My Conversation with David Allen on Quantifying Productivity
By Tiago Forte of Forte Labs
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I recently had the privilege of joining David Allen on his members-only In Conversation podcast.
This is the only public place you can listen to it (1 hour, download available):
Our main subject is this 8-minute talk I gave in 2013 on using GTD to quantify personal productivity [accompanying slides here]:
But we also touch on a wide variety of other topics, including:
- productivity as a design problem (and using design thinking to address it)
- the benefits and best practices of time-tracking
- workflow design and habit formation as the future of productivity
- using habit formation and physical artifacts to anchor GTD habits
- cognitive science and our perception of time
- analyzing profitability in a project-based environment
- popular conceptions around productivity and how they’re often wrong (including multitasking, meetings, and email)
- “slow” productivity
- the quickly evolving role of technology in knowledge work
- integrating apps like Pocket, Evernote, and Slack
- and the parallels between meditation and a bulletproof workflow
See the transcript below, with links to the resources we mention.
David: Hi folks, David Allen, back in conversation, today with Tiago Forte, actually a recent acquaintance of mine. Someone sent me a link to a talk he gave at Evernote [8 min. long] back in 2013. It was all about GTD in such a way that I’ve never really heard anybody quite talk about it, nor do what he did with it. But we’ll get into that in some more detail as we continue the discussion. But Tiago why don’t you give people who are listening to this who have no idea who you are…who are you, and what do you do? Give us that high-level overview.
Tiago: Happy to, and I’m really happy to be here by the way, David. I’m in San Francisco, California. I run a productivity training and consulting firm called Forte Labs. And essentially we do a mix of trainings and workshops for companies and other organizations around productivity, training employees to be more productive. And also from time to time, consulting projects. Mostly around products related to productivity, project management, habit formation, behavior change — most of the time apps, but other products as well.
D: From the stuff that I’ve seen, and your fascinating blog, postings you’ve done, and your talks, you obviously have a high technology proclivity. I assume that’s somewhat of your background. Why don’t you roll the tape back — how did you get into this? What was your path?
T: Yeah definitely. So, this also coincides with when I discovered GTD. I was working some years ago at a consulting firm in San Francisco. It’s a global company that essentially did innovation consulting. So we would help companies of all sizes design new products and services. Usually related in some way to technology. We did everything from children’s toys, we designed an autonomous vehicle, we designed Digitick, which is kind of the PayPal of Europe, the biggest payment processing service. So quite a range of different technology-related products. And I started getting into GTD and realized more and more what I come to believe today, which is that productivity is a design problem.
D: Talk more about that. I love design — my wife and I love great architecture, we love great tools, we love great thinking in the design process — but I have to say I’m still relatively naive about what the design process is itself. So educate me a little bit about how you see that and how that fits.
T: I’d be happy to. We live in a very exciting time right now for this sort of thing actually, because the idea of design has sort of broken out of this old school, you know, “Let’s design something pretty,” and there’s two parallel movements that have happened. One is UX Design, and UX Design is this field or this idea that design is much deeper than how something looks. It’s what something is. It’s the definition, the soul of the product. This has allowed all sorts of thinking, much deeper thinking, and methods around “Ok, what is the essence of how a product makes you feel?” What is the user experience? Apart from the color and the font and the gradients, strip away all the veneer, and what is the real soul of the product? And that’s UX Design. And that’s a massive trend in the design world.
But there’s another trend that may be even more impactful, which is Design Thinking. This is the design school at Stanford; it’s the innovation consultancy IDEO. They’ve spent the past couple decades popularizing this idea that’s now finally started reaching critical mass, that design is not just the physical act of crafting something — it’s a way of thinking. That’s a whole separate discussion; there’s all sorts of courses and workshops on Design Thinking. I do a course on Design Thinking actually. But I could summarize it by saying that we’re taught in school and often in work to solve problems through analysis. And if you go back to the root of the word “analysis” it means “to break something apart.” That’s what we do. We break it up into all the little pieces. We analyze each piece separately. We change all the little pieces, and then we try to put them back together.
Designers solve problems differently. They solve problems through synthesis, which is the opposite. Which is, putting things together. So the designer will do all the research and figure out what are the challenges and the opportunities, and then instead of saying “Ok, here’s my report” or “Here’s my analysis, my theory,” they say “Here’s my product.” Let’s see if this product, this end result that I synthesized can solve this problem that we’re looking at.
Kind of a long story to say that. Bringing it back to GTD, it’s kind of been up until now the nerds, the productivity nerds that have been into GTD and especially, that have redesigned their own workflows. And felt comfortable and empowered to really…you even talk about it in the new edition of your book. How one of the steps on the way to GTD mastery is understanding the functional principles of the behaviors within GTD. And once you understand the principles, there’s a million different ways that can be manifested.
So I think that up until now it’s been the productivity nerds — in the future, that’s going to be everyone. Every single person is going to have to design their own work; design their own workflow.
