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Discussion Forum > The tyranny of achievement

I recently watched a TED talk on 'finding your passion' which suggested that we should seek out fulfilling work. I've been thinking about how the same criticisms might apply to productivity systems:

To-do lists are very goal oriented, which is at odds with the productive state of 'flow'. That is to say, that they keep us in a future focused mindset rather than in the present.

They encourage an almost antagonistic relationship with our work. It's there to be crossed off a list, rather than something that we can enjoy bringing the full force of our creativity and focus to. You might characterise it as a quantity over quality approach.

I also suspect that we might have put achievement based productivity on a pedestal. We know that achievement itself does not make us happy, or that it delivers a fleeting sense of accomplishment. Doing fulfilling work for its own sake can bring us to life in a way that checking things off a list in the pursuit of an end-goal cannot.

What do you think?

Is there a case for dealing differently with potentially 'deep' work?
February 21, 2017 at 19:46 | Unregistered CommenterJD
I've had an analogy in my head today as I worked on some things and other things were put on a list for possible later review. There is the main stream of working on something and then there is the detritus that gets picked up along the way. Might be worth figuring out how to keep things more pure, but not sure what to make of it yet. No List methods might be one way, or perhaps a prioritized project list as a feeder list could be part of it (that might be an alternative method "Systematic No List" as suggested by Mark's "Systematic, Fast, and Flexible" blog post series). Although one of the No List on its own sounds more like what you are getting at. It's focused on the present (today, anyway), and it's pretty much just what you want to do now.
February 21, 2017 at 23:25 | Unregistered CommenterDon R
The captcha was a sign that said "priority"; maybe it's a sign. Wait, it's literally a sign. Just kidding.
February 21, 2017 at 23:26 | Unregistered CommenterDon R
GED's rotating timeboxes are a systematic no-list, if you arrange the timebox categories so that they cover everything.
February 22, 2017 at 0:26 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Bernie, can you elaborate on that? I don't remember the rotating time boxes and can't find my copy of GED at the moment.
February 22, 2017 at 5:14 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
JD, here is a diagram illustrating the conflict you describe.

Arrows indicate "necessary conditions". I.e., in order to have a good life, you need both "flow" and the achievement of goals. To have flow, you need to be oriented to the present. To have achievement, you need to be oriented to the future. You can't do both simultaneously. Thus there is a conflict.

With this kind of "evaporating cloud" conflict diagram, to eliminate the conflict, you need to challenge the assumptions underlying the cause-and-effect arrows. Once you've invalidated an arrow (or more than one), you've eliminated the conflict.

You seem to be going about it as follows. Achievement of goals is not really necessary to have a good life. Thus, you eliminate the conflict by eliminating that requirement.

To me that seems contradictory. You are replacing the achievement of one kind of goal, perhaps external goals, with another kind of goal, the goal to live in the present, in a flow state. Presumably, you don't already exist in this state indefinitely; if you did, this wouldn't even be a discussion. And presumably, it doesn't just happen spontaneously -- it is something that must be achieved in the future. It is a goal you need to achieve. Thus the contradiction.

I would approach the conflict differently. The arrow I would challenge is the assumption that "future oriented" is fundamentally in conflict with "present oriented". If my desire is to live more in the present, in a flow state, then I must put systems and habits into my life that help create and sustain this. And whenever I am bothered by the concerns of the future (like food, shelter, etc.), then I want to ensure, as quickly as possible, that these concerns are dealt with quickly and easily, so I can return to "the present".

So I would argue there is a kind of interdependence between the two states, and it's possible to find a virtuous cycle that integrates the two and leads to more of a sense of being in the present, in a flow state:

What do you think?
February 22, 2017 at 6:54 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

What I remember of GED is that we have a few items which we timebox in a rotation. We do a very small timebox, say 5 minutes, for each item, and then we escalate to 10-min timeboxes, then 15-min, etc. When one of these items is finished, we cross it out and find something to replace it with, restarting the new item's timebox at 5 minutes. This way, time allotment swings automatically toward unfinished items.

I remember these items being specific projects or general categories. When I read GED, I was doing my taxes and setting up some shelving, so my item list looked something like this: Tax Return, Shelf Setup, Professional Project, Maintenance. By "maintenance," I meant all the ongoing little necessities such as checking email and doing dishes.

