Tag: Lists

How David Allen increased Drew Carey’s Productivity

David Allen

Comedian Drew Carey outsourced the development of his productivity strategy to David Allen, author of the cult classic, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who “taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals.”

Allen's system, outlined in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, focuses “on the minutiae of to-do lists, folders, labels, in-boxes.”

When he began working with overtaxed executives, he saw the problem with the traditional big-picture type of management planning, like writing mission statements, defining long-term goals, and setting priorities. He appreciated the necessity of lofty objectives, but he could see that these clients were too distracted to focus on even the simplest task of the moment. Allen described their affliction with another Buddhist image, “monkey mind,” which refers to a mind plagued with constantly shifting thoughts, like a monkey leaping wildly from tree to tree. Sometimes Allen imagined a variation in which the monkey is perched on your shoulder jabbering into your ear, constantly second-guessing and interrupting until you want to scream, “Somebody, shut up the monkey!”

“Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing,” Allen says. “You could tolerate that dissonance and that stress if it only happened once a month, the way it did in the past. Now people are just going numb and stupid, or getting too crazy and busy to deal with the anxiety.”

Instead of starting with goals and figuring out how to reach them, Allen tried to help his clients deal with the immediate mess on their desks. He could see the impracticality of traditional bits of organizational advice, like the old rule about never touching a piece of paper more than once— fine in theory, impossible in practice. What were you supposed to do with a memo about a meeting next week? Allen remembered a tool from his travel-agent days, the tickler file. The meeting memo, like an airplane ticket, could be filed in a folder for the day it was needed. That way the desk would remain uncluttered, and the memo wouldn’t distract you until the day it was needed.


Besides getting paperwork off the desk, the tickler file also removed a source of worry: Once something was filed there, you knew you’d be reminded to deal with it on the appropriate day. You weren’t nagged by the fear that you’d lose it or forget about it. Allen looked for other ways to eliminate that mental nagging by closing the “open loops” in the mind. “One piece I took from the personal-growth world was the importance of the agreements you make with yourself,” he recalls. “When you make an agreement and you don’t keep it, you undermine your own self-trust.

Psychologists have also studied the mental stress of the monkey mind. This nagging of uncompleted tasks and goals is called the Zeigarnik effect and also helps explain why to-do lists are not the answer.

Zeigarnik effect: Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop.

Until recently we thought this was the brain's way of making sure we get stuff done. New research, however, has shed preliminary light on the tension our to-do lists cause in our cognitive consciousness and unconsciousness.

[I]t turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

If you have 150 things going on in your head at once, the Zeigarnik effect leaves you leaping from “task to task, and it won't be sedated by vague good intentions.”

If you’ve got a memo that has to be read before a meeting Thursday morning, the unconscious wants to know exactly what needs to be done next, and under what circumstances. But once you make that plan— once you put the meeting memo in the tickler file for Wednesday, once you specify the very next action to be taken on the project— you can relax. You don’t have to finish the job right away. You’ve still got 150 things on the to-do list, but for the moment the monkey is still, and the water is calm.

This is how David Allen solved Drew Carey's organizational problems.

“Whether you’re trying to garden or take a picture or write a book,” Allen says, “your ability to make a creative mess is your most productive state. You want to be able to throw ideas all over the place, but you need to be able to start with a clear deck. One mess at a time is all you can handle. Two messes at a time, you’re screwed. You may want to find God, but if you’re running low on cat food, you damn well better make a plan for dealing with it. Otherwise the cat food is going to take a whole lot more attention and keep you from finding God.”

Still curious? Check out how I've helped thousands of people increase their productivity.

A Brief History of the To-Do List

The to-do list is something I talked about in my webinar on productivity, specifically, I argued that to-do lists were evil from a productivity perspective. This is something New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister expand upon in “A brief history of the to-do list,” the third chapter of their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Our failure rate keeps climbing as the lists keep getting longer. At any one time, a person typically has at least 150 different tasks to be done, and fresh items never stop appearing on our screens. How do we decide what goes on the list and what to do next?

