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We Still Don’t Get Things Done (wired.com)
425 points by gk1 49 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 176 comments



The more project management tools I have to work with, the less likely I am to work for or with a company.

I have a somewhat similar stance on software architecture. Sure, I’m TOGAF certified but if you actually expect me to work with notation correct Archimare/UML/whatever and not just draw boxes on a napkin you’re either insane or sell a product with no competition.

This is anecdotal of course, but after 30 years of working with hundreds of companies to supply our municipality with software, we have yet to see a correlation between quality and “best practices”. It doesn’t matter if companies do this or that testing and use the full confluence suite or if they just pull spaghetti out of their asses and support is a phone call… the quality is the same over time, hell, often we get more from the spaghetti companies than the “best practice” ones. You might think that it’s a short term thing and that the spaghetti and no testing catches up, but it doesn’t. Maybe because we don’t have to fund those 8 people, that you never really learn the role off but it sure isn’t technical, that sit in on every meeting as opposed to talking directly with the spaghetti slinger and a sales person? I’m not sure, and I’d love to tell people that following this or that “best practice” is the way to go, but that’s just not what our data shows.


I see it as a similar problem as we (humans) have with all systems: we mistake the system for the actual solution. It's not.

You need to focus on the real problem at hand, and devise/adapt a correct solution in context. Systems and frameworks provide helpful tools and templates, but they all require contextual adaptation.

FWIW this is what I like about the foundations of Agile for project management. The manifesto points all direct you away from your tools and processes and towards the actual problem. eg "People over process," "working code over documentation," etc. Basically the people on the team should focus on working software, communicating with the customer, and adapting to change. Their processes, documentation, contracts, and plans should all be aligned to that solution, not the other way around.

And out of that... we got millions or scrum certificate weilding alcolytes who will tell you that if your project failed, it's because you didn't do their system religiously enough. God certainly has a sense of irony.


Yeah a lot of companies go like "we're going agile" and just do the tools bit with Jira and its Kanban and rigid time management.

It's more like ticking boxes and pretending to know what they're doing than actual agile project management.

So now we're stuck with a lot of overhead crap and even more workload. And the system actually slows us down when we try to adapt to a changing environment.

Problem is mainly that this happened because the director of project management really liked the reports from Jira and thus the main reason for it all is to get as much data as possible in there (notice how 'accurate data' does not seem to be a focus :) )


Jira to me is a mostly a tool for managers to coerce developers into a more manager-friendly interpretation of “agile” than anything else rather than something developers would use out of choice.

When you’re doing something for the sole purpose of keeping someone off your back about it then you inevitably half-arse it, so in reality we’re paying Atlassian a small fortune for nothing more than a wall of fairly bullshit estimates. Don’t even get me started on how slow and flakey the UI is on the cloud version, it’s such an intolerably poor quality bit of software to actually use as a dev. I’d be very surprised if Atlassian actually dogfooded the cloud version because it really is an abysmal effort.


Yeah and the thing is... I'm not even a developer. I'm an IT Architect. It's just a really poor fit so they 'bend' all the development stuff to make it mean other things (like the epics). When you do need that you know the methodology is just a poor fit. But anyway... they want the entire Enterprise IT team to work off Jira because "we need to be agile". And because of the cool reports. So the director can sit at his desk and see the cool graphs and pretend they actually show him what's going on. Obviously they don't :) For example, some of the stuff we're not recording is how teams work together on inter-team stuff (like endpoint architects working to enable something for the network team). Everyone just makes up their own labels. It was a mess from day 1.

And yeah it's slow but not super slow. Pretty sure we have onprem though. Because I can only access it on VPN. Unless they fiddled with some port forwarder which I wouldn't put past them.


This is not unusual. Something like ISO9001 Quality Management is literally a checklist of pleasant aspirations which leaves companies to define the details for themselves.

So as long as you define what "leadership" or "customer satisfaction" (and the rest) mean to you, and you have a vaguely plausible but not necessarily effective process that ticks each of the boxes, you have a quality management process. And you can apply for - and will probably get - formal quality management certification.

In reality you can have zero actual leadership or customer satisfaction. But you have a process - so OK.


My shorthand for that is “Bureaucracy allows us to ignore reality”. If we ignore reality enough, bureaucracy / following a process will give us predictability and control, and will shield us from unwelcome challenges. Reality, otoh, is unpredictable and merciless in confronting us with challenges. The more mandatory we can make that process, the more “following process” becomes the sole criterion for “doing it right”, the more we'll be able to insulate ourselves from bothering with the whims of reality. It seems clear to me that this dynamic has the structure of a perverse incentive, even more so when you have considerable influence over the rules of that process.

This isn't to say that we should just do away with all process. There are good, even life-saving reasons why processes exist, but a process alone is no cure-all, and an overdose will paralyze us.


So unbelievably well said, I've got chills. Exactly the thoughts I've been harboring for the last decade or so. Just my 2c to add:

- Abstractions/models tend to completely replace reality. We, software engineers, are very prone to that sort of thinking. Another prominent category are accountants: leaders drive their businesses only looking at the "map" of accounts; governments do the same with their constituents.

- "Paralyze" is exactly the right term. Excessive bureaucracy actively discourages any creative action, for the sake of illusion-of-control.