D: Fascinating, you know, I actually spent a little bit of time at IDEO a few months ago, and we were framing ourselves, you know: how does GTD really need to be positioned in the next 10 to 20 years? We’ve sort of done some nice repositioning and there’s more authenticity I think in terms of our expression now…closer actually to what you’re talking about, but I think you’re right. There’s a future we’re still trying to grapple with and get our arms around. And it was interesting, in that conversation, IDEO came back to us and was trying to find out “Well, what’s the demographic?”, essentially, of the user. Of the GTD person. And the conclusion, which was a pretty fast conclusion, but I think a fascinating one, is that the demographic is a mindset. There’s no common denominator that I’ve seen, except that people assume that 18 months from now their life is going to be somewhat improved and they want more space to be more creative and more innovative and more aspirational. And that could be a 12 year-old, a CEO, it could be across cultures.
So it was interesting…feedback to me how…I think what I just said was the result of Design Thinking, the latter track you were going down.
T: Yeah, I’d say so.
D: So when you came across GTD, and by the way, what’s fascinating to me is that there haven’t been a lot of people, and it’s why I wanted to grab you for this In Conversation, there haven’t been a lot of people that I’ve run across who caught sort of the subtlety of essentially, the art of work. That people just work, but they don’t realize that it’s an art, an art form. How good can you get at parenting? How good can you get at the tango? How good can you get at playing the flute? How good can you get at managing the flow of life’s work? So it was fascinating to me to see, at least if somebody else out there catches it that it actually may be the trend. That’s the long bet that I’ve made because it’s always been fascinating to me, the whole idea of the functionality of it, and the elegance of the functionality of it.
We designed an in-basket, me and Katherine and a company in Italy that we found that made just the right stuff, and it is the most elegant tool in the world. It is so aesthetically pleasing, and everybody said, “Why would I pay a hundred and something dollars for an in-tray?” And I go “This is the iconic GTD manifestation.” I’m looking at four of them stacked in front of me right now, and they’re so well-designed. So, it’s too bad they didn’t take off. I would have loved to sell a gazillion of those. Would love to get into MOMA. But I’m interested that there’s so little uptake of something like that. I’m not holding my breath, but that and our Notetaker wallet were two things we designed simply because of the functionality of it but they’re very elegant tools.
T: That’s very interesting because those are, I mean, in design we talk so much about artifacts. Artifacts are powerful. They are symbols, they’re also learning tools, they are rituals, I mean there’s so many levels that you can deconstruct that you may not see just looking at a little basket.
D: Yeah, you know talking about habits too, and we’re kind of bouncing around here but, the reason people fall off GTD is because they can only consciously focus on these behaviors for so long before automatic pilot takes back over, and if you haven’t established the habit of getting in-basket to zero, or doing a weekly review or something like that, then people fall off the game. People have often asked me “David, what are the habits that you’ve installed that make the biggest difference?” One is getting stuff out of my head and making sure I use that little Notetaker wallet to grab the ideas and potentially meaningful things. And the second one, probably the most powerful habit is, loving to see the bottom of my physical in-tray empty. Which basically, gets me to make a lot of the hard decisions I just don’t want to have to make, and that’s email as well as my physical in-basket but in order to get it empty I have to then put myself through my own process, and think and decide about stuff. “Ugh, I don’t want to have to think about that.” But I gotta get that empty. So interesting how you can tie the artifact to the habits as well.
T: Absolutely. You need physical anchors. I write about this a lot, and you’ve referenced academic papers that talk about this, how our brain is designed for spatial thinking, so any time you have a spatial mapping of what’s going on in your head that thing you’re doing is much more powerful, it’s much more habitual, it’s much more consistent.
D: Cool. Let’s go back to the Evernote speech that you did, because the folks listening to this may not have heard that yet, and I just saw that it’s still available on the web if you do a search for “Tiago Forte” and “Evernote” you can see that speech. If you can remember back to 2013, do you remember what that was? Why don’t you do the highlights of what that was and what you talk about there.
T: Absolutely. That was actually at a QS Meetup. QS is “Quantified Self.” For those who don’t know, it’s this global movement of people who meet in meetups in cities all over the world to give short presentations, usually around 15 minutes, on some aspect of themselves that they’re tracking. So it can be anything from their steps and activity, or sleep, or diet, or productivity, or creativity. I mean, anything you can imagine. And so actually, I remember quite well because, actually, it was very hard for me to get what is essentially a years-long experiment, to summarize a little piece of it to get into that 8-minute slot. And that experiment is one that I continue to run until this day.
I became interested in self-tracking for a very practical reason which is, if you’re not measuring what you’re doing, how do you know if it’s making a difference? That’s a principle that applies absolutely everywhere. And especially when you work with technology you see this even more clearly, where you’ll change one little aspect of a page — the position of a button or the color of a header — and that will change the performance of that site by double digits. And you think, “Ok, wow, there’s these tiny leverage points, tiny little things I can do that have very significant effects, but you can never tease out those effects unless you have some way of measuring what you’re going for. So I became interested in tracking my productivity and that has led over time to a continuous tracking that I’ve done of different aspects: how many tasks I complete, how many projects I complete, the time that I spend on different projects, the profitability per project, I mean, a lot of different things I can talk about. But let me recap that talk.
I wanted to track my productivity, and the most basic way I could think of doing that was “How many tasks do I complete per hour?” And that sounds great until you start looking at the mechanics of that and it’s actually very problematic. I think I mention in the talk I found at least 12 ways that is problematic.
