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IdeaLab 0729: A little GTD heresy, willpower, jealousy, and straight talk

A continuation of the strange mashup known as the IdeaLab - odditites from the patented IdeaMatt My Big-Arse Text File.

  • Listen up!: Did something you read, heard, or thought ring true for you today? Pay attention to that and make sure you capture it! This awareness was kicked off when a scientist friend told me about his data "speaking to him." Neat. So for the last few months I've been collecting phrases I like or might find useful, including
    Clerical workers use information - about, say, customer orders - to aid the smooth working of the company. Knowledge workers use information to change themselves.
    (From The marks are on the knowledge worker via In praise of clutter.) Also:
    "We are hunter-gatherers at the core. We open e-mail and hit 'send and receive' to see if something interesting has come in." - Tony Wright, CEO of RescueTime
    Related: What To Do When An Excited Person Person Is Waving Something At You

  • Beware the large To Do list: A common complaint for people practicing a rigorous self-management system like GTD is that too many tasks accumulate, i.e., they have too much to do. You only have two possibilities work faster or commit to less. However, having this many should be a warning sign - why is there so much on your plate? This is especially true if you're a manager. Going higher up the ladder doesn't mean you should be working harder than ever. In fact, the opposite could be argued - less routine business, more innovative thinking. From Beware the Busy Manager:
    GreatQuote: Managers are not paid to make the inevitable happen. In most organizations, the ordinary routines of business chug along without much managerial oversight. The job of managers, therefore, is to make the business do more than chug -- to move it forward in innovative, surprising ways.
    (Related: Got The Email Blues? Only Three Things You Can Do: Get Fewer, Get Faster, Get Control.)

  • The absurdity of the two minute rule: Related to above, the common idea of not spending too much time dispatching individual items while emptying inboxes can become absurd. Don't get me wrong, the intuition behind it is solid. As Len Merson puts it in The Instant Productivity Toolkit:
    The idea is that you don't want to be filling your Turtle stack [To Do list] with nit picky work items if you can take care of them quickly and immediately, one at a time. If you perform the task immediately, it might take you only a minute; if you wait and accumulate twenty such tasks, they will seem overwhelming and add to your stress.
    But two minutes (or one or three) is on the edge of being too short, I'm coming to think. As one client puts it, we start resisting creating "too much work for our future selves."

  • From the "please pass the mustard" department: Courtesy question: In a crowded theater is it better to unwrap a noisy piece of candy slow or fast? I.e., are you "patient and quiet" or "loud but fast?" Hey - a 2xw matrix! :-)

  • Cat tip: Flushing clumping cat litter down the toilet is a Bad Idea. A housemate did this once and we've never had the same flow state since.

  • Willpower boot camp?: From Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind, it appears willpower can grow in the long term. "Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another." What are the implications for productivity? E.g., do one extra task when you don't feel like it?

  • Being present ... remotely: Simulated by the BBC NEWS article Searching for a new virtual life via this post, I wonder if we could use Virtual Reality to improve productivity? I've already used screen sharing to work remotely with clients (sharing calendars and lists, and setting up and working tools), but what would a more immersive system allow?

  • I wish *I'd* said that!: Feeling some professional jealousy? I sometimes do, which I'm not happy about. For example, this pops up as I continue my interview series with the best and brightest. Recently two things hit me. First, because I'm comparing myself to people who excel at what I do (or want to do), there's an opportunity to learn from them. In fact, it's one of my motivators for *doing* those interviews in the first place! Second, having this feeling is an indication that you're comparing yourself to someone really good. And everyone agrees that a major success factor is surrounding yourself with people like this. As Chad puts it, try to be the worst musician in the band. In other words, it's good you're aiming high. (Related links: Green Is Not Your Color: Professional Jealousy and the Professional Writer, MEAN PEOPLE SUCK #2a: Professional Jealousy Part Deux, and On friends, colleagues and jealousy.)

  • Why is being productive so frickin tough?: Why is it hard to adopt new (and better) productivity methods? It goes to the more general question of why it's hard to make lasting changes. To that end I came across this goodie in HBR: The Real Reason People Won't Change (thanks for the pointer, Marilyn!) The authors describe a a three-stage process to help organizations figure out what's getting in the way of change, which makes me think I've some learning to do when teaching clients. Process summary:

    1. Managers guide employees through a set of questions designed to uncover competing commitments,
    2. employees examine these commitments to determine the underlying assumptions at their core, and
    3. employees start the process of changing their behavior.

  • Attention duration + staying power: I've been contemplating how long something holds our attention vs. how long it stays with us. I'm not sure what to do with this, but... Low attention: A simple toy or TV show. 2 minutes. Middle: A good movie: 2 hours; a good puzzle: 2 days. A college course or study group: 2 months. High: Reading, a vocation: Lifetime. Thoughts?

