Too much of today’s personal productivity is stuck in repeating the past

To-do list

A genuine increase in productivity means getting the same, or greater, output with less effort and a smaller use of resources. Yet most personal productivity software still relies on various ways to categorize old-fashioned to-do lists.

That focuses on getting more done by improved organization; it’s working harder for longer (mostly by virtue of avoiding distractions and procrastination), not doing things better or with less effort and input. It’s not increasing genuine productivity. I suspect that, in reality, it’s sometimes even a substitute for doing much at all; spending time instead categorizing and rearranging lists of what is there to be done.

Where is the software that would help people find better ways to do things? To free up time for what matters be eliminating the unnecessary and trivial? The software that would ask tough, meaningful questions about every to-do item, such as:

  • Do you need to do it now — or ever?
  • Is this something that you could — and should — delegate to someone else?
  • Is there a way to get the same result with less effort and input?
  • Is there a way to get a better outcome? Have you considered fresh options? What ideas could you find to improve, simplify, or — best of all — eliminate this activity?
  • Are you jumping to conclusions about what to do? Should you allow circumstances to unfold further, so you can see better what needs to be done (if anything)?
  • How can you develop your creativity, so that you can either find better ways to achieve the same, or greater, results, or find ways to stop doing things?

These are all questions it’s easy to forget in the rush to “get things done” — especially when someone is breathing down your neck and time seems to be slipping away. Software that both reminded and challenged you each time you tried to add something to your to-do list might be a boon to anyone caught up in the rat race.

Not doing things may be more productive

The Tao Te Ching suggested, more than 2200 years ago, that by doing nothing, everything would be done. What I suspect the author meant was that, if you think about things long enough and carefully enough, a great deal of your present activity can be removed altogether; if you’re patient, still more will resolve itself without any input from you; and whatever is left, you can do in half the time and with a quarter of the effort. Everything that matters gets done. The rest is irrelevant.

By following that advice, you can eliminate so much clutter — plus those actions only done because you’ve always done them that way — that you will fly through what is left. That’s true focus, not the false kind that comes from putting items into an ordered list and starting from the top. You may be working on item 1, but all the others are still there, preying on your mind and tempting you into swerving aside to deal with them too.

What about something that actually limited your to-do list to no more than, say, six items? Something that would force you to prioritize and drop something, before you could add any more? It’s easy to build up a to-do list of almost infinite length, then feel stressed by all the things still waiting to be done.

Realistically, the chances of getting to item 27 on your list — now or ever — are so small as not to be worth considering. Software could not only help you to set sensible priorities, it could recall just how long something had sat at number 3 or 4 and tell you either to do it now — make it number 1 and get it done — or stop kidding yourself and forget it.

It could also remember how long something had been on the to-do list in any position and kick it off automatically after, say, 5 days. If you haven’t even started on it by then, you aren’t going to today. Push it into a back list of “to do sometime;” and remove altogether if it stays on there for more than two weeks.

The real keys to increasing productivity are creativity and discipline

I know this sounds brutal, but sometimes it takes “tough love” to bring home the key point: a to-do list should only contain what you are definitely going to do within the next day or so. Everything else should go somewhere else, or it will simply clog up your list and convince you that you’re so weighed down with unfinished tasks that you don’t have time to do anything — except, of course, continually polish and re-categorize your natty software to-do list!

Productivity should be about creativity — finding new and better ways to do what me must with less effort — and discipline — to ignore anything that isn’t truly important.

For example, if your to-do list and calendar are full of meetings, you can probably double or triple your productivity instantly by taking these simple steps:

  • Cut out all the time wasted in meetings you’re only attending as an observer. If you haven’t got anything on the agenda that is vital to you, don’t go.
  • Refuse to stay in any meeting for more than one hour. What can’t be accomplished in that time probably doesn’t need to be done.
  • If you are in charge, eliminate all the time wasted by people “updating” the group. If anyone needs to know, ask for a summary beforehand by e-mail. In a meeting, it’s wasted time.
  • Only hold meetings at all if there is genuinely no other way. About a third of meetings take place because people are too lazy to handle what needs to be done more efficiently. The other two-thirds take place to allow people to spread the blame and protect their butts.

Until you stop focusing on the mundane — organizing lists — and start considering genuine productivity — improving the ways you do essential things and dropping all the rest — you’ll stay stuck at about the place you’re in today.

Until now, nearly all software advances linked to personal productivity have been based on automating what people once did by hand. That process has reached the point of diminishing returns. The real innovations will only come when we start using software to let us do what was either impossible, or unimagined, before we had it.

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