Also, for each item, we wrote a fairly small, concrete goal to consider "finished." So, my Tax Return timebox didn't keep escalating until I'd finished the entire return, but only until I finished some small piece that I'd identified in advance. Then I could choose another small piece of Tax Return or replace the Tax Return category with something else if I'd had enough for the day. That is why these items are "categories." You keep identifying new smallish tasks to complete in each category and sometimes replace the category.

So, then, if we set up GED timeboxes such as Career, Family, Personal, and Maintenance (ongoing necessities again), then those categories cover everything, and we have a comprehensive no-list. We can even make reminder lists of tasks in those categories and feed them into the timebox system, of course being careful to throw them away each evening. (wink)
February 22, 2017 at 10:37 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
For some reason, the second link I posted above is not working. So I edited the first link to include both diagrams there.
February 22, 2017 at 15:41 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

I'm trying to both restate what I think you are saying, and also think how I could implement this.

I always seem to need to write everything down, get everything out of my head, and that becomes my no-list.

Combining this with the GED timeboxing as you describe it, I suppose I could do this:
1. Get everything out of my head by writing a quick list on my whiteboard.
2. Set timer for 5 minutes.
3. Give each item on the list 5 minutes. Maybe some are finished; most remain.
4. Repeat from step 2, but increasing to 10 minutes, then 15, etc.

How would you respond to new incoming tasks / interruptions? Perhaps something like this?
5. Add new items whenever you want.
6. Whenever you add new items, reset the timer duration back to 5 minutes.

What do you think?
February 22, 2017 at 15:52 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

I agree that there is an interdependence between process and outcome based thinking, and I think you're right in that systems could support both working in a meaningful way and achieving meaningful things. I was secretly hoping that the discussion would take that direction!

I feel that to-do lists (especially) create conditions that make flow significantly less likely and encourage us to measure our success solely by the number of things we did, ignoring the quality of the experience.

So, I'm interested in whether we think there could be a type of to-do list which would help, or a system which would facilitate switching appropriately between deep focus and achievement.
February 22, 2017 at 18:34 | Unregistered CommenterJD

It seemed to me the key with GED was limiting those timebox categories. Three to five work nicely, maybe six if one or two of them never receive large items (fast lane). More than that, and it take too long to get around all the timeboxes, destroying the "often" of "little & often." If you are going to list more than 3-6 items at once, I imagine you'd have to queue them for the limited number of timeboxes.

When I made the comment above about GED, it had just occurred to me that GED is a no-list method, and there was a simple way to make it fairly systematic, just by arranging the timebox categories so that they cover everything. Each time you focus on a timebox, in no-list fashion, you think of the top things you need to do in that category and pick one to activate.

I don't have any great answer for connecting GED to a larger list, but if we operate it as a true no-list, it is as systematic as the coverage of those timebox categories.

I'm pretty sure Mark's GED book says something like this, because I remember experimenting with broad categories like this when I was reading the book. My only contribution here is to make the connection between the material in that book and Mark's recent speculation about a systematic no-list.
February 23, 2017 at 1:09 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Bernie - I see your point! Very interesting observation.
February 23, 2017 at 3:36 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Indeed! I feel the Bern!
February 23, 2017 at 8:33 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher

I'm looking at GED now, and there is a section very helpful to what you are pondering. Mark begins with an exercise of working on a project in 5-minute sprints, then in escalating sprints, and then alternating two projects. He then suggests alternating a series of categories so "all areas of work are covered" and also describes a way of timeboxing a catch-all list with as many as 20 items.

In my Kindle version, this occurs at locations 1198 (45%) through 1395 (53%) of 2678, which is essentially Chapter Seven.

Headings contained in Chapter Seven
- Working in short bursts is the key to overcoming resistance
- Bursts should be lengthened as momentum builds up
- Rotating systematically round a list of categories ensures all areas of work are covered
- Using checklists rather than individual items allows work to be done in context
- You can use bursts for rest periods as well
- Putting these principles together results in a powerful system for dealing with free-flowing items

And he finishes with suggestions for keeping straight all the papers involved in rotating among many free-flowing items.
February 23, 2017 at 8:39 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Great coincidence! I just finished GED and was thinking too that this could be the base for a systematic No-List System.
The key to making this successful should be defining the right number (not too many) of categories and proper checklists to support each category - maybe including all current committments in that role/category. I wouldn't rewrite those each day, however

What I also very much liked was how this method integrates timeboxing into the daily workfllow.
February 23, 2017 at 9:32 | Unregistered CommenterDino
I must read it again sometime!
February 23, 2017 at 10:15 | Registered CommenterMark Forster