Cannot upvote this post high enough, you made my day. Maybe humanity is not completely hopeless yet.


One of my jobs a long time ago was to update the quality management process of a relatively large company. I wasn't responsible for the actual text changes, but properly integrating them.

It was the first time I'd read ISO 9001 documentation end to end, and it was eye opening.

Total bullshit.

It ensured there was a paper trail documenting the total bullshit, of course, but it nevertheless was total bullshit that said a lot about describing what was done, but nothing about ensuring it actually worked as it should.

This same place had locked doors to the interior stairwell so consultants like me could not even get into areas we were not assigned to because of work done for clients like the police, but had confidential documents about police infrastructure sitting unprotected on the machine I was assigned.

To me that was a good indication they ran everything including security how they handled quality management: it was just a box ticking exercise. Document things and track deviations rather than care about actually getting things right.


It's like a finger pointing at the moon


Love that expression.

I recently read this about it:

https://essenceofbuddhism.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/what-the-...


excellent reference, and bang on. I will use this the next time I try to explain the problem.


Credit due where credit is due: these project management software companies have done a good job of convincing people they need it.

I've taken to using tools that most closely mimic notepad+pen or whiteboard+marker. Increasingly I am finding that a physical whiteboard, markers, and post-its are good enough. And if you need to create backups, the image quality on any smartphone is very, very good these days.

The more time spent working on the thing that manages your work, the less you are working!


What they do is give middle management something to do.

Often questionably necessary, middle management has a hard time doing something when engineers understand the product and upper management has the right balance of setting direction and entrusting decisions to the makers. So they start asking the engineers to do things and get upper management on the train of wanting reporting. Doing that with pen-and-paper engineering and people with context is HARD... so all of these tools exist to make this middle layer of doing work better.

And arguably unnecessary people earn a lot of money by convincing themselves and others that they are necessary, so companies get to be organized to have these high overhead tools to support this high overhead style of organization.

Now to be honest some level of organization is necessary, and becomes necessary as the enterprise and product grows in complexity, but very very few people work long enough or with a diverse enough set of organizations to be able to see what is necessary and when and what is not.

If you hire people and put them in a position and tell them they have to work a certain number of hours they will find or create work to do. Oftentimes this work is not better than doing nothing but the WASP work-ethic and general cultural norms really can't handle the idea that smart, important, useful people can provide the most value sometimes by not doing anything until they are needed.


> general cultural norms really can't handle the idea that smart, important, useful people can provide the most value sometimes by not doing anything until they are needed.

Thank you for this comment. I have had this is mind for quite some time but I never could phrase it in such a clear, articulate, phrasing.


I’d say that they give middle management an out, a way to make their jobs “easy” by just throwing a tool at the problem. Middle management should be doing what middle managers do in physical production processes: removing barriers, and reviewing processes for continuous improvement. For whatever reason, management science has not caught up to the ubiquity of knowledge work in the modern economy.


From my perspective, some of what middle managers do is helpful, much of what they do could just was well not be done. My point being that these tools create work from top to bottom. There's information to fill out, statuses to be updated, progress to be tracked, reports to be generated, etc. etc. etc. which all fall on to a spectrum of "things which have utility" and "things which are busywork" often heavily favoring the latter. They make management jobs "easier" in that they create a clear set of "something to do" which is different than making their jobs easier in the mode of "providing value to leaders, makers, investors, etc." All being done in a cargo cult of "this is how you should work" and satisfying a certain kind of person's desire for things to be "organized".


I wonder if HN’s demographics contributes to a general disdain for middle management because, from my non-software engineering point of view, software doesn’t need a lot of management to produce.

Hardware on the other hand, needs an organization layer on top of the production layer. Removing barriers, creating traceability, improving processes, and trying to get multiple different teams to work together efficiently.


Hardware does indeed need more organization and generally complexity and size requires more organization but there is a fairly constant trend of company age also linking to more and more organization regardless of need. The ever expanding bureaucracy is a problem everywhere.


To be honest, after playing with stuff like Enterprise Architect, and even JIRA - they could be game changer in many places I worked in.

But that would require a lot less gatekeepng and other artificial moats around them, and possibly a rather more open organisation model which wouldn't fly with middle management (even if your specific adjacent middle managers would like to, they don't operate in vacuum). And that's before you hit cost reasons. Or cost of training, especially since companies really, really don't like training people.


If you've ever worked in manufacturing, real Kanban boards are messy but organized for the people to know what's going on. Every Kanban board I've seen is unique in its own ways. Some use post-it notes and some specialized tokens that magentically attach to the board. Design of the board and layout can vary widely, but generally when you see one, it is a workshop organization tool made by people who feel comfortable using it.

Take away is that just because they're not using an off-the-shelf project management / WIP management tool, doesn't mean they're not organized.


Whiteboards are better in every way but one : a whiteboard doesn't sync with anything central or remote. You have to decide if this matters to you. If yes get a tool, if not get a whiteboard.


If no sync means forcing the engineers out of their desks and onto the floor so they actually talk to the production teams and hold in their hands the product that so far has only lived in CAD for them, then I’ll take no-sync any day of the week.