What I found in different experiments that I ran was, you cannot measure your productivity until your productivity is systematic. Until you have a regular way that you complete work. If you just show up to work every day and react, and just respond to whatever happens to be in your inbox, then yeah, of course, you can’t measure something that random and chaotic. And what I found, kind of to my surprise actually, and apparently to your surprise also, is that there are many principles in GTD that happen to make your work systematic enough to be measured as a side effect, kind of a bonus. They have all the effects, all the benefits that you describe — the peace of mind, the mind like water, the extra productivity — but they also happen to make it easier to measure what you’re doing.
And the three that I highlight in the talk. The first one was the fact that not all tasks are created equal. If you say “Ok, one task was completed in this hour and ten tasks were completed in this other hour,” well, that doesn’t mean anything if the one task was super valuable or incredibly lucrative for your business. And I found there that the next action principle was helpful because if you really subscribe to GTD, every time you see something like “Review project” or “Brainstorm ideas” or “Conceptualize new training program,” this huge red flag goes up in your brain and you say “Ok, wait a minute. I have to break that down.” And if you do break that down, and make that a practice, and do it fairly consistently, you’re going to find that a side effect of that is most of your tasks are more or less uniform. They’re all pretty much just physical, individual actions and therefore can be compared directly more accurately.
D: By the way, I’ll stop you there. I’ll put a pause button on it because I want you to continue that but, it just occurred to me that my mentor, back in 1981 and ‘82 that I worked closely with, Dean Acheson — I mention Dean in the book — who’s the guy who taught me about getting stuff out of your head and deciding next actions. A huge part of his whole philosophy of consulting and thinking and process was about cycles of completion, and that you could only measure productivity if you produced something, and in order to produce something you have to complete a cycle. So what you’re talking about is the very discrete nature of why figuring out the next action was such a powerful thing. Because it gave you actually something to complete. And a cycle. Basically that the essence of productivity is producing things. But you have to have a thing to complete. You have to have something come out the end, in terms of what you’re doing. And that can get pretty subtle, as you know. But anyway, that was a fascinating sidebar that just occurred to me. So keep going.
T: That’s very interesting, you use the word “cycle.” Because it’s almost like the thing that makes us able to compare two computers. You might have two computers, one is visiting Facebook, the other one is calculating some incredible astronomical program. How can we compare these two processes? Well, you can look at the cycles that the computer is running through right? And that brings us a lot of value. The ability to look at any device and say “It took this many cycles,” or “It took this much RAM,” or “It took this many floating point cycles,” or whatever the term is, and that can be applied to productivity as well, to thinking. I think sometimes it’s tempting to say “All thinking is so mysterious, it’s so subtle and…it’s so mysterious that it can never be explained or broken down or quantified or systematized in any way.” Well, no. I mean, to a certain extent yeah, we’ll never figure it out completely, but you can break it down to something. The lowest common denominator, the basic unit of thinking, is the next action.
D: You know, I think you’re right.
T: Of thinking and doing, maybe.
D: Yeah well, thinking about what? You have a visual, there’s some visual thing that occurs to you but the thinking is actually moving something forward. It’s moving a thought forward; it’s moving a concept forward; moving something forward. So I think you’re right. It is the next action.
T: So that was the first one. And that was a pleasant surprise. The second one was I noticed that not everything gets captured in the system. And this is maybe not an issue if you’re just using your GTD workflow to get things done. But if you’re trying to see how much you do, there’s all sorts of tasks that just do not lend themselves, you know, like interpersonal tasks. Things like “Talk to someone about this,” if they just show up in front of you and you talk to them, usually you don’t go and then enter that thing you’ve already done into your system. So those sort of tasks tend to kind of slip through the cracks. Which is unfortunate because, you know, I’m a bit contrarian where, I look online, so many of the productivity articles are about minimizing human interaction. It’s like, how can you replace a phone call with an email? How can you replace a conversation with a text message? And I just think that’s crazy. When I look at bandwidth, the thing about bandwidth is, there’s a certain bandwidth you can receive through your phone, or through your email, or through looking at a screen. But when you talk to a human being, to me that’s the ultimate bandwidth operation. Because not only are you getting information through sound, which of course is pretty slow, but they’re reacting to you, right. They’re looking at your facial expressions, they’re thinking about your context, your goals, your needs, your history, and in real time, adapting and modifying the information stream that they’re giving you to perfectly match what they think your needs are in that moment. It’s almost like having the ultimate artificial intelligence system standing in front of you, with all of a vast life experience that they’re directing and customizing just for you in that moment. I think that’s kind of a magical thing. I don’t know.
D: Yeah, it’s funny, I was just in Antwerp last week and meeting with a guy who ended up creating a film on coaching, but his background and main professional thing is micro body movements and reading body language and that, like in poker, is the tell. People can’t actually control, and if you get really good at reading it you’ll know exactly what they’re going to say before they say it simply because you can read that subtle stuff so…just an affirmation of what you said. There’s a whole lot of bandwidth that happens that’s involved in those kinds of communications, for sure.
T: Wow, how was he applying that knowledge?
