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Doing a simple productivity app has made me think about the way that technology is an enabler, but not the principal actor. Technology, when used individually, doens’t make things happen, as much as it creates a space for things to happen more easily. The ‘gotcha’ here is that technology, by itself, relied on as the prime mover of your strategy, won’t work if the internal motivation isn’t there. A beautiful ship of technology will just sit in the dock without someone to guide and direct it.

Let’s talk about productivity, starting with its modern-day patron saint, David Allen.


If you’ve never read the book, here’s the executive summary: do everything that you can within a couple of minutes, right now; split your single to-do list into multiple sub-lists, with different time frames (daily, weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc.); keep on top of your lists – review them at the start and the end of your day – and make sure that everything gets ‘captured’ in them, that you’re not sloughing off activities that never make it onto your list.

That’s it. The rest is all implementation.

I read in an interview with Allen later, and a couple of unexpected gems came out of it. One was that he’d been heavily into the self-realizations movements of the 60’s and 70’s, so that his thinking about organization had a large contemplative component as well. His related insight was that self-organization was meant as a doorway into something larger, a more open-ended, philosophical exploratoin of what you wanted to be doing, and how you could position yourself to do it. Reading between the lines, that meant that all the levels of organization in his system, in other words, are meant to propel you into this.

I think I’m getting an idea of why that is.

The ‘naive’ idea of self-organization is that we need it because we’re not smart enough – we know what we need to do but we can’t hold it all in our limited brains. It’s basically a technical problem, without an emotional component (emphasis mine). If the technology of the Matrix ever comes to pass, we’ll be able to dispense with all of this, hold a zillion tasks in mind, and do them all one at a time, once the shackles of our processors have been thrown off.

The problem, of course, is that it isn’t like that.

In actuality, once you get the implementation down and start seeing regular reminders of your to-do list, the actual problem comes into focus. The problem of not staying on task is mostly an emotional problem, of not being motivated to do the things you’re ‘supposed’ to be doing. Or, put less confusingly, without the agency of an implied master self, the real problem is that you’re ambivalent about what you should be doing, basically averse to doing the things that you need but don’t want to do. A to-do list can remind you of what that is, but it can’t remove the emotional block behind it.


You could remember it just fine, in other words, if you wanted to do it. Because you don’t, you intentionally push it out of your awareness. The main function of the to-do list, it turns out, is to annoyingly push it back in.

That’s why it’s so easy to ‘forget’ to use the planner, because on an emotional level your primary response to it is go away. Except it doesn’t, so you have to come up with the to-do list in the first place, and the process repeats itself endlessly – aversion begets to-do list, which begets more aversion, which begets an improved version of the to-do list, which begets a more sophisticated version of aversion that disguises itself as ‘forgot to use the day planner,’ etc.

Which means that the primary accomplishment of the to-do list, actually, isn’t the metric-based one of building up a lot of data points. It’s main accomplishment is that it shows you repeatedly of what you’re pushing out of awareness. It shows you what you’re intentionally trying to forget.

Through this repetition, that also illuminates the emotional energy that you’re putting into getting rid of it, each time. The to-do list shows you what you’re actively trying not to do, and prevents you from believing the fiction that you’d do it all, if only you remembered.

So it reorients you in the direction of motivation, and then shows you why that’s important – by pushing your tasks into awareness over and over, and then showing you that nothing happens unless you’re motivated to do them. Motivation is everything. The technology is just there to help.


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