Of course, that’s not feasible but hey, a guy can dream.


it's not "syncing" yet but https://sharetheboard.com does make it easy to save and send whiteboard content with other people and tools (in real time). one-click integrations are a few weeks off. syncing is just one step after that.


I've seen manager using the physical board to lock people in a room at their mercy... or to create busy work for them, to justify their existence. That's seriously messed up.

The whiteboard was good to move forward a discussion, explain concept and other niceties. To organize work ? Hell no.


Say what you will about Amazon culture in general (I’ve never worked there)… but one of their leadership principals is Dive Deep

> Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.

IMO this particular trait correlates well with a need for less process / project management software. I really believe if more people did this companies would be better off.

Note: this isn’t the same thing as micromanaging but I understand why some people think it is.


I worked for two years at Amazon. My managers were not diving deep at all. At least not more than any other average manager in any other average company.


I worked a contract at Amazon. If the managers were doing anything other than lying about timelines, I couldn't see it.

Also the dev stack was horrifyingly opaque. Every time an Amazon recruiter contacts me I have to push down the urge to explain how awful it is to work there and no thank you.


Dive deep is more for engineers. Managers can only go so deep because they must be broad. Yes, I know it says "leadership". I was there for 4 years.


I appreciate the point you’re trying to make, but I disagree with this.

It’s something that has frustrated me, as a manager, when fellow managers said it to me. I feel like it gives permission to managers to detach themselves from the reality of their organization.

The trick is to know WHEN to dive deep, because you are right that managers also have to maintain a broad perspective.

But being able to sniff out problems and then dive into them has always been the hallmark of a great manager/executive, at least in my own experiences.


I'm there now (for only a short time), and I'm remarkably struck by how good the culture is, and it's the exact opposite of their reputation. Maybe team dependent, but I'm pretty happy with my manager.


I'm having the same experience myself. I've been in the role for less than a year, and the culture is completely opposite of what I expected. My team and managers are fantastic, the workload is less than a number of my previous jobs, its been one of the better jobs I've ever held (Although for all I know I've just had extremely bad luck with jobs for the last few decades and not realized it!).


For anyone wondering what "Archimare" refers to: https://www.visual-paradigm.com/guide/archimate/what-is-arch...


My favorite job and most efficient I have ever been was when all we used was a set of trello boards with a list of dev, admin, and auxiliary tasks. Dead simple to manage, everyone can see what's going on, and we would just have a meeting every week or 2 to discuss where we are and coordinate on the next steps to repopulate the boards.


I don't exactly understand your criticism on best practices.

You seem to imply that UML or other project management software are considered best practices. I have never heard that. Or rather the opposite. Not using UML is currently considered as best practice.

But maybe it depends who you ask.


Yeah I studied UML during uni. It took a long time to 'click' and when it did I learned some useful concepts from it. Only then did OOP really make sense.

However it's way too laborious using it for everything and it becomes a burden when things get complicated. For simple things it just doesn't really help because they're simple anyway.

As a learning tool I think it was great. In production? Well I use it every day. The book props up my keyboard on my desk which happens to be 2cm too low :)


UML done "right" is when you relegate it to simply being a shared vocabulary used when you have a need to communicate details, the same way "everyone" understands a basic flow chart.

Having a shared vocabulary is great.

Modelling everything out with it, on the other hand, is a nightmare.


It's usually government types (DoD, FDA) pushing for this stuff, and lots of it. The thinking appears to be, "The more the paperwork, the better the product".


Thank you for writing this. It exactly aligns with my experience.

When such a rant actually feels sensible and pragmatic, there must be something seriously wrong.

I don't mean actual engineers wringing bug free code for a space telescope attitude control system. Seemingly they have it figured out - their code does not seem to fall down at a higher rate than bridges or office buildings. They have a method.

But this method, whatever they implement, is surely too costly for us regular chumps, at least provided your employer, as you put it, has competitors.


You can sell processes as well best practice and manage towards KPIs related to them. Most organizations really don't have enough quality and skill to run in more outcome oriented way, I reckon.

Also, most best practices peddled are supported only be flimsy data and anecdotes - only very few areas that are different. I have seen some examples in medicine that had a lot data behind them (not all of medicine by a long shot, though).


It looks like what you're describing is so called "Agile" (with the uppercase "A") methodology of SDLC[1], not true industry best practices.

Agile was invented by consultants who's agenda was to maximize their profits first, not just to improve SDLC.

Also, there is no silver bullet, and everything is a trade-off, so each best practice has to be adapted to a particular project.

Last thing: sometimes any process, even as bad as "Agile", is better than no process at all. Especially for the dead-on-arrival cases like government-related projects.

--

1. SDLC - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_development_life_cycle


Agile was invented to try to get contracts (both faster, so as small lead time as possible, which is important for smaller companies, plus smaller upfront price tag, which is again very important for smaller dev shops in order to make deals). Less time spent on specifying the what. Just pay us in time & materials, and we'll figure out, plus the requirements are constantly changing anyway. Hence Agile was seen as a big win-win-win.

And I've seen it done well.


Reminds me of antondd's comment on some old thread

> This brings back memories from the days of my early career (an ex-PM survivor here). I would be curious to see some data, even anecdotal, on the success of this approach. Here's some interesting statistics from the industry (not specific to software, but you can extrapolate): http://apepm.co.uk/project-management-statistics/

> In my view, traditional software project management is ineffective. I would put it somewhere between the Myers-Briggs personality test and modern day astrology.