D: He does a lot of training and coaching, obviously to salespeople, or to executives, business people. People in the negotiation game. They do a little bit with the military and security forces that like that information. Not a particularly fun area for them to be working in but they do good stuff all over the world.
T: Very interesting. Wow.
D: Yeah, fascinating stuff. So how do you track — how does GTD help you manage that inventory of not necessarily pre-recorded stuff?
T: The principle that I found here to be helpful was the capture — the collection habit. It’s something that is not necessarily — this isn’t an absolute 100% solution — but it’s certainly better than, orders of magnitude better than what most people will do which is, have a To Do list that is essentially one tiny fraction, one tiny percentage of all the very numerous commitments and open loops that they’ve started. It’s funny actually, this was one of the conclusions from my experiment: sometimes it’s hard to fully follow the principles because it’s hard to see the benefit you’re going to get in the moment. You know, you think “Yeah, I could do my weekly review, but I don’t know, it’s Sunday evening, and I’d just rather do something else.” And so you kind of let things slide a little bit. You’re not as disciplined as you should be. The funny thing that I found is that sometimes I would do one of the recommended habits, or follow the principles more closely just because I wanted my data to be cleaner.
D: Yeah, that’s funny. Understood, I’m with you.
T: But then, it would kind of go back and forth because I would do something just because I wanted the data to be accurate, but then because I had done it, I would see the practical benefits in my day-to-day work. So I’m kind of like “Well, if I see the benefit, I’ll take any motivation I can get.”
D: No kidding. There will be people who say, “Now Tiago, that borders on the OCD side of the game.” But hey, there are worse ways to spend your day.
T: Yeah, so I found myself following it quite closely and, the collection habit: I’ve just gotten into the habit where…one part of your books that really resonated was, starting to work with people who don’t have the same habits, and I’m at the point now where, when I’m talking to someone and we’re discussing business, and they say they’re going to do something, and they don’t make any note, don’t write anything down, I just cannot help myself. I cannot have as much confidence in that person as I had before, because I think, there’s two terrible scenarios: one, they’re just hoping they remember it, and they’re probably not going to, or two, which is even worse, they’re actually going to use their brainpower to remember this thing, which means less brainpower for the project that we’re working on together. So yeah, I’ve just gotten to the point where the second I realize there’s two things on my mind, I am reaching for something to get that second thing off my mind.
D: And the weekly review plays into that as well. I mean, that’s the safety net, and as I recall you talked about that too, that that helped at the end of the week, in your checklist, you could go back and pick up stuff that you may have missed.
T: Yeah so that’s exactly the third principle I found. When you export the data, and you put it into Excel and you start doing the analysis, you realize that the granularity of your data is a huge issue. When you complete a task, each minute that elapses between the time you completed a task and you checked it off, your data is getting less and less accurate. And yes, this is going way into the OCD territory.
But in technology this is latency. The higher the latency, which is that delay, the less responsive the system is, the less accurate it is, and actually from the user’s point of view — and in a workflow, you’re the user — the less pleasurable it is. If you use an app on your phone that has very high latency, it’s very frustrating. You tap something, and you’re like, “Ok, what happened? Did it not detect it? Is it not responding? What’s going on?” And so I found the kind of week-by-week granularity is what I was looking for, which meant that I had to check off the task anytime during the same week in which I completed it. And if you don’t have a weekly review that’s extremely problematic.
D: You know, interesting that you mention that too because, years ago, I read somewhere — I lost the reference — your brain or your memory does kind of a control-alt-delete dump after about 7 days, and so, if you’re trying to recall what went on in a meeting, at least if you can try to do that activity, that recall, within 7 days of that meeting, it’s a whole lot clearer than if you wait another day or two; then it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s like something just disappears and diffuses and I went, “Oh no wonder the weekly review seems to have this natural rhythm to it. For that reason.” Exactly what you were talking about.
T: Totally, I believe that completely. Yeah, so the weekly review just ensured — it was kind of like a backup system — often, if I was working on one project over the course of a week, I would have that project in my task manager front and center so as things happen I see them and check them off. But if you’re having one of those weeks that’s most weeks, which is, you’re dividing your time and energy between multiple projects, there’s really no reason to expect that you’re going to remember, “Oh, I did that one thing that’s buried in one of my lists somewhere.” And actually, even if you remembered that, it wouldn’t really make sense to stop what you’re doing to go check something off. That’s not the best use of your time.
And so, the third principle was just that, I knew my data was reflective of how much I was actually completing in a given week because I was taking the time at least once per week, and usually more often, of going through my tasks and checking off the things that I’d already completed.
D: So, you’re probably going to get to this in your flow here but, a couple fascinating things. First of all, just your results. After tracking this stuff for, however long you tracked it. I guess it was a year by the time you’d given that talk. And the second thing that was fascinating to me were the counterintuitive aha’s you had, the things that sort of go against typical current wisdom.
T: Ah yes. There’s been all sorts of things. One of the first things you notice when you start tracking your time — and when I say “tracking your time” I have to make this distinction — because many people track their time today, but it’s not something they’ve decided to do. It’s either they’re consultants and they need to track their billable hours, or they’re lawyers, or…like when I worked in the consulting firm before, at the end of each week I had to go in and fill in what I had to spend my time on. But of course when I looked at the timesheets, there were 3 blocks for the day: one in the morning and two in the afternoon. And every day I would go “How can I possibly describe everything that I’m working on in 3 blocks?” It’s impossible. So I think when the process is not self-directed, and it’s not something you’re really committed to, you’re not going to get accurate time-tracking data.
