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Productivity, Relying on Technology & Redundancy


Your computer crashes. It won’t start up again. What do you do? Nothing productive. The morning’s wasted, the technician comes and tells you that you need a new hard drive, and your afternoon’s gone too while you go shopping for a new one.

There are a million variations of this scenario. We put ourselves in a precarious position when we rely totally and completely on technology to maintain our productivity systems and execute the tasks we set for ourselves with them. Technology gives personal productivity steroids; everything’s faster. Most of us can type faster than we write and using email as a form of day-to-day communication allows us to drastically reduce the number of disruptive conversations and phone calls we receive each day. So we learn to rely on technology, so much so that when it fails — and it does — we can be left speechless when asked the old question, what’s the next action?

Two years ago I was in such a position. My task management system was a text file stored locally on my computer. A computer that failed with disturbing regularity. It wouldn’t have mattered if I stored my task management system in a Google Doc; at the time I didn’t have another computer, nor an iPhone, and anyway, what if Google Docs went down?

We need to learn to rely less on technology. And I don’t mean we should ditch our computers as the hub of our productivity system, but we need redundancy. Redundancy for the system, and redundancy for the situation.

Redundancy for the System

Redundant systems are systems that ensure that a problem with any single component does not cause problems for other components or the system as a whole. This is usually done by doubling up on components; either the same component in a different place (such as off-site backups), or simply the same component in a different medium that is unrelated to the first.

So you could keep copies of your task list on two computers and ensure they’re always up to date in case one of them goes down. You could depend on Time Machine (if you’re on a Mac) to provide this sort of redundancy for you, or keep a copy in Gmail or Google Docs, or best yet (if not somewhat obsessive), all of the above. Or, you could write the list down on paper and email a copy of your computer’s list to your phone.

When it comes to computer-based systems, synchronization between multiple devices is a good start. But it’s also a good idea to keep a copy that doesn’t rely on electrons. Your power could go out for hours (the same day you forgot to charge your laptop and phone the night before). Anything can happen with these solutions, whereas if you’ve written or printed things out, the system is a lot less fickle. Someone you live with could accidentally throw your task list out or your house could burn down (in which case the last thing on your mind will be whether your task list is okay) but it’s much less likely you’ll lose access to both your online and offline copies at once.

Redundancy for the Situation

The other problem with relying on technology too much has to do with execution. Even if you’ve got your task list on a piece of paper once the power goes off, what do you do? Nothing, if you haven’t planned for it. One of the excellent tools that many productivity systems provide are some sort of variation of GTD’s Contexts, and they’re useful in exactly this sort of situation (among others).

In almost any project, there’s usually some task that can be done without the help of a computer — even if using a computer would, under normal circumstances, be the best way to go about it. The idea is that if you’ve got your contexts set up properly, when you don’t have access to a computer, you use a context set up for offline work. No Internet connection, switch out of your @internet context and into something else. If you’ve got a fair bit that can be done offline, just make an @offline context and switch to it when you need it. You can use multiple contexts on a single task, too. If your work should be done on a computer but can be done without one, you could attach an additional @offline or @nopower context that works as a secondary to the task’s usual context.

It’s mostly a matter of personal taste as to how you set your system up to adapt to unexpected changes, but the bottom line is that you should plan ahead for these situations and be ready to go with a list of things that can be done in the meantime.

Contexts is about having a productivity system to include and suit the environment you are in and the tools you have available. Consider technological failure of any kind as just another environment. Planning ahead for something to go wrong isn’t being pedantic, it’s smart, and it’s even got a name in the public relations world: crisis management. Any good public relations team will have a plan in place for a crisis so that if anything happens, they can move straight into action. There’s no reason you can’t do this with personal productivity.

It’s much easier for us than it is for PR guys; during your weekly review, while you set up new tasks, just scan through your list, and slap a context on anything that can be done offline. Easy — takes a minute or two longer than your weekly review usually does. You could go weeks or months without using it, but it’ll be well worth it when the time for technical failure comes. Instead of having your sense of the day’s work set off course by this “disaster” and sitting there with a confused expression, you’ll be back up and running in no time. That’s what redundant systems are all about.

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