Commendable amount of spaghetti's mentioned though.


It's the kind that matters as much as the quantity.

There's a high correlation for me between bad managers and managers that think they can get you to use a tracking tool that provides zero benefit to yourself and gets used to do their job for them and also occasionally to pick favorites, lay people off, or deny raises/promotions. You're dealing with smart creatives, nobody is volunteering for that shitshow.

You got a tool that helps me keep track of my day or be prepared for meetings? Maybe. But if I have to stop what I'm doing to use it, then no fucking way.


I still think David Allen nailed it in Getting Things Done. Not the system necessarily, but he nailed the diagnosis of why we fail to get things done: an inability to be honest with ourselves about (1) the full scope and scale of the commitments we make, and (2) just how little time and attention we have at our disposal in meeting those commitments.

Really, it’s the same sort of problem that is described in The Goal and The Phoenix Project, but on a personal level. Calendar timeboxing feels like a solution that actually addresses the real problem, although it is challenging to implement for people who are low in conscientiousness (or have ADHD).


For what it’s worth, we (Reclaim.ai - I’m quoted in the article), have a lot of ADHD customers who tell us that we help with time blocking on their calendar.

In particular, the fact that we do it automatically seems to be the thing they appreciate.

Edit: First time I’ve ever been downvoted into negative territory. Clearly I’ve embarrassed myself ;P

Is it because of self promotion? I guess… seems weird though I/my company are literally part of the article, I replied to a specific comment around issues with time blocking for ADHD people, and how automation seems to be a solve to the problem highlighted by the parent.

shrug


Because many with ADHD see a task in their calendar, know they should work on it, but then... 1hr is gone, and nothing got done towards the task... nothing. Because they were doing something else. Now you feel bad. You reschedule it again... and it happens again.

Yes, I see this helping with the over commitment factor. But it doesn't help with doing the thing you need to do.

You need other strategies, such as actually scheduling time to get stimulated prior to tackling that big gnarly task. Or breaking it into just a 5 minute "do the first step" task, so that it's not 1hr of doom scrolling - that maybe a 5 minute chunk of it gets done.

This is my anecdata, though.


This may not be helpful, but for me scheduled timeboxes are not quite the right solution. The real problem is capacity management, so the ideal solution would be something that makes it clear how much space a commitment occupies without simultaneously forcing me to decide when I will do it.

I know there are some who probably insist that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too…


I hear ya and I understand what you’re getting at. We’re working on some ideas that might address it, but as you already surmised it’s a bit of a challenge because the two desires are at odds with each other.

One way we (somewhat) solve for your desire today is that we schedule out all the stuff but then make it fairly easy to decide what to do just-in-time without wrecking the whole schedule. It’s not perfect but it’s been working for some of us.


>One way we (somewhat) solve for your desire today is that we schedule out all the stuff but then make it fairly easy to decide what to do just-in-time without wrecking the whole schedule. It’s not perfect but it’s been working for some of us.

I just tried the service and my immediate reaction was similar to above. I can't just context switch on a whim. It feels super strange to have a list of similar priority things just given hard times in my calendar, even for things like exercise. I do want something much more just-in-time where I am constantly picking from a set of boxes, and urgent tasks and deadlines are managed.


Looking at the landing page I can see only Google calendar is supported with outlook planned. Is there any chance of regular caldav support. I'm interested in the product but I use neither Google calendar nor Outlook.


I absolutely desire to support it, but just being realistic it is at least 1-2 years off, pending our overall success as a company. The market just isn’t big enough to justify the R&D expense at this stage. Sorry :(


Why not? It’s your company. If you think it would be a cool thing to build, and something you desire to support, then build it.


What, even at the expense of his company’s survival?


Thanks for making Reclaim. I’m struggling with ADD and it’s something I’m able to stick to in longer spurts than other things. I’ll reach out on Twitter or by email with some of my pain points.


Just signed up after seeing your service mentioned in the article. Looks great so far!

Time blocking is difficult to stick to and having automation could be the solution. Sorted for iOS does automation as well, but lacks a weekly agenda view.

I’m also trying out Akiflow and have been impressed so far, but their decision to launch without syncing across devices makes me question their long term product vision.


fwiw, I’m going to check out your service. The article’s conclusions are philosophical and introspective, but it does give the practical finding that calendar time blocking is a more effective method than simple todo lists. So trying out the latter is an actionable item. Doing a guided meditation session to emphasize with my future self would be another step- wonder if that’s the future of meditation/wellness/productivity lifehack fads.


In fact the only tool you need for time blocking is Google Calendar --or similar. The rest is just convenience, if any.


Neat. Do you have integrations with Element?


I don’t know what Element is. Tell me more. Integrations are a big part of our roadmap this year, so… maybe!


Probably the claim about "a lot of ADHD" clients. How do you even know? Did you ask?! What percent? Feels real BS to me.


Nope. Didn’t think to ask, in fact. But then they started to tell us. Here are two that did so via Twitter:

https://twitter.com/sadbangs/status/1304685594430377985?s=21

https://twitter.com/etoile/status/1397257456468824065?s=21


Your reply to pixie was really nice and authentic. It's gratifying to know people appreciate what you made!