So one of the first things you’ll notice if you really start doing this, is that people around you are absolutely terrible, I mean, just atrocious, at estimating how long something takes. Anything. To the point where you have to be careful how you use this knowledge. Because you’ll start encountering situations where you’ll be in a meeting, and someone will say “Oh yeah, we’ll build that feature. We’ll launch that feature. It should take about 10 hours.” And you go, “I know for a fact, from my personal experience, that will take at least 30.” The problem is, if you say that, if you bring up these reality checks, people get really angry.
I mean, the classic case is the 5-minute thing. Everyone always loves to say, “Oh that will take 5 minutes.” “That’ll take 10 minutes.” “That’ll take 15 minutes.” Nothing really takes 5 minutes. Almost everything has a tendency to expand to take longer time than you think.
D: Oh believe me, coaching people all these years and trying to get them to recognize what a 2-minute time is. That’s why we actually designed a 2-minute timer, a little sand timer. I used one for about a year or so just to train myself about what 2 minutes was. Had to get 2 timers, because if I finished something in a minute half the sand would still be there so I’d have to use the other one as well. Although it was fascinating how absolutely unconscious we are about time when you get engaged in something. For sure.
T: Yeah, I totally agree. In fact, the first time I read your book, I have to admit when I read the part about getting a timer I thought “That’s ridiculous. I’m never going to do that.” But now having experienced the time time-tracking I completely get it. It’s really, our minds are not designed to rationally, objectively evaluate time. They’re just not.
So that was one thing and this has all sorts of implications, I mean, one thing I found, once I left the consulting firm and started my own company, is I started doing analyses of profitability. And this is scary. I would say, don’t do this unless you’re willing to have your paradigms shaken. Because what I found was that, I’d have a range of clients, where I was doing pretty similar work, pretty comparable work, using pretty comparable rates, not hugely different pricing between projects. And yet, once I tracked how much time I was spending, because of the different variables that go into the time, there was a differential of profitability of five times. So, my most profitable projects per hour were five times more profitable than my least profitable projects.
T: Yeah. Which was scary. Because then you have to start thinking about things like, “Which clients are really worth working for?” “Where is my time best spent?” Is this project worth it even if it’s exciting and interesting and there’s a very prestigious client, if when I look at the per hour rate, I’m basically making minimum wage? And that’s what I found actually, in some of my projects, because of the massive amount of time spent, usually dealing with the client, putting in extra work that often the most demanding clients expect, the rate I was charging was actually minimum wage. So, all sorts of different implications that come out of this.
I think I mentioned in the talk, that I had certain expectations, such as that I expected in a given week, that there would be a strong correlation between time spent in meetings, and time spent in email, and lower productivity. I thought “Ok, the more time I spent in meetings in a given week, the lower my productivity is that week.” But actually, I found really no correlation at all. There was just no relationship. And the conclusion I took away from that was that, which is kind of an obvious conclusion once you think about it, is that it can’t be true that meetings are inherently bad. It just can’t. There’s no way that they would have proliferated and been used to approach so many different types of problems if they were just so inherently evil, like is sometimes discussed in the productivity world. It must come down to how you conduct meetings. It must be a matter of, good meetings are actually very helpful, very productive, very effective, and bad meetings of course are an absolute waste of time. And so then, once you realize that, it kind of motivates you — at least it motivated me — ok, what are the best practices that separate a good meeting from a bad meeting? And that’s been something that’s become a big part of my business is coming into a company and saying, this thing that you spend, in some cases, which I know this is hard to believe for someone who doesn’t work in this business, when you spend as much as 60 or 70% of your time in meetings, don’t you think it’s worth optimizing that particular activity?
D: Yeah, it seems pretty common sense to those of us, especially with the GTD context, of outcome and action. You know, just those two things can be absolutely game-changing in terms of, from a bad meeting to a good one.
T: And you know, that’s something that I notice…in my workshops, I really focus on the individual, much like you. And we reach a point where they say, “Ok, this is great for my personal work, but let’s talk about the team, or the meeting, or whatever the bigger context is,” and I say, “Well you know what? That’s what makes these principles powerful. Is that they scale.” They scale to any size that you care to use them. Which I think is a pretty good proof of their effectiveness.
D: Indeed. Just so we don’t lose it: your results of tracking the completed cycles, in terms of how that improved, or what kind of improvement did you make?
T: I think it’s brought me very much in line, or closer in line, with reality. I think that’s what it comes down to. I read an article recently that was titled “Why are some people consistently late?” And I said, “I need this, because I have a few people in my life that are consistently late.” I love them — my brother, my girlfriend — they’re just consistently late, it’s like built in to their operating system. And so I clicked on the article thinking I’d really like to know this. And his thesis, which I’ll summarize, is basically, people who are consistently late are in denial about how time works. They are in denial about the reality of time. And the way that time works, is that…so people who are consistently late, they always assume that what will happen is the best case scenario. If they want to calculate, “How much time will it take for me to get from here to work?” They think, “If I don’t forget anything in the house, and there are no problems with the bus, the bus arrives perfectly on time, and there are no delays, and no one stops me to talk, and everything goes perfectly, this is how much time I need.” And that’s how much time they leave. And so when those interruptions and delays inevitably happen, and they are late, they think, “How can this happen? How can this be that I calculated perfectly and I was late?” Whereas people who are always on time, they think, “This, this, and this can go wrong — let me factor that in.”