  • Self experiment suggestion: In the honorable spirit of trying things out on ourselves (one of my themes here - A Daily Planning Experiment or Tracking "lessons Learned" for example) I'm considering this one: To overcome procrastination and lack of inertia, try breaking *every* action into a maximum 5 minute chunks. It's OK to work longer of course, but nothing over. Be prepared - you're projects list will grow. Try for two weeks and report back. Any takers?

  • In the "Plain Language" department: A workshop client came up with an expression I love. When we were talking about agendas (separate "to discuss" lists for meetings - individual or group - that are regularly scheduled), she said "Oh yea, save-up lists." I love the homey way she put it. A nice discussion about straight talk comes from Beyond Buzz, where the author encourages us to "Talk like you talk."

  • TV - Is it only me?: I've recently noticed (in my part of the US, at least) television's insidious spread to almost every possible venue. We take it for granted in airports, bus stops, etc. But lately it's made inroads into restaurants, supermarkets, clothing stores, and doctors' offices. As an avid "TV plain sucks" person, this bugs the hell out of me. After a few conversations with managers at those places, I've found I'm apparently in a very small minority, which shocks me. Are we so starved for stimulation that we need the near-constant (and face it - pretty low brow) distraction TV offers, even for a two minute errand? I must have the wrong attitude. Maybe it's a welcome comfort and respite from a hard day's work and a worrisome economic climate. Or is it that we are simply not taught how to be prepared to wait productively. (That's easy to fix. 1) Have a steady stream of high-value inputs. 2) Print or clip them. 3) Put them into a portable "To Read" folder. 4) Carry it with you when you're out. Easy!) (And yes, I *really* have a problem with TV in schools. Ick!)

  • The world's shortest productivity FAQ: While I don't write about basic ideas that are covered well and broadly elsewhere, I'll share a few trinkets here:

    • Myth: Too little time (the real problem: poor choices)
    • Myth: The quick fix (all the "25 ways to..." and "7 tips for..." lists won't solve underlying problems like "no system" and "working on the wrong thing.")
    • Whiteboards: "Do not erase" is a bad sign! Use them for transient brainstorming and planning, then capture and erase. Acceptable use: List tool (Projects, Actions, Waiting For).
    • Desk layout: "U" is best, then "L," then parallel.
    • Tickler file: Don't need it. Use "Calendar + holding file" instead.
    • Record retention: Ask: 1) Do I need this for my work, or for tax, legal, documentation, or other archival reasons? 2) Do I foresee a *specific* need for it? 3) Does a copy of this item exist somewhere else that's easily accessible? Still can't decide? Rule of thumb: When in doubt, throw it out. (OK, this is covered many places, but what the heck!)


Reader Comments (10)

Great stuff as always, Matt! A few comments:

Beware the Large To Do List - I've come to realize that much of the stuff that goes on my task lists really isn't all that important. At the end of the day, I create a very short list of items I expect to fully accomplish the next day. As new items come up, they do go onto a list that tends to grow and get quite long. There is some point where that list gets TOO long and becomes overwhelming. At this point, I either purge items, move them to my Someday/Maybe lists, or print them out and put them in my tickler file where I will see them again later and can make better decisions to make them active again or delete them. I've found that this is a good way of seeing what I've committed to.

The absurdity of the two minute rule - Sometimes I will process stuff with a 30-second rule if I'm really pushed for time, and sometimes I will use a 5- or 10-minute rule if I have more time. It's a great feeling to see an empty in basket or inbox and know that everything is done and that you didn't add anything to your task lists either. I think a mixture, as appropriate, is what is really needed here, but 2-minutes is a pretty good starting point.

Candy in a theater - Unwrap it fast and get it over with. I guess the big question here is, "What does our response say about our overall personality?"

TV - Is it only me? - No, it's not only you. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think that most Americans are totally scared of silence. I think they are afraid of having time to think for themselves. You know, that's probably one reason so many people don't sleep well--they can't think all day long, it's quiet when they go to bed, and then they are overwhelmed because they haven't learned to really consciously think for themselves.

Further thoughts: - I love your posts like this, they really get me thinking. However, the principle of long lists is at play here as well. I resist these long posts of yours with lots of ideas. Personally, I would prefer for each of these ideas to have been individual posts. I think it would create better community around the ideas in the comments as well. I'm not saying you should change, but it's worth thinking about and maybe exprimenting with for a week. :)

July 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Spears

Matt, cat litter shouldn't be flushed anyway, as it's been discovered to be a health threat to sea otter populations, at least in Calfornia and other coastal areas: http://www.naturesearth.com/news/

I don't know if attention duration and staying power are necessarily connected. After all, Seinfeld was a half-hour show, but years and years later, my husband and I still repeat funny lines to each other on a regular basis! We still dialogue whole scenes from Moonstruck, for that matter! There are classes I took in high school and college that I can't remember at all. . .