"talk to your customers" is rule number 1 of just about any startup, any business even. Why would you doubt that they do this?


I would add to that: if you have a non-insignificant amount of customers, they'll talk to you!

That's how I found out my product, which was targeted mainly at younger people, was really popular amongst the older crowd.


I feel like his sentence explains clearly that they are reaching to comment/thank them and making the claim when they do so?


Yeah, at the end of the day we simply have more tasks than time we are able (willing?) to devote to them.

There is no technique or strategy to have infinite productivity.


> Really, it’s the same sort of problem that is described in The Goal and The Phoenix Project, but on a personal level.

Can you say more about this?


Both of those books are about WIP (work in progress). The Goal describes a systematic way to figure out where your production process is getting bottlenecked, and then how to alleviate the constraint and improve overall throughput. The first step is to identify the largest pile of WIP waiting for a particular process step.

The Phoenix Project extends this same methodology to IT processes, which is challenging because unlike physical production processes the workflow (and piles of WIP) are often hidden in databases and ticketing systems (which have an infinite capacity!). Furthermore, the process steps are often not even systematically documented, which makes it impossible to pin down your capacity in the first place.

Personal productivity is definitely more like the latter, since we are capable of holding quite a bit of invisible WIP in our brains.


Good. When we die, we will still have a giant todo list, and that’s OK. That doesn’t mean we haven’t done things, it just means the list didn’t capture the entirety of our desires and goals.

Maybe the point of writing them down is mostly reflective; to contextualize them as much as possible and do the ones that we find most important by some unconscious heuristic. That means there will always be uncompleted things.

Also we have to see when we itemize things to do, we also objectify ourselves as a doer of those things. Which is OK for making things graspable, but ultimately we are not mere doer of things, we are humans in an existential context.

Maybe it is a good thing that we left todo items unchecked, maybe that is our protest against being reduced too much, maybe that procrastination is an attempt at gaining our humanity back, maybe that resistive Netflix binge has some unconscious meaning that needs to be honored.


Thanks for writing this, it's so dead on. Becoming adept at mastering your time, attention, and effectiveness is worthwhile, but so often we mistake the trees for the forest and get caught up in turning ourselves into little efficiency machines.


> , it just means the list didn’t capture the entirety of our desires and goals.

No it doesn't? It means we died before we captured the entirety of our desires and goals, whether or not they all featured on the list.


The YC credo is about building something people want and shipping your MVP ASAP.

What I see time and time again with teams and people prelaunch is a lack of a catalyst to ship their MVP. I've met many people who have an idea and their MVP is 95% complete. Then things stall and feature creep sets in for three reasons:

1) Your MVP will, by design, have technical debt. No one likes debt.

2) Releasing means a shift from being a dev/engineer to being a marketer and building the company that builds the product. And you do this while also working on your technical debt. If your sales stall, then you are stuck in "should I spend more money on time on marketing" hell.

3) Anyone who can build something people want and create an MVP has numerous alternatives for certain income.

So as much as I'd like to ship my MVP next month I procrastinate since I am also a consultant who bills at good hourly rate and I can just do that instead. Good isn't just the enemy of great. Good is also a great hedge against the time waste of building a business that is no fun to operate and isn't profitable which is why many MVPs never ship.

Edit: typos, clarity


This!

I launch my MVP last month. I can't agree more with you.

1. Tech debts. The coder inside my just to write better code. And writing better code is satisfying.

2. After launch, I become more of a marketer than an engineer. Being a marketer is less enjoyable than being an engineer. I secretly know this before launch.

3. Alternative for income. Yes, I have another side project, whose users calling for more features. I can't help spending time on that project.

Thanks so much for clarifying this.

edit: what truly prompt me to launch is the death of my mom, which reminded me I have waited too long to do important things.


Ugh you just described my life for the past month. 95% there. Keep procrastinating on the ship button press (literally CodePipeline approval).


This is _exactly_ why I stopped keeping TODO lists, and started keeping DONE lists instead.

What's a done list? Think of it as an anti-TODO list: your DONE list is where you write down everything that you've, well, done. You know that little dopamine kick you get from filing a neatly-tagged TODO or marking off something that you've finished? A done list is just that, and the only way to use it is to train yourself to stop organising and just...get stuff done.

I love it so much I built my own done list app: https://donel.ist . It's 100% free, and there's even an API to play around with if that's your thing.


I resonate with this, _a lot_.

TODO lists don't work for me at all. I can't seem to remember to actually check the damn things for what to do next. The overhead of maintaining them also eats up time.

The closest thing I've found that works to motivate and keep me on track is SaveMyTime, which is a time tracking app. I used it in a similar manner to how you describe done lists. I tracked exactly what I've done, every minute of every day. The killer feature of SMT is that it forces you to fill out what you've done prior to unlocking your phone screen. Unlike TODO lists, I have no problem checking my phone frequently :)

This meant that I always had a log of where my time was going, what areas of my life needed more attention, where I was spending my time when procrastinating, etc.

The very action of seeing that "What did you do in the last 15 minutes?" reminder helps kick my brain into "That's a good question, what should I be doing now?" mode.