And I find that that applies very much to knowledge work. We are in denial, many of us, if we have no time-tracking habit, we’re in denial about how much time things take. About how much time it takes to think, and to plan, to prepare, and to debrief afterwards. And I think I’ve just been able to be more realistic about things.
D: That’s cool. As you know, one of our big admonitions is that, if you don’t have at least an hour of whitespace a day, you’re going to get behind. Because it takes that long to think and to decide about just new incoming. And most people just go wall-to-wall-to-wall and then complain that they have to spend the weekend or whatever cleaning up and catching up on input, as opposed to organizing their life around that reality.
T: Absolutely. That’s so true. And that’s something that I found in my data too. I can’t say there was a strong, statistically significant correlation — I didn’t quite have enough of a sample size, but I did see a positive correlation between hours worked in a given week and productivity. So I did find that I could actually get more done, not only in total, but actually per hour, when I put in a huge number of hours in a given week. And actually, I’ve seen the reality of that. I think what happens is that you can spend more hours to get into flow more. If you throw an extra 10, 20 hours onto the week, you can add a few sessions of flow, and in those sessions of flow you can get quite a bit more done. But then when I looked on a month basis — so the correlation between hours worked in a given month and productivity — that boost was completely erased. And that ties into what you just said, which is, if you don’t leave that whitespace in a given week, yeah, you may get more done, but you’re going to start to fall behind if you don’t leave that processing time in over the long term.
D: You know, that also has a correlation, as you’re saying…one of my favorite books du jour is Brain Chains, Theo Compernolle’s new book on all the aggregated research from cognitive science and the whole necessity for the archive mind — you know we have a reflexive mind and a reflective mind — and the archive mind is the one that basically requires you to stop thinking, stop a focused kind of conscious focus. There’s a zero sum between the reflective part of your mind — that’s the one that gets tired. That’s decision fatigue and all that stuff. You can focus, you’re highly productive when you’re in flow and you’re highly focused on what you’re doing, but in order for that to continue, to be able to sustain the ability to do that, you have to have almost an equal amount of archiving time, which means daydreaming, sleep. Back away from the whole thing. So, interesting correlation to what you found out there.
T: It’s funny because it’s a truth that’s becoming so discussed that it’s become a cliché. Where people say yeah, you need to rest, you need to relax, you need to take time away, and I don’t know, maybe it’s just because of being in Silicon Valley where people kind of pride themselves on actually running their bodies into the ground. There’s sort of a reluctance to admit that that is not a philosophical or nice-sounding idea; that is a neurochemical reality that we have to accept.
D: Yeah, for years I said, “I’m not a motivational speaker. I like to sleep as long as I can.” Turns out the last two hours of sleep of a seven or eight-hour sleep night are the most important times for your archive brain to knit together all the miscellaneous stuff and come up with new conclusions. So, I went, I’ve just been smart all these years…
There’s also the strange paradox. Someone wrote a great essay about speeding up by slowing down and the real essence of moving very very slowly, and watching how much more productively you produce. And actually I’ve experimented with that lately, with some things. And it’s really true. I have no data to kind of prove that, but at least existentially, or as an experience, it’s feeling much more productive the more totally relaxed and slow I move in terms of what I do, for many things.
T: I think we should start…to follow through on slow food, and slow cooking, and slow everything…slow productivity.
D: That’s good. We’ll use that somewhere. Again, Tiago, I’m fascinated by the whole idea of design and work and where it’s going. One other counterintuitive thing, by the way — I’m jumping here — talk for a minute about the thing that you mentioned in that speech which was fascinating to me — multitasking actually increases productivity. Which, in a way, goes against all the cognitive science research but I think there’s multitasking, and there’s multitasking. So there’s one with GTD, and there’s one without it, and I think those are very different worlds.
T: Multitasking. Such an interesting topic. What I found in the data, again, not statistically significant, is just essentially no correlation either way. Negative or positive. But, what I will say is, if I can be contrarian again, a lot of productivity stuff — articles and things — are about focus. You know, there’s all these frameworks. There’s Warren Buffett: make a list of your top 10 priorities and then cross out number 2 through 10 and those are your absolute do-not-do list, and only number 1 is something you can do. All these methods that are very inspirational and very motivational saying, “What is the absolute one thing and only do that,” but I think that’s just not realistic. For me personally, I think I’m a pretty focused person. A lot of people tell me, “I admire how you stick to one thing and you’re focused.” And yet I find that when I look at my context lists — my different lists of what to do — I have to take into account what excites me and what stimulates me in that moment. I cannot optimize only for the long-term, scientifically objective, optimal variable. I’m not a computer. I can’t just chug away at this one mathematical task forever. I have to do things that stimulate me, that interest me, that keep me up at night sometimes. And that’s something that I think should be incorporated into the context lists. That sometimes people miss. I tweeted recently a quote that I really liked which is, a paraphrasing of…I can’t remember the source right now, but “The key to sustainable productivity is adapting methods that don’t require changing your fundamental nature.”