“The first step in self-control is to set a clear goal.”

The technical term researchers use for self-control is self-regulation, and the “regulation” part highlights the importance of a goal. Regulating means changing, but only a particular kind of intentional, meaningful changing. To regulate is to guide toward a specific goal or standard: the speed limit for cars on a highway, the maximum height for an office building. Self-control without goals and other standards would be nothing more than aimless change, like trying to diet without any idea of which foods are fattening.

The problem isn't a lack of goals, however, it's too many of them.

We make daily to-do lists that couldn’t be accomplished even if there were no interruptions during the day, which there always are. By the time the weekend arrives, there are more unfinished tasks than ever, but we keep deferring them and expecting to get through them with miraculous speed. That’s why, as productivity experts have found, an executive’s daily to-do list for Monday often contains more work than could be done the entire week.

Even the great Ben Franklin fell victim to having too many goals.

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’ There were a dozen more virtues on his list— Temperance, Silence, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility— but he recognized his limits. “I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once,” Franklin explained, “but to fix it on one of them at a time.” The result was what he called a “course,” and what today would be marketed as 13 Weeks to Total Virtue.

But the virtues were often in conflict with one another.

When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients— and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (“ Waste nothing”) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job— or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: “Perform without fail what you resolve.”

“The result of conflicting goals is unhappiness instead of action,” Tierney and Baumeister write, arguing the byproduct of this is that you worry more, get less done, and your physical health suffers.

The takeaway? Skip the to-do list and schedule your time. If you must have a to-do list, keep it short.

Laws of Character and Personality

laws of character“One of the most valuable personal traits is the ability to get along with all kinds of people.”

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering is a book for those engineers who have more obstacles of a personal nature in organizations than technical. First published as a series of three articles in Mechanical Engineering, the “laws” were written and formulated as a professional code of conduct so to speak circa 1944. Although fragmentary and incomplete, they are still used by engineers, young and old, to guide their behavior.

This is a rather comprehensive quality but it defines the prime requisite of personality in any human organization. No doubt this ability can be achieved by various formulas, although it is based mostly upon general, good-natured friendliness, together with consistent observance of the “Golden Rule.” The following “dos and don’ts” are more specific elements of a winning formula:

(1) Cultivate the ability to appreciate the good qualities, rather than dislike the shortcomings, of each individual.

(2) Do not give vent to impatience and annoyance on slight provocation. Some offensive individuals seem to develop a striking capacity for becoming annoyed, which they indulge with little or no restraint.

(3) Do not harbor grudges after disagreements involving honest differences of opinion. Keep your arguments objective and leave personalities out of it. Never foster enemies, for as E. B. White put it: “One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy.”

(4) Form the habit of considering the feelings and interests of others.

(5) Do not become unduly preoccupied with your own selfish interests. When you look out for Number One first, your associates will be disinclined to look out for you, because they know you are already doing that. This applies to the matter of credit for accomplishments. But you need not fear being overlooked; about the only way to lose credit for a creditable job is to grab for it too avidly.

(6) Make it a rule to help the other person whenever an opportunity arises. Even if you are mean-spirited enough to derive no personal satisfaction from accommodating others, it’s a good investment. The business world demands and expects cooperation and teamwork among the members of an organization.

(7) Be particularly careful to be fair on all occasions. This means a good deal more than just fair upon demand. All of us are frequently unfair, unintentionally, simply because we do not consider other points of view to ensure that the interests of others are fairly protected. For example, we are often too quick to unjustly criticize another for failing on an assignment when the real fault lies with the manager who failed to provide the tools to do the job. Most important, whenever you enjoy a natural advantage or hold a position from which you could seriously mistreat someone, you must “lean over backwards” to be fair and square.