Unfortunately I've since switched to iOS so SMT isn't an option anymore. I can't seem to find a similar app. Most of the existing time tracking apps expect you to actually set timers, which defeats the purpose. Damn Apple and their OS restrictions mean that no one can make an app that lets you show a screen like that prior to unlocking either.

I've settled for writing my own, private app as a replacement. It shows a widget on the home screen (as in-your-face as you can get on iPhones) with the same features as SMT. "X many minutes since you last logged your time, here is a list of likely things you were working on".


Git kind of feels this way when I’m using it properly.


I don't know why you're getting downvoted, but this method is the only thing I've been able to stick with for more than a few days.

I have so many things I both have to do and want to do that keeping a written list of them is pointless and demotivating. Only time-sensitive things get written down, and that's just so I don't forget them before it's too late.

The beauty of this is that it doesn't need an app, just a notebook or text editor.


Interesting to see this exists, I wrote a similar thing for myself which acts like a personal diary. As well as helping with reflection, it's really useful come performance review time. Answering "what did I do this past (year/X months)" becomes just reading the entries you've logged.

Much easier than reading git history, and trying to remember other items that aren't in source control.


The app you've built was exactly the starting point for the founders in the article.


i noticed in the example that there are some to-dos in the list too? Or am i misunderstanding them?


I'm always curious how others "work." I use the Pomodoro technique myself, where I do a minimum of 8 sessions per workday. I try to do 10, but usually, I'm somewhere in between. I do not count meetings.

Every day at work, I show up and do a minimum of 4 straight hours of concentrated and focused work.

I often get told things like: "I'm killing it", "I'm a high producer", etc.

To me, I feel like I'm cheating the system, and I work too little.

What do other people do?


I use a similar technique, combined with meticulous time tracking of every and any minute I spend professionally. As somebody who is self-employed, I quickly realized that working 8+ hours per day is an absolute myth. I count any day where I spent more than 4 hours in a state of focused work as a great day, and weeks where I spend more than 20 hours a week are rare. My personal goal has shifted from trying to work as many hours as possible to compressing these 4 productive hours into the smallest time window possible. Arriving at 10am at work, and leaving at 5pm is close to the optimum in my experience, due to coffee breaks, lunch, and the occasional goofing off on HN.

So no, you're not cheating the system, you are probably running at optimum efficiency. The efficiency of the average employee in terms of productive hours per day spent in chair is ridiculously low.

As a side note: I'm very much wondering whether I should insist on 40 hour work weeks when I get to the point of hiring people. I know there is a movement going for the 4-day workweek, but I personally see more in a 6 hour work day.


I have found similar results in my time tracking.

At best 2 flow hours before lunch. 2 flow hours after lunch. Sometimes bonus 1.5 flow hours after ‘tea time’ (not sustainable). Sometimes bonus 1 flow hour after dinner (completely unsustainable). Basically 4hrs is sutainable. 5.5 is pushing it.

Also I’ve found if you don’t take at least a whole day off (hobbies that look like work don’t quite count as time off) then daily concentration with quickly deteriorates as well.

edit: I should note that these are high concentration hours, my data isn’t as good for non heads down work.



> As a side note: I'm very much wondering whether I should insist on 40 hour work weeks

Productive h/w varies way too much from person to person and by circumstance. I let ppl set their own expected work schedule for the next few weeks by themselves as long as they keep the prediction up to date and their accuracy is reasonable.

I have had ppl get solid 40-60h/w effective time on target, and I have also seen <10h/w. The ppl I bring in are better at predicting their productivity and current life situation than I am. They are competent adults. Let them plan, structure, coordinate by themselves and only interfere if evidently necessary.

One size fits all is nonsense. If in doubt: measure and analyse.


I am a huge procrastinator. After a long time of trying various things I found out that getting shit done is a constant battle that starts very deep inside the mind. I'm talking about the stuff you talk with your therapist and probably not on the first session too.

I get stuff done only as long as I'm keeping the chain of motivation from the inside the mind to the thing I'm doing. If I start thinking that I "have" to do something, the chain is broken, as it means that I don't really want to do it.

When my mind is in the "I chose to do it" mode instead, I don't even need Pomodoro - I can consistently do stuff even if there is some aversion.

The most coherent writing about this I know is the Procrastination Monkey series from Waitbutwhy.


Someone like me!

I’ve been doing the exact same thing for about a year now. My quality of work is up, and so is my salary. I have more time for family and hobbies.

Whenever I’m stuck on a problem and my four hours are up, I right down my thoughts and the next morning I find the solution quickly.

Either you and I are special, hyperproductive but easily exhausted workers, or everyone else is just pretending to work twice as long.


It think it's a combination? No way anyone is working productively for 8 hours. It's not just possible in the long term.


I certainly have plenty of days where I do around 8 hours of productive work. Of course there's also days that I only have 4 hours of productive work. I'd say in a given week there's usually around 2 or 3 days that I am productive for ~8 hours.

I am happy I work for a company that doesn't distract me too much as distractions cause me to lose focus. Every Monday we discuss deliverables and bugs issues with last deliverable. I add new features and fixes in the coming days and Thursday evening or Friday morning I send out a new release for testing. Apart from this there isn't too much communication, this approach allows me to focus on my work most of the time.

