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What are the laws of work?

This comment by JP on my post 10 GTD "holes" (and How To Plug Them) got me thinking about whether there's a set of laws (JP more correctly called them postulates) of how we (i.e., "knowledge workers") manage ourselves (i.e., "work") in our CrazyBusy (i.e., "insane") lives.

Here I'd like to play with the idea and to ask you: Is there a small set of axioms that fully describe the challenges we face? Huge question, but my hope is we can reason from first principles to create (or validate) methods for metawork [1]. Stimulated by JP's comment I started with four categories: Time, Attention, and Environment, and tossed in some ideas for each.

What do you think? I'm shooting for something here that's good enough to criticize.


Time has special properties. For example, it is irreversible, it can't be invested, and is limited in supply. The article 169 Time Management Tips has a nice section on this: 12 Important Characteristics of Time:
  1. It is an economic resource
  2. It cannot be expanded or contracted
  3. It is irrecoverable and irreplaceable
  4. It is expensive and precious
  5. It is highly perishable
  6. Most of what is called 'cost' is the cost of time
  7. It is a flow from past to present to future in the context of experience
  8. It is a flow from future to present to past in the context of planning
  9. The flow is one way and irreversible
  10. It is quantifiable (seconds, days, years)
  11. All processes that we manage are time processes
  12. Time is the dimension in which change takes place (space is the dimension in which motion takes place)


As a function of how our brains work, we should be able to tap into brain research to infer some axioms. For example, attention seems to have a fragile quality, and it can be very sensitive to attention requests (internal and external). Other aspects of mind: They risk perfectionism, avoid fear, and form habits (or not).

The Secret Pulse of Time has some useful thoughts, including:
  • Experimental evidence that our attention is automatically directed inward when there is little else to occupy. The author calls it Banal Banter.
  • Attention is porous.
  • The three main stages of the executive function are working memory, attention and self control.
  • Fear and anxiety [themes] grab people's attention.

Another possibility: Does the Yerkes-Dodson Law apply? From Aiming for the Brain's Sweet Spot:
The Yerkes-Dodson Law pieces together two distinct dynamics: The downward curve of the inverted U shows the negative effects of stress on thinking and learning, or performance in general. The upward part reflects the energizing effect of arousal and interest.


Our modern environments overlay constraints. What are they? A few thoughts:
  • Interruptions are unpredictable, frequent, and central. Two types: internal (see attention above) and external (e.g., email, people). (Question: Is it all about attention requests?)
  • There will always be more work to do than is possible (at least for most of us).
  • Work arrives disorganized.
  • Not all work is important (the Trivial Many vs. Vital Few).
  • What's the role of Parkinson's law and productivity?
  • Artifacts naturally spread themselves out.


I'd like to develop this to a point where we can create a methodology (or adapt current ones) that are consistent with it. Questions:

How do goals and values fit in?

How can we structure our environments for success? Fritz's Path of Least Resistance should play a big role here.

How can we use our perception of time? (See Perception of Time & Priorities: Polychronic vs. Monochronic, and the extensive entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Can we apply work like Maeda's The Laws of Simplicity? Summary: 7 Tips to Manage and Use Your Attention Wisely:
  • Law 1: Reduce - The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
  • Law 2: Organize - Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
  • Law 3: Time - Savings in time feel like simplicity.
  • Law 4: Learn - Knowledge makes everything simpler.
  • Law 5: Differences - Simplicity and complexity need each other.
  • Law 6: Context - What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.
  • Law 7: Emotion - More emotions are better than less.
  • Law 8: Trust - In simplicity we trust.
  • Law 9: Failure - Some things can never be made simple.
  • Law 10: The one - Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.


  • [1] This comes from Constant, Constant, Multi-tasking Craziness, a paper by González and Mark at University of California, Irvine:
    Individuals spend part of their day on a set of activities that is not connected with any specific working sphere but rather related to the management of all of them. We call these activities metawork. People periodically conduct metawork throughout the day, which involves coordination, checking activities, organizing email, organizing their desk at the start or end of a working day, and catching up with teammates on what they have missed.

Reader Comments (9)

I think "expectations" fit in here somewhere. My expectations for myself, the expectations of my clients. Maybe a little vague, but expectations and pressure play a bit part in my work life.