D: No, as you say that I’m reminded, Joss Whedon, the director who did The Avengers and Much Ado About Nothing; very famous, successful guy. And he attributes some of his success to the next action thinking from GTD. But Joss said, and this was in a Fast Company article about him. They interviewed him, where he talked about GTD. But he also said, “You know people say, ‘You should do the hardest thing first to get it done.’ I just do the thing I want to do first. The thing I feel like doing. The thing that’s most fun. That’s the first thing I go do.” On the other hand, I both agree with that and at the same time, it’s been very useful to build a habit of, what most has my attention, usually something I’m avoiding, do that first and then I can snack on all the other things for the rest of the day as a reward. I think both of those go. But to your point, I think that has to do with what you just said. We have to go with whatever our flow tends to be personally.
T: You know, I feel like this is a deeper GTD principle. Sometimes I see people who think that the purpose of GTD is to force themselves to do something they really don’t want to do. And to me it’s the opposite. If I can give some context to this…actually I remember the source, it was from a book by Josh Waitzkin, who is the former chess prodigy on which the film Searching for Bobby Fischer was based. The exact quote was…so he’s parlayed his chess work into coaching high performers from all different fields. And he says in his book, which is called The Art of Learning, I think the single best quote from the book, he says, “More and more I believe that high performance depends on your ability to do work that is in line with your unique disposition.” Let me connect that to, there’s an author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, who has become quite well known. He writes on chaos and uncertainty. And he has a great thought from one of his books that just made me laugh out loud. He says that “Procrastination is the most useful, or one of the most useful human thought processes.” I mean, imagine a world where we had no procrastination. If there was no procrastination, you would come upon a new project and you would instantly launch into it, and spend hours and hours, days and days, maybe weeks and weeks, before you even decided it was worth doing. Or it was something valuable to you. He describes procrastination as a naturalistic filter. That if he’s procrastinating on something, something deep in his psyche is resisting it or numb to it for actually, usually a good reason. This now comes full circle to GTD. Which is either it’s unclear, it’s not actually important, it’s not in line with his values…there’s something wrong with it that his psyche is telling him, “This is not attracting me — it’s not something that you should be doing.”
D: Yeah, as I say, the line between intuitive holding and procrastination is very thin. My definition of procrastination is, you’re not doing something but you’re feeling bad you’re not doing it. As opposed to “Hmm, I don’t feel like doing it right now.” And that’s not procrastination. That’s more what you’re talking about.
D: You may just be paying attention to another bell that’s ringing.
T: I forget what the original question was…
D: Well, we were talking about, we need relaxation. We need to back away from all this. And you know, it’s true, people would listen to you and the way you talk, obviously the specter of OCD comes in: “Wow, why on Earth would you spend so much time and detail trying to track all of that stuff?” “What difference would that really make?” At the same time, you have the freedom to do the really cool stuff. That’s to me why I do GTD. You know, people meet me, those of us who’ve really been around GTD for a while and say, “You don’t seem anything like we thought you would be.” You’re a lot more laid back. Act a lot more spontaneous. You seem to be having a lot more fun. Not be so quite buttoned-down and corporate as it seemed like that stuff should be. So there is a paradox here. And I think you’re right. The future of both our awareness of work and our awareness of productivity.
So let’s, as we’re kind of wrapping toward the end of this, let’s go to your thoughts of the future Tiago. Because, I love how you think about all this stuff and how you’ve been putting it together. But I’m curious where that vector is going, or how you see it.
T: I think technology is an obvious one. I really feel that it’s really reaching an inflection point where, until now, technology has been sort of a support, or an accessory, or maybe an accelerator of behaviors and methods that were completely possible before; it’s just technology allows us to do them more mobile, or faster, or whatever. But I think that the inflection point is that technology is reaching a level of advancement where it’s fundamentally changing things. We now have access to capabilities and new horizons. I don’t know, maybe there’s new horizons opening up in your Six Horizon model that are only becoming available to us because of technology.
Just to give one example, is Slack. Slack is a messaging and collaboration tool that is the fastest-growing and fastest-adopted enterprise productivity software program of all time, by a huge margin. In I think, less than two years, or maybe around two years, it’s reached…I don’t know how many million users but, more than a billion dollar valuation. I’ve never seen anything be adopted so quickly. And it’s causing something to happen that I never thought…I’m hearing something that I never thought I would hear from teams that are adopting Slack, which is “Slack is replacing email,” “I’m getting fewer and fewer emails,” “Email is becoming less and less central to my work.” That’s something I did not think I would hear in my lifetime.
D: Funny. And why do you think Slack hit a nerve?