My daughter has been home for the last month or so, since schools have closed due to COVID. To stay productive, I only work in the night once my daughter is in bed. This way I have no distractions. I sleep in the morning while my girlfriend takes care of our daughter. In the afternoon I wake up and spend plenty of time with our daughter.

As a freelancer I only bill the hours that I feel I really delivered work. Because of this mindset and because I want to make a decent amount of money, I can't afford to slack too much. An hour of slacking is an hour I not bill to my client. I think some freelancers are probably more liberal in what hours they invoice, e.g. always invoice 8 hours every workday regardless if they really worked 8 hours or been slacking half a day. I think most clients wouldn't be able to tell the difference regardless.


I used to work productive 8+ hours in my early twenties - driven by excitement.

Definitely closer to 4-5 now that I’m close to 30.


>Every day at work, I show up and do a minimum of 4 straight hours of concentrated and focused work.

It's a lot TBH. I'd laugh loudly if I can do that everyday. 4 hours of focused work most likely will deleptes all of my energy and leaves me drained after work.

On my side. I work as a BI developer so a lot of time is spent in meeting. A day with 3 hours of meeting is fairly common but most of the time I don't need to speak so I mute the mic and only turn my focus to them when someone called me for advice.

A lot of time is wasted on things such as waiting for answers from a team in HQ which is located at the other side of the earth. Sometimes someone puts up a shiny new framework with quirky DSL and dumps it on our team with little documentation and you can foresee how much time it takes to "learn" and "unlearn" later. I'd recommend avoiding working in a team that has zero control of the tools and processes.


Not sure I would be able to cope with 3 hr meetings on a regular basis. I try to keep meetings as short as possible (15-30 min), and to have an e-mail thread already having taken place in anticipation of the call.


Yeah I do the same. Some of the meetings are not avoidable though considering I'm in the middle of requirements taking. For the rest I just ait through.

It was a lot worse when I worked in the analytic team. Pretty much everyday is 3 hours of meeting at least.


I tracked my productivity pretty rigorously in college for about a year. My maximum sustainable productivity was somewhere between 6 and 8 pomodoros a day. If a deadline was imminent, I could "crunch" and put in something like 12 a day for a week. Interestingly, I would crash afterwards and can only do about 3 pomodoros-per-day until my brain recovers. The average productivity in the crash + recovery cycle was also 6! So I was just borrowing from future productivity.


You should blog aoout "Pomodoro debt"


I also do ~4 hours of concentrated work first thing in the morning. As my day progresses, my head gets filled with all kinds of shit (good and bad), and it's really detrimental to not just focus but overall output.

In the morning, my mind is fresh and more-or-less distraction free and I feel hyper-focused even without caffeine. Also, by doing a lot in the morning, motivation stacks up and "wins" convert into more "wins" throughout the day

After that long session, I'll usually take an hour break. I try to make sure the last half hour of the break isn't filled with any instantly gratifying content (reddit, yt, etc) so my mind isn't chasing another hit of dopamine when I resume my work. Anecdotally, I feel like this helps me

Whenever I loath doing a task, I tell myself to do it for 5 minutes and if I still don't feel like doing it, then I can do something else. It's a pretty common technique and works wonderfully for me. Something about my pride and not wanting to give up after 5 minutes helps me power through


Anecdotally from myself, colleagues, friends, blogs, and random forum posters, 4 solid hours of knowledge work is right on the nose.

I work on my own time, starting almost immediately after waking up with the sunrise. I get in 3-4 hours while the world is quiet leading up to lunch time; then I'll cook some lunch and go training. Post-lunch work is autopilot admin or operation tasks. There are days where focus is amped up to 11 and the brain fog doesn't set in—but those days are rare.

I'd say that your feelings of "cheating the system" are ingrained by a culture that doesn't apply to your profession.


During school I'd immedietly do all of my assignments. Id spend anywhere from 2 to 6 straight hours getting the entire week of assignments done. By the time I got tired I was done with most of it and had time to do what I wanted. Worked wonders, while everyone else was struggling I was able to get straight A's and work on side projects/video games.

Is the "real" world supposed to be different than this experience?


I don’t know what the real world is, but my experience as a chronic procrastinator with ADD was the polar opposite of this. I did assignments on the bus, wrote speeches during the period before I’d have to give them, etc. I’m mildly messed up from these habits now, but I did (mostly, with some spectacular failures) get away with it at the time.

If something captured my imagination, like certain writing assignments or my programming classes, then I could hyperfocus.


The problem with work is that if you get done, there is always more work to do. So the sprint never ends in a way. In college things are pre-defined and you just have to keep in sync, if you do it early like you or late, the tempo stays the same.

With work there is no tempo. However what happens in reality is that for agile teams there is a little bit of a tempo. A Sprint, which is usually two weeks. In my experience there is always more work in a Sprint that can be done.

The only solution I have found is working, and then letting things settle. If a story takes 3 days and you get done in 4 hours, what do you do?


Increasingly I have absorbed "work" into a three step feedback cycle - something comparable to OODA but with a more contemplative purpose. It's really intended for creative projects but it scales and generalizes nicely to many life things:

1. Principles - why you do a thing

2. Benchmarks - what defines success and failure at making the thing

3. Mediums - how thing is made

The starting point - the review - is often to-do list like. The to-do list's function is mostly taken care of within five minutes of heading out the door for a walk with out-loud self-talking: "So, yesterday this happened. And I want to do this today." Verbalizing it(while a bit surprising to passerby) makes a huge difference because it does the "getting it out of me" function that all these apps do, and then lets the thought disappear into conversation without a List of Shame forming.

