Epistemic Status: Reference

A while ago, I read the book Getting Things Done. Like most productivity books and systems, it includes detailed advice that approximately no one will follow. Unlike most productivity books and systems, it has two highly valuable key concepts. The second alone justified the time cost of reading the book. That principles are these:

Keep a record of tasks you’ve decided to do.

If you decide to eventually do a task that requires less than two minutes to do, that can efficiently be done right now, do it right now. 

This wording is a refinement of the original concept of applying the two-minute rule during ‘processing time’ only. I think it’s much better to use it any time doing the new task can be done efficiently – it’s not waiting on anything, you have the necessary tools, it wouldn’t interfere too much with your state, with a key short-term deadline, or the need to protect a large or important block of time, etc etc.

Having this simple concept in your head – it’s better, once you notice something that you need to do, to just do it now rather than add it to your stack of things to do – has saved me far more trouble than one might expect.

Two minutes is a placeholder. Some people should use a lower or more often higher time threshold. The threshold should be adjusted based on the situation.

The book also contains a detailed method of how to create and maintain the list of tasks. It seemed annoying and overly complex and not suited to the way I think, and I never gave it a real try. The basic principle of ‘have a system that ensures such tasks are not forgotten’ still seems very strong.

The principle remains, and can be usefully extended further, which I plan to do in additional posts. But better to, by its own principles, write and get this posted now, so I can refer back to it.


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Keep a record of tasks you’ve decided to do.

So I really liked GTD when I read it back in the mid 00s, and it's stuck with me in deep ways. In particular, this insight, but I wouldn't describe it this way. I'd say something like

use a system.

I've phrased it this way because there's more to it than remembering tasks to do. To me the whole core of the book is that building systems that support us set us free. When you have a system you can trust to help you do whatever it is that's import to you, you can relax and get better performance at the same time because you have a system you trust and it does a better job than your brain could on its own.

Fifteen plus years of systematic use of systems changes a person, so my "systems" don't look like they did when I first read GTD. In the beginning I had too much system because I needed extra system in order to be able to trust it. I didn't know quite where the line was between me and the system and which could handle what best. But over time it's evolved into something that works quite well. I don't forget to do anything important, and my mind is not often busy worrying about the unfinished stuff.

So I've gone from specialized tools that were highly customizable to basically just a combo of Gmail, Google Keep, Google Calendar, and Pocket. I dump stuff in, it gets done, it goes out, and I regularly reprocess and review stuff (after doing it enough times, I morphed from scheduled reviews to continuous review). It works for me and the work I have, but something else might work for someone else. There's lots of little details to getting it right, and I think each person has to discover a lot of what works for themselves because we're all slightly differently shaped. Examples of other people's systems are great for inspiration, though!

And interestingly, I find it relates a lot to my schedule. My schedule is just one more system designed to support my life and help make sure I do the things I intended without having to make choices or remember everything all the time. I long resented having a schedule, right up until I realized my schedule could support me rather than force me to do things, and that shift in mindset towards a support system to help rather than a coercive outside imposition made all the difference to increasing my happiness and success at shaping the world.

I mostly came to the same conclusion as you regarding a schedule, but I'm still struggling to develop one that's supportive without feeling constraining (and thus resent or don't stick to anyways).

I found a (financial) budget to be very helpful for me in the same way that I expect a schedule to as well.

it includes detailed advice that approximately no one will follow

Hey, I read the book in 2012, and I still have a GTD-ish alphabetical file, GTD-ish desk "inbox", and GTD-ish to-do list. Of course they've all gotten watered down a bit over the years from the religious fervor of the book, but it's still something.

If you decide to eventually do a task that requires less than two minutes to do, that can efficiently be done right now, do it right now.

Robert Pozen Extreme Productivity has a closely-related principle he calls "OHIO"—Only Handle It Once. If you have all the decision-relevant information that you're likely to get, then just decide right away. He gives an example of getting an email invitation to something, checking his calendar, and immediately booking a flight and hotel. I can't say I follow that one very well, but at least I acknowledge it as a goal to aspire to.

OHIO has also been a useful corrective for me, as I've had a lot of success 'processing things subconsciously', where if I think about a problem, ignore it for a while, and then come back, the problem will have been solved by my subconscious in the meantime. But while this is quite appropriate for math problems, there's a huge category of logistical, administrative, and coordinative tasks for which it doesn't make sense, and nevertheless I have some impulse to try it.

What does Pozen discuss in terms of constraints on how OHIO works in practice? I might have all the "decision-relevant information" about a project, but not have the resources, e.g. the time, to start and complete the project immediately.

I'm not sure how well this would fall under that principal, but I'll often outline a project right away, e.g. with tasks to book a flight, reserve a hotel room, etc., if I decide to attend some even to which I've been invited (and making that decision would depend on checking my calendar first).