As for tv, I agree with you. And I LOVE tv, in the right time and place. But I don't need to see it all the time, all day long, shows that I wouldn't choose to watch on my own. There's a breakfast place we go to every Sunday morning, and I have to sit facing the tv so my husband won't -- he's easily distracted!

And speaking of plain language, "high-value inputs?" I have no idea what that means!

July 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Braithwaite

Personally, I think the problems with TV in school (Channel One) are multiple (and not really related to TV in particular.)

1. School resources are being allocated without student input. Do the students want their school to pay for Channel One? This is not a TV issue -- it applies generally. I personally think kids should be running their school -- as they do at [ Sudbury Valley School | http://www.sudval.org/ ] and other Sudbury schools. (Political Democracy)

2. Students are not free to watch or NOT watch (I'm not totally up on how teachers use the Channel One, but my assumption is it's the teacher saying "OK class, now we're watching this...") This is not a TV issue either. (Individual Rights) "Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness", freedom of the press, etc, etc.

3. So let's say some schools let kids choose to watch or not watch. What about those kids who choose to NOT watch Channel One? What then? What can they do in the meanwhile? Twiddle their thumbs? Put in earplugs and read a book? They shouldn't have to sit there -- they should be able to do whatever they want (as long as they aren't breaking rules/laws or bugging other people). (Equal Opportunity)

OK, so there you have it. The trilogy of our American ideals. All for the most part denied to students in our schools.

Except at Sudbury Valley School! (Where there is a TV, but no Channel One subscription. But if there was, it would have been decided on by the School Meeting--IOW: the students--and the TV of course generally has to be used in a way such that it is not disturbing other people. Rather than students being put upon to escape the noise/disturbance.)


July 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Thanks, Lisa. We don't flush at all - it was something someone else did once. I appreciate the pointer to the impact, though.

> Seinfeld

Good point. I was thinking whether there's a useful 80-20 for positive lasting inputs that are short...

> have to sit facing the tv

Ha! I'm the same way (I'm the husband in this case), and the sound still distracts me. I should have mentioned [ TV-B-Gone: Turn off Any TV! | http://www.tvbgone.com/cfe_tvbg_main.php ] It's a gadget I carry with me that comes in handy. Its use is controversial, but it's an option... Makes for a good prank too - esp. on game night :-)

July 31, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

> either purge items, move them to my Someday/Maybe, or [tickle]

A great practice, Ricky.

> 1/2, 2, 5 minutes

Good point: It's mature to adjust this dynamically.

> What does our [candy unwrapping] response say about our overall personality?

That's an *excellent* point, Ricky. A micro experiment in tolerance and forgiveness. Sweet! :-)

> totally scared of silence

Another excellent point. Being comfortable with silence (and space in general) and making room for it... I wonder - what's scary about it? Allows other to speak (which means we have to listen). Allows the conversation to go in unplanned directions (might be uncomfortable). ... I'd like to hear more.

> I resist these long posts of yours with lots of ideas

Thanks very much for your feedback, Ricky. I'm still trying to balance out:

o Having lots of thoughts I want to share
o Wanting to dive relatively deeply into single ideas
o Wanting to limit time spent blogging

I'm always open to suggestions - much appreciated.

July 31, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Great comment, Erik. I love how you've pulled out the essential ideals, and how they're compromised by this. Thanks for reading, and for commenting. (And yes, we've talked about the Sudbury school - sounds wonderful.)

July 31, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

> And speaking of plain language, "high-value inputs?" I have no idea what that means!

Thanks very much for catching this, Lisa. I tend to write in a dry, more academic tone, which is why I wrote about plain language. I need to change! By "high-value inputs" I meant information sources coming into our lives that have meaning for us - that are valuable and useful to fulfilling our goals. I'd like to hear your suggestions for a shorter version of this!

July 31, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

The Kegan-Lahey article on "Why People Won't Change" is incredibly thought-provoking and important. Coaching people through the process also seems quite difficult. I tried it once and failed miserably. I'd love to know if you've done it and how it's worked.

July 31, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdaniel markovitz

> I would prefer for each of these ideas to have been individual posts

After a bit more thought, I realized why your reaction surprised me. One of my goals for this kind of post is to make it *easier* for quick parsing and reading! Each nugget is meant to be taken in and thought about without working through the paragraphs of my in-depth posts. I intentionally choose ideas for these posts that probably don't justify entire posts of their own, or that I don't feel like writing :-) The GTD controversies might be an exception, though...

Thanks again for the stimulating comment, Ricky.

(P.S. Congratulations on your Toastmasters Competent Communicator award. Joining that organization has been on my S/M list for a while. Neat!)

August 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Dan: I haven't yet tried it. I'd like to hear your experiences around it. It *is* pretty personal, and I tend to avoid those "what about your personality is blocking your productivity" exercises and questions. Just the hard-core engineer in me. I do want to help clients make lasting changes.

August 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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