Why Most Productivity Techniques Don’t Work As Intended
And how a simple concept of computer science can mitigate them
You’d think people would realize they’re bad at multitasking and would quit. But a cognitive illusion sets in, fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multitaskers think they are doing great — Dr Daniel J. Levintin
High complexity is the hallmark of modern working culture. Our work has been complicated by the increasing amount of information and contexts. Techniques have been created as a remedy, but they all have a fatal flaw.
What’s Wrong With “Productivity Techniques”?
Pomodoro, for example, is nothing more than a time management technique. Task boards, GTD, and To-Do lists manage tasks but are too overwhelming to be efficient. They give off the impression that there are other things to do, while you can work on exactly one of them, probably the one with the highest priority. These techniques may work well under certain scenarios, but they do not fix the crucial problem of finishing one single task.
We have to admit that our brains can, at best, focus on just one task. This is not to say that the mind cannot do things simultaneously, rather it is quite capable of subconscious multitasking. But at a conscious level, this is not the case. Physical evidence exists: there is a region in our heads that can be conceptually described as the attentional filter. This filter relentlessly monitors changes in our environment and allows only the significant ones into our consciousness. In retrospect, the attentional filter exists for a reason. Our attention is a scarce mental resource. We can only uni-task.
Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance — Dr Daniel J. Levintin
Why To-Do lists, task boards, and GTD are not quite suitable for a single task is because we are constantly reminded of other tasks. While we work on a project, the list/board is showing the things we have not done. These unfinished tasks will linger in our heads, popping up intermittently, announcing their presence once in a while, and thus distracting us.
It is in this respect that those techniques are working against our psyche. This ever-lasting flaw must be eliminated from our work methodology. I propose, instead, a rather simple and effective method to avoid such distractions and to further tackle the complexity of one single task. In the rest of this article, I refer to it as the Stack Method.
What Is a Stack?
Maybe you don’t know what a stack is in Computer Science, but it is a simple data structure that warrants a simple explanation. A stack is conceptually one vertical pile of same-sized plates. There are 2 key operations you can do about a stack (it’s best to remember these convenient terms):
Push: you put an item onto the current pile, concealing the old top item with the new item you just put in.
Pop: you take the top item out of the pile, revealing the next item beneath it if there is one.
In a word, a stack has a “First In, Last Out” structure. The lastest item is always on top, and the second most recent just below the top, etc. Notice in these figures that you cannot peek at the items under the top item.
How Does This Stack Method Work?
For this method to work swimmingly, you need to first pick a task for yourself. What this task entails doesn’t matter, as it will be taken care of by the logic of the stack. Once you have selected a target task, say from your task board, you have to get that task board out of your sight. Make sure to never look at the board again until the current task is finished. This can significantly free your mind from those inner voices of pending tasks that gnaw at you irregularly.
The figure below illustrates how to accommodate new subtasks.
When you begin working on this particular task T, take a sticky note, write T on it, and put it on your desk or wherever your sight can reach. Inevitably, the task itself has a lot of dependencies/subtasks: you need to solve some parts first to finish the big task T, which could, in turn, generate some other dependencies. Whenever a new dependency D occurs, you need only write its description down on a new sticky note, and Push this note onto your pile. Your job now is just D and nothing more, because all you can see from the stack is D as the top item. Therein lies the magic. When working on D, you may generate another sub-sub-task E that cannot be immediately solved. By the same token, you create a new sticky note for E and Push it on top of the stack. You must only focus on E now.
The figure below shows what to do when a subtask is finished.
The subtask generation just mentioned will eventually terminate at some point where the dependency is easily solvable, and that’s when we need to Pop things out. When you finish sub-sub-task E, for example, you can just Pop item E out, revealing punctually where you left off: D. You should do whatever is needed to finish D given your results from E. A new sub-sub-task F might still occur in resolving D, and in this case just deal with F the same way you did with E. If all goes well, you will end up pushing and popping exactly the same amount of times, which means your primary task T is popped out lastly. Task T is now officially done!
Mechanisms and Pitfalls
This Stack Method boils down to two unique aspects:
- All unnecessary information that is not directly relevant to what you are doing right now, must be hidden. This is why you need to stay away from things like task boards that mostly show what else needs doing. It is important in terms of reducing the stress that lurks inside your head. The reason I recommend using sticky notes is so that it is less likely that you will shuffle them around, which induces more anxiety. You should not rip off the top sticky note to peek at what is underneath. The absence of such information leaves your mind at ease.
- A stack is a succinct and accurate structure to deal with the complexity of dependencies generated by each task. You can benefit a lot from this structure by just zeroing in on the top item, with Push and Pop opertions when necessary. The stack shows exactly one item that you should deal with. Even if you get distracted somehow, there is only one place to look at to jog your memory: the top item on your stack.
The Stack Method is actually not difficult to employ. You can customize it to your own needs. But remember that its underlying principle is the central moral of this article: Multitasking is a sham. Whatever method you decide to use, it should aim to reduce irrelevant tasks or subtasks exposed to you at any given time, so that the brain can do what it excels at: uni-tasking.
Levitin, D. J. (2015). The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Illustrated ed.). Dutton.
All images are drawn by myself.