Robert Heaton

Software Engineer /
One-track lover / Down a two-way lane

Getting Nothing Done: a misguided quest for productivity

14 Jul 2014

If you’ve read Lord of the Rings, then this is pretty much that but with to-do apps instead of hobbits and inefficiency instead of the Nazgul. Also spreadsheets instead of Boromir.

Chapter 1 - The calm

Unsurprisingly, when I was at school I didn’t have much stuff I had to do, and what little there was my parents would generally remind me about.

Then even at university, as long as I printed a copy of the correct lecture and tutorial timetables at the start of each term, I was still pretty much OK.

I spent my first year as a real person playing poker, learning about programming and teaching about programming (it turns out you really do only need to know a little more than your class). I got a Gmail account and started auto-filtering and labelling because colours are nice. I occasionally bought notebooks, wrote down lists of books I wanted to read and projects I wanted to work on, and then promptly forgot about them.

Chapter 2 - A storm approaches

The next year was when I started to get bizzay (in a strictly professional sense). I did a Masters in computer science, started a company selling sweaters with pictures of fruit on them and continued teaching a few programming classes. I would often work evenings and weekends, and if I didn’t have any work that needed to be done then I would damn well make some. I felt very validated.

I can’t remember how exactly, but for some reason I started reading everyday. The site was far from famous or revolutionary, but as far as I was concerned it contained almost all of the important knowledge amassed by mankind to date. I read a little over one bajillion posts paraphrasing Getting Things Done, David Allen’s seminal 2002 guide to time-management. I eventually forked out seven of my English pounds for my very own copy of the book. I read it.

It would be an exaggeration to say my head exploded, but not by much.

This was just what the busy, ambitious and important young professional needed. The day after finishing it I went to Staples and dutifully bought everything that he told you to. Since I am a very literal person, and had only vaguely heard of computers, this included the Dymo labeller, many many manilla folders, and more different types of paper than had ever been assembled under one roof. I recently gave away my Dymo labeller, having printed approximately 10 stickers, the majority of which were the phrase “ballsballsballs” or a variant thereof.

I stuck coloured paper all over my walls so that I was rarely more than 2 seconds away from a surface that could be used to capture important information or ideas. I devoured numerous other productivity books, almost all of which gave either the same or strictly worse advice. I actually went back through GTD and did all of the exercises that you always ignore because you are too cool for them. I was hooked

Chapter 3 - It is upon us

Me under the influence of productivity was greatly deserving of something between a gentle lampooning and a crowbar to the face. It would be unfair to blame GTD for all of this, especially since I do think that most of what’s in there is incredibly powerful. It would also be unfair to suggest that GTD necessarily has to make you go insane. However, since caricature is much easier than nuanced prose, I will do both of these things.

After finishing my degree, I started a nonsensical job that made no sense and had no relation to anything I wanted to do. Fortunately it turned out that my employers had no real use for me, so I used 90% of my time in the office to continue to expand my mind. This mind expansion generally took the form of reading more and more blogs about productivity, since this is logically the most productive thing that anyone can do with their time. Reading my old diaries it appears I actually called this period “The Enlightenment”, and whilst I did have many very profound experiences, I have recently realised that this intense feeling of serenity was (in all seriousness) almost certainly due to regularly drinking coffee for the first time.

I loved feeling busy. I agreed to be the technical guy in many, many projects, none of which I had sufficient interest in for this to be a conscionable thing to do. I tried to strike a balance between not doing any work on them and “staying involved” so that I could keep them as another label/folder/list in my productivity system and personal balance sheet. Fortunately, I actually knew very little about computers and how to programme them, so this was not hard.

After I left my job with no concrete plan for what I was going to do next, I made an enormous deal of the number of different irons I had in the fire and therefore the extent to which I wasn’t a total waster. I went to a co-working space and shuffled around pieces of coloured card in order to help me visualise and crystallise my thoughts, because there were just so many things that I had to work out. I told several people that I was going to make an infographic of my life to help me get my head straight, and not one of them punched me in the mouth. I obviously never made said infographic.

I put up 1, then 2, then 3 whiteboards in my bedroom, for a total of 6 square metres of pure, unrestricted creativity space. I had next action lists for a wide variety of projects and initiatives that I didn’t really care about or believe in. Fortunately, quantity really can compensate for quality when all you want to feel is self-importance. I brought structure and formalism to anything and everything in sight, especially if it didn’t need it.

I experimented with numerous forms of weekly life review, although I wasn’t entirely sure what I was meant to be reviewing or why. I started trying to maintain a file in Evernote for each new person I met or contacted, with their interests, background, skills, and our history together. I tried doing the same thing in Highrise. Neither initiative worked or lasted, because they were both completely unnecessary for me.

I became an evangelist for the @Action label in Gmail and a devoted follower of the 45 minute work sprint. These were about the only genuinely smart things I did.

Fortunately I still ended up working and hanging out with some cool people, and was having fun and learning a lot whilst doing so. I was just generating a whole lot of unnecessary dust and noise at the same time.

Chapter 4 - Fuck lifehacking

Then one day I read this and turned pi radians on a dime. I guess this was either because I am fickle and easily influenced, or because I felt a deep, profound dissonance within my very soul, aching to be resolved. The article asked several questions that I had no good answers to, and for once an online comments thread also hit me hard. Reading the thread again a few years later it mostly looks like people desperate to give their answers to questions no one had asked them (yes I appreciate the irony), but it felt transformative at the time.

As is so often the way, I think I then swung too far in the opposite direction. For a while, I believed that any kind of planning was futile vanity and that keyboard shortcuts were for idiots. The word “lifehacker” because a synonym for “raging moron” (this is probably actually a helpful shorthand), and I saw any attempt to organise or improve oneself as a sign of feeble-minded self-tyranny.

After moving to another new job a few months later, I gingerly started back on the path to systematisation, past mistakes weighing heavily on my mind. My new team all sent round Daily Updates of the 3 concrete things we did today, and the 3 concrete things we wanted to do tomorrow. I overcame my newly found fear of Omnifocus. I learned that Cmd-T will open a new tab in Chrome and that Cmd-W will close it again. I slowly, carefully began to rebuild.

Chapter 5 - The present day

I made my own delusions of grandeur. Flicking back through GTD, it’s not short on references to simplicity and calm. And yet, something curious is going on. I wasn’t the first person to get in way over my head with this stuff, and I won’t be the last. A criticism levelled by many is that the “productivity” community is too focussed on coping with today’s modern, stressful, busy (etc.) lifestyle and too little on thinking about how much of said lifestyle is fundamentally pants-on-head ridiculous. It’s not enough to add in a few platitudes about balance every now and then. But perhaps this is like getting angry at your gynaecologist for not helping with your golf swing.

If you are going to do job X, project Y and hobby Z then you might as well be methodical about them. But the structure you use should exist to support your life, not the other way around. You have to be very careful not to get so caught up in organising and collating all the things you care about that you forget to actually do any of them. Personally, since my extreme “Fuck lifehacking” days, I’ve evolved a proprietary system of knobs and pulleys that feels like it lets me do things whilst not making me (any more of) an unbearable wazzock. I think it’s working. Although you can never tell from the inside.

(UPDATE: I’ve finished my writeup of my current organisational approach.)

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