(8) Do not take yourself or your work too seriously. A sense of humor, under reasonable control, is much more becoming than a chronically sour dead-pan, a perpetual air of tedious seriousness, or a pompous righteousness. It is much better for your blood pressure, and for the morale of the office, to laugh off an awkward situation now and then than to maintain a tense, tragic atmosphere whenever matters take an embarrassing turn. Of course, a serious matter should be taken seriously, but preserving an oppressively heavy and funereal atmosphere does more harm than good.

(9) Put yourself out just a little to be genuinely cordial in greeting people. True cordiality is, of course, spontaneous and should never be affected, but neither should it be inhibited. We all know people who invariably pass us in the hall or encounter us elsewhere without a shadow of recognition. Whether this is due to inhibition or preoccupation, we cannot help thinking that such unsociable chumps would not be missed much if we just didn’t see them. Like anything else, this can be overdone, but most engineers can safely promote more cordiality in themselves.

(10) Give people the benefit of the doubt, especially when you can afford to do so. Mutual distrust and suspicion generate a great deal of unnecessary friction. These are derived chiefly from misunderstandings, pure ignorance, or ungenerously assuming that people are guilty until proven innocent. You will get much better cooperation from others if you assume that they are just as intelligent, reasonable, and decent as you are, even when you know they are not (although setting the odds of that are tricky indeed).

In a closing section of The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, King makes the point that “It is a mistake, of course, to try too hard to get along with everybody merely by being agreeable or even submissive on all occasions. … Do not give ground too quickly just to avoid a fight, when you know you're in the right. If you can be pushed around easily the chances are that you will be pushed around. Indeed, you can earn the respect of your associates by demonstrating your readiness to engage in a good (albeit non-personal) fight when your objectives are worth fighting for.”

As Shakespeare put it in Hamlet when Polonius offers advice to his son, “Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.”

The Baloney Detection Kit: A Summary of Critical Thinking

After reading 11 Rules for Critical Thinking, a thoughtful reader forwarded along this video of Michael Shermer the editor of Skeptic Magazine. Inspired by Carl Sagan's idea that there is a lot of baloney out there, Shermer proposes a 10-point checklist to assess the believability of a claim and help us sift through the noise.

The complete checklist:
1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
2. Does the source make similar claims?
3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

This is a great complement to The Work Required To Have An Opinion.

11 Rules for Critical Thinking

A fantastic list of 11 rules from some of history’s greatest minds. These are Prospero’s Precepts and they are found in AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question:

  1. All beliefs in whatever realm are theories at some level. (Stephen Schneider)
  2. Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong. (Dandemis)
  3. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. (Francis Bacon)
  4. Never fall in love with your hypothesis. (Peter Medawar)
  5. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  6. A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong. (Francis Crick)
  7. The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting. (Richard Feynman)
  8. To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact. (Charles Darwin)
  9. It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. (Mark Twain)
  10. Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong. (Thomas Jefferson)
  11. All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second, it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Still curious? Complement with the baloney detection kit.

(via explore)

The Five Cognitive Distortions of People Who Get Stuff Done

get it done

Michael Dearing, an associate professor at Stanford, gave an interesting (albeit speculative) presentation on the five automatic thought process (cognitive distortions) of people who get things done.

The five distortions are:
1. Personal exceptionalism
2. Dichotomous thinking
3. Correct overgeneralization
4. Blank canvas thinking
5. Schumpeterianism

Personal Exceptionalism

… a macro sense that you are in the top of your cohort, your work is snowflake-special, or that you are destined to have experiences well outside the bounds of “normal;” not to be confused with arrogance or high selfesteem

Dichotomous Thinking

being extremely judgmental of people, experiences, things; highly opinionated at the extremes; sees black and white, little grey …

Correct Overgeneralization

making universal judgments from limited observations and being right a lot of the time

Blank-Canvas Thinking

sees own life as a blank canvas, not a paint-by-numbers

Schumpeterianism (I am a creative destruction machine.)

In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter writes:

The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation–if I may use that biological term–that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. …”

Dearing defines Schumpeterianism as:

sees creative destruction as natural, necessary, and as their vocation