May 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Braithwaite

Take a look at research on personal infomation management (PIM) for some related ideas. This report covers many of the issues:

[ A Report on the NSF-Sponsored Workshop on Personal Information Management | http://pim.ischool.washington.edu/final%20PIM%20report.pdf ]

May 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAbe Crystal

  1. Perhaps not attention, but focus is continuous. Whenever we are awake, we are thinking about something. We really cannot stop thinking.

  2. Our brains are serial. We cannot think two thoughts at the same time.

  3. We cannot control our thoughts. Our minds are not video players. We cannot simply put one subject in the video player and expect it to stay on that subject without visiting other thoughts.

So what does this mean? It means that (assuming we have a finite number of waking hours) that we can either be over-loaded or under-loaded with thoughts.

In the over-loaded case, we can attempt to fill our waking hours with thoughts that are of priority. However, we have no control over the random interjections that our focus might take.

Similarly, if we do not have enough priority thoughts in our mind, our mind will drift, and likely perceive things of lower priority as being urgent.

May 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPoojan Wagh

Abe: Thanks very much for the article. Definitely not a two-minuter :-)

Lisa: "expectations (self/others) ... pressure" - Good ones. I had played with a Relationships category - maybe it needs resuscitation.

Poojan: "focus/attention" - not sure I know the difference. I'll check it out, thanks. Side note: The [ Time/Design | http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/04/some-thoughts-from-attending.html ] folks talk about Focus Management...

> Our brains are serial. We cannot think two thoughts at the same time.

YES! Totally skipped my mind.

> We cannot control our thoughts.

Well that's one I totally disagree with :-) My whole career change is around this, as is my blog here.

> So what does this mean? ....

Great analysis. Goes right into the next step.

Thanks a ton for your comment!

May 29, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Here's my recent post on the proper way to invest time:

[ Lifestyle Investing: How to Compound Time | http://www.successmakingmachine.com/2008/05/07/lifestyle-investing-how-to-compound-time/ ]

May 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSummy

Hi Summy. I like your post:

> Here’s six ways to compound time: Outsource Delegate Automation Learning Teaching Systemize

"Compound" is the wrong word, though. From WP: "Compound interest is the concept of adding accumulated interest back to the principal..." Again, you can't actually create more time, in the literal sense of 24 hours. What you're getting at is maximizing the *use* of our time, which is really what it comes down to, at least from that perspective. (That's why "Time Management" is a good term. I'm staying away from it, though, for various marketing reasons.)

Thanks for your comment.

May 30, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I was a bit ambiguous in my terminology. I view attention and focus as the same thing. By saying "focus" is continuous, I meant that we are always focusing on something. Our brain is always filled with some something (let's call it a thought). We can't pause it like we can a DVD player.[1]

Similarly, my assertion that one cannot control one's thought is corollary to that. I'm not talking about deciding what's right or wrong or what is true or false. I'm merely saying that our brain produces thoughts without regard to any value system.

In fact, I think this is the entire reason that GTD brings so much value to the table. It allows us to capture the thoughts when they happen--because (as Merlin Mann has said), we don't think, "Hey, I need milk" only when we are at the grocery store.

P.S. Thanks for starting an excellent discussion. If you don't mind, I think I'm going to recapitulate my comments over at my blog.

[1] And even that's not entirely true 'cause usually I can't find the remote.

May 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPoojan Wagh

jp in md..Maybe it is possible to work on two problems at the same time? Have you ever gone to sleep on a problem? And figured out the solution later on w/o really attempting to think about it? Or on one of those multiple choice tests, you do the easy problems as fast as you can and skip the one that look like they will take some time, then when you get to the end of the test, you go back to the problems you skipped. And lo and behold, those problems you skipped over, somehow they become easier when you come back to them. Somehow your brain was working on them on the back burner after all..

Does it make sense? maybe, but more and more I am thinking about the importance of identifying problems that dont really need to be solved right now. Or rather, they cant be solved in the immediate time and thinking about them is simply a waste of time.. Either we need more info, or we need more time or more something.

May 31, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter jp in md.

Thanks for the clarification, Poojan. Helpful.

> P.S. Thanks for starting an excellent discussion. If you don't mind, I think I'm going to recapitulate my comments over at my blog.

Of course!

> [1] And even that's not entirely true 'cause usually I can't find the remote.


June 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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