is ultimately what Bit Literacy is aiming at.

Mark points out that many current productivity systems are based on previous systems that were built for managing the flow of paper, and to apply systems for paper productivity to our new digital world is not appropriate. He thinks the systems still have value for the paper aspects of our lives, but new tools and perspectives are required. (Note: I disagree with this approach. I think the simplicity of a system that encompasses all aspects of inputs - atoms as well as bits - is important. YMMV.)

Forming new productivity habits

On how to create new habits, Hurst says there's a range of adoption levels, but those who seriously apply the method tend to stick with it. This is because experiencing the resulting gains, even for a day, is a "no brainer," leads to continuing the method. He notes that simply getting started (what he calls induction) isn't enough - they need to do a week or two of a steady state [3]. Once they do that, Mark says, they'll will never forget what that felt like.

He points out that some people encounter the book then apply their own misleading litmus tests. Either whether they've seen any of it before (using a quick scan), or a technical buzzword bingo test, where they scan for certain terms (AJAX, tags, or taxonomies). However, he says some very high tech geeks have completely embraced the method, and have written about it on their blogs [4].

What I find really interesting is the idea that people can resist, perhaps at the subconscious level, adopting systems like this. Mark and I agree that with the resulting freedom comes with responsibility for our lives, which is a big shift. He's fine with that and sees his role as to simply to invite them to learn that there's another way to think about work, and give them a new choice.

To-do lists

Mark's view of to-do lists is significantly different from systems like GTD. To managing to-dos, he says the list needs to be outside the email program (and not on paper), and have four components:
  1. Each is associated with a particular day,
  2. users can create new ones via email,
  3. each has a priority ranking within its day
  4. each can contain detail and summary information.
His Gootodo program (inexpensive, but not free) does this. (Interestingly, scheduling action in the calendar is one simplification that popped out of my extreme GTD analysis.)

I liked his thought on to-do lifecycles: creation, inactivity, activation, and completion. A second dimension classifies them as active (those we have to work on today), and inactive (those that become relevant in the future). This means on a given today, you have only one list, and there's no metadata to worry about.

"The Matrix" and Bit literacy

On a surprising note, Mark drew a comparison to The Matrix, and the climactic scene in which Neo is fighting the agents, gets cornered, and cannot escape. At that point he has the big revelation in which he sees the world differently and at the bit level. Mark says Neo sees that the danger, fears, and challenges that have been dogging him are really just an illusion that he can control in the bit world. He says no, the bullets stop, float, and fall down. Helping computer users do this is an nice metaphor.

Having too much to do

Like GTD, actually knowing exactly how much we've comitted to is a great first step to limiting it. (I know when I work with clients, this is often the first time they've seen the entirety of their lives in one place, and it's usually a shock. This often leads to hard choices and difficult conversations, but I think it's the only principled way to start improving our lives, that is, focusing on what's meaningful.)

He says the system can only let you know that you have too many; you have to manage them yourself. It's an issue that you have to adjust.

Media diet and information overload

To combat information overload (a $650 BLN drag on the economy [5]), mark has a nice section on the Media Diet - a "constantly pruned set of publications that keep us informed about what matters most to us professionally and personally." The Media Diet portfolio has two main components: the lineup and tryouts. His model: Create a media portfolio with two main components: Lineup and Tryouts. Lineup: Those that've earned their place as your most valuable sources. (The three types: Stars, Scans, and Targets.) Candidate sources get into the lineup by going through a tryout phase. (Guidelines: Be discerning, be intentional, and be biased toward rejecting.)

He encourages us to be discerning, be intentional, and remember we have to limit the total. Also, we have to do maintenance on these by asking the question "Is this source worth my time?"


For his single best productivity tip, Mark says "Read the book." :-) He also suggests trying the Dvorak keyboard.

I'll let Mark sum finish up:
Today, it's harder and harder to be done. Just as we answer one email, two more come in. Just as we finish one project, we are reminded that another is behind schedule. We only partially listen to the music or watch the video which is downloaded, because we're too busy downloading another to put in the queue. Bit literacy grants the possibility of being done not just occasionally, but on a regular basis in order to work more productively and enjoy a fuller life outside of work.
Thanks again, Mark.


Reader Comments (6)


Classifying to-dos as "active" and "inactive" and thereby having only one list on any given day makes a lot of sense to me. I've never liked the GTD approach of multiple to-do lists, because I think it leads us to reading and re-reading the same tasks multiple times. It also forces us to make the same decision over and over again: "What do I do next?"

Outlook 2007 has come a long way in making it easier to distinguish between active and inactive. There's a separate task area for each calendar day, which provides a nice visual separation.

January 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDan Markovitz

Thanks for your thinking on this, Dan. Regarding GTD's multiple to-do lists, I can think of two: "Actions" and "Not doing" (AKA Someday/Maybe).

And I like your point that a master action list requires frequent reviewing and deciding on which next. I think that's the cost from the trade-off of not scheduling everything ( as explained in [ Extreme GTD: How low can you go (or: Can we 80-20 GTD?) | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2008/01/extreme-gtd-how-low-can-you-go-or-can.html ] ).

The plus of the master actions list is flexibility and agility: It's easy to change what you do during the day based on your environment's demands, and it might be easier to fit in actions of different sizes. (The former is also a minus if misused, as you've written about [ here | http://www.timebackmanagement.com/articles/cogitus_interruptus ] and [ here | http://www.timebackmanagement.com/articles/myth_of_multi-tasking ].)

The corresponding problem with scheduling everything is the possible discouragement from moving un-done to-dos forward.

Great comment.

January 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hey Matt,

Congrats on another fine interview. I seem to come away from each of these with renewed inspiration and insight.

I discovered Mark's book about two months ago. It opened up good ideas and presented an easy methodology for implementation. Perhaps it's beauty is in its simplicity. I had forgotten all about text files and how convenient they can be for taking quick notes. Not being a technologist like you guys, I came away with a child's sense of wonder.

Your review was right-on with a good overall description of Mark's methodology and tools. You even managed to work-in Neo and the Dvorak keyboard. I especially liked his Mac v. PC rationale and his open disclosure of the "good easy" system they employ. It was well thought out, well described, and he sold me. Even though I'm still banding out discourse on a PC.

What about a Chris Crouch, David Allen, Mark Hurst, Nicholas Bate mashup? Where you cull out the best ideas from each of their systems and mashup a new "hybrid" productivity system.

Thanks again, keep them coming. As always, continued success and best wishes.

January 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers

Hey, Davey - I really appreciate your continued contributions and encouragement. I'm pleased you're getting something from the interviews; me too. And I love your suggestion to create something new from all this - exactly what I'm planning ;-)

January 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt, I just read Bit Literacy over the weekend, and I found it to be very enlightening. I did not realize that it was also a primer for Gootodo.com. I am of the opinion that the Gootodo system is a little simpler than it needs to be. I have something similar that I use for my Projects at Wrike.com, in that I can email a note to it, and update others on the progress. Perhaps in the future we will have something in-between. One cool idea might be to use Jott in conjunction with one of these e-mail services...

Thanks for your comment, Stephen - glad you liked the interview. I appreciate your point about Wrike. I love the idea of emailing into a system - many wikis support it as well (Basecamp too).

I'm not sure about whether Wrike's rigorous task-based use of email works well. Generally I don't think such approaches work well - much better to allow folks to define their own work at the right level. (Not sure that makes sense.)

I suspect you're right - these will intersect in neat ways. But breaking out email into its multiple uses will be a challenge. I'd like to catalog them all - they run from instant messaging to long, extended conversations. Pointers welcome.

February 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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