T: I think it’s a number of things. I mean, one thing is the overall power of messaging. It’s been somewhat of a surprise in Silicon Valley…I can say just from my conversations with people who work in tech startups, the rise of all the messaging apps — Viber, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger. Messaging apps now take 40% of our time spent on mobile devices, and mobile devices take up more time than computers by quite a bit. So really, a quite significant portion of our time is in messaging apps. And that’s causing a number of things. We’re becoming more comfortable with them. We now think of messaging not as something you do with your teenage son or daughter, but as a forum in which to complete actual serious work. And along with that, a whole culture is being created. All sorts of best practices of how to communicate via messaging, how to make requests, how to use emojis, how to set meetings and conduct meetings via tools like Slack. This is a whole sub-culture of productivity that really is being created from scratch right before our eyes. Which I think is pretty exciting. Disruptive, and sometimes distracting, but also exciting.
D: Interesting — I just read your new blog post which was great, about the reading apps. And that, in a way, technology is allowing us to go back, or at least have access to some of the deeper, richer things, that is not so surface, which is what most people blame the digital world for being, you know — skimming the surface and not letting people have real conversations or do real thinking or do real leading. So it’s fascinating. Talk for a minute anyway, how you see that. Because I think that’s also part of the future. That, added to your work and your writing on Evernote basically as being a decision support tool. Having data in all different kinds of places that allow you to scan and see all kinds of associations you wouldn’t necessarily see otherwise. So in a way the digital world is bringing us back to more of a natural kind of flow, that matches deeper, cooler things to think about and more value to add. Big topic, I know we could probably talk another 14 hours on that one.
T: So just to give a little bit of context for your listeners, my last two blog posts were on Read It Later apps, specifically Pocket, which is the one I use, and the one before that was on Evernote. And those are…when you see the length of those posts, they’re closer to research projects than blog posts.
D: I know. That was impressive.
T: They’re kind of the result of quite a bit of research and experimentation actually. I like to encapsulate all my learnings in the form of a blog post. And actually the Evernote blog post is going to be published I believe tomorrow, Friday, on the Evernote blog, so that’s an easier place to find it. But basically yeah, what I’m noticing with technology is that, you have to design how you use it. The product designers who design, say, Evernote, they have in mind how you’re supposed to use their app, and they create the features and the instruction and even all the content they produce around how to use Evernote. But you have to at some point decide for yourself: “What does Evernote mean to me?” “What do notebooks mean to me?” “What do notes mean to me?” And you have to kind of almost impose your system that reflects your values and your priorities and your projects onto the tool. And I think with Evernote that’s more obvious — you download Evernote and open it and it’s just a blank slate. You can use it any one of a thousand ways. Which I think is both its strength and its weakness. But what surprised me with Pocket…I mean, Pocket and all the other Read It Later apps could not be simpler. Basically, they add a button to your browser, and you click a button, and it saves whatever you were looking at for later. And yet, even with something so simple — it’s basically a utility; it does one thing — even something that simple you have to think very carefully about how you integrate that simple utility with your workflow. Otherwise it can be more of a disruptive force than a productive force.
T: If I could say one more thing, there’s a little story about returning back to nature. I had an experience recently that I would love to tell you about. I went on a meditation retreat, a 10-day meditation course. 10 days, completely silent, no talking, no reading, no writing, no exercising, basically you meditate all day long and you sleep and you eat and that’s it. At first it was a little bit stressful because I didn’t have all my tools. Of course, I got away from the day to day and my mind was just exploding with all these ideas and business opportunities and things I wanted to start and new projects. And after a few days of just quite consistent meditation and not being able to write anything down my mind kind of calmed down and toward the end of the course — I’d say around the 7th or 8th day — I had this experience where I stepped out of the meditation hall, and after about seven or eight days of nothing but meditation, my mind was in this state where…I think it was the first time in my life I’ve experienced true…what you describe as “mind like water.” I would just look around and look at a leaf on a tree and have absolutely nothing else on my mind but that leaf. I’d see a fly flying through the air, and my attention was so focused, it kind of felt like a spidey sense. I could track the fly through the air as if it was in slow motion. And what that experience revealed to me was, the only time I’ve felt anything close to that, is when my workflow and my systems were completely, totally clear, current, and complete. And the experience was very inspiring for me because I realized those of us who work in productivity and work with workflow, that to me is really the goal. If we can create just a little bit of an experience like that, of being absolutely, totally in the moment, for people who are living their normal, daily lives, I think that’s a huge deal.
D: Well, very cool. That’s certainly a shout-out for the GTD process. At least, the intention of the GTD process. Because, as you know, I’ve rewritten the book, and really more focused on appropriate engagement. It’s not really about working harder. It’s about just being present with whatever you’re doing. You don’t have to go very far. Just pay attention to what’s got your attention, and what do you need to do to get your attention off of it? In a way, it’s gotten even simpler to start to understand that in that way.
T: Yes, absolutely.
D: Ok, we need to bring this to a close right now. And I’d love to revisit this at some later time as well, Tiago. Folks listening to this — if they wanted to access you and what you’re doing and some of your writing, etc., is that ok and how would they do that?
T: Of course. I’m on Twitter, @fortelabs. And then, for everything else basically is the website. Same letters, fortelabs.co. You can find contact information, my blog is there, the services I provide, a blurb on my background and basically everything else.
D: Tiago, thanks so much. This has been a fascinating conversation and one that we will continue I’m sure.
T: Thank you David. It’s been a real pleasure.
D: Take care.
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