But the thing I say I want to do is usually defined in terms of medium(the specific actions I take or techniques I will be using). If I agree I can drill down to specifics until I've designed an exact step-by-step process. If I disagree with that it's going to happen that I loop around to either the principle(is there a good reason?) or the benchmark(am I measuring the goal correctly?).

Blockage can usually be identified by pointing to one part of the cycle that doesn't work. I have to get all three parts to cohere for an action to matter. So I will have days where I act and then learn that the benchmark is wrong, thus needing to throw away the result but getting a little bit closer to coherent design.

All of this happens outside the formal workplace, mind. The principles and benchmarks of the business, after all, are independent of my own. But it pushes me to find useful perspectives and get away from hours-on-clock production, which I needed to do when I started working for myself. I've ended up with all my income deriving from investment, which could also be seen as "cheating the system". I actually worked backwards from the outcome(hmm, somehow that happened) to what made it happen(identifying and refining how I operate). When I do the analysis it's really clear that the times of my life that were most stressed were the ones where obligations made me act, act, act without being able to go through the loop, so now I'm trying to apply it more consciously.


In case it is helpful to anyone, we've recently started a post series in the HourStack blog about this topic. A lot of focus goes into time management strategies, but often prioritization is ignored. It's quite powerful if you can put the two together in a way that works for you as doing the right work is preferable to just doing work.

There are many prioritization and time management strategies out there, but we intro some of the popular ones [0] and we'll be expanding each of those into detailed posts over the coming weeks. The first one about using the Ivy Lee method to prioritize tasks [1].

[0] https://hourstack.com/blog/16-effective-prioritization-and-t...

[1] https://hourstack.com/blog/how-to-use-the-ivy-lee-method-to-...


4 hours, in my experience, is the absolute maximum that a motivated person can work on a heavy task in a day. I can't cite any study for this, but it's a number that I've seen used by really solid teams, internally. Billable hours, of course, exceed 4 hours-- but that's because billable hours includes "boilerplate" work.

4 hours is A LOT. You can get a lot of stuff done in 4 hours. 4 hours x 5 days a week can be sustained long term as well provided that the remainder butt-in-seat work isn't too draining/demoralizing.


My maximum is about 8 hours for a creative / cognitive task, but that requires pushing / forcing yourself on a level comparable with Apollo Creed's training montage.


I have no system. I boot up my laptop in the morning, have a coffee and answer all support emails. After finishing my emails I feel like I've done a lot and start looking at my fun projects (trading bot, IoT projects) Then a server error pops up on Telegram and I realize I was supposed to rewrite the image processing routine. Back to work, and up until late at night before finally finishing this task. In short, event driven task management.


What values do you use for each pomodoro, short break and long break? Also, do you estimate your tasks into how many pomodoros will take?


25 minutes a session. After 4 sessions, I take a break for 15-30 minutes.

When I'm really in the zone I'll skip the break and keep going. Then I'll take ~15.


25 minutes then 5 minute break with extended break(15-30) after 4? Or you mean 25 work, 25, work, 25 work, 25 work, 15-30 break?


My current job title is "Head of T<important techy stuff>". I have to get lots of stuff done. But unless my to-do items are, "play guitar", "play nethack", "go for a walk" or "eat as much spaghetti as you want", chances are I don't _want_ to do those things. I _have_ to do them. I promise, you that a list comprised totally of things that I _want_ to get done - will get done. The things I _have_ to get done? Eh - sometimes they get done, sometimes the can gets kicked down the road, sometimes they get delegated, and sometimes (my favourite) they get cancelled. I have tried countless tools over my decades working, and none have helped me with the motivation issue.


There are loads of things I _want_ to get done that have subtasks that I _have_ to get done. In fact, I'd say all my "have to" to-dos are in service of a want. I _want_ to be healthy and live long, so I _have_ to exercise. I don't want to exercise :P I want feature so-and-so, so I have to implement it. Implementing something is sometimes annoying, but I want it to exist.


Should be "We Still Don't Get Everything Done". Obvious point, but it is crucial to recognize. Lots of stuff gets done, just not everything you thought would. Which is why TODO lists can be useful (for me, anyway), but don't get any more complicated than just a list (I use a chalkboard for non-work and a txt file for work).

1) I need to not forget to do this thing

2) but I can only do one thing right now

3) put the other things on the list, and start working on the one at the top

4) occasionally, the list gets too long, so delete things that you've decided will not get done after all

That's all I expect a todo list to do for me, and that is plenty. The less baroque, the better, and frankly it doesn't merit an "app".


Agree.

Misaligned expectations. A todo list is an overhead. It is only helpful if it actually helps you remember / plan / coordinate / communicate more than the cost of maintenance.

Common misconception / misuse: a todo list is a hard set plan of things that have to get done.

For most, this is simply not reality.

Reality, for most ppl: it is a wishlist.

It is better to have that realisation from the start and avoid the negative psychological effect of unfinished todo items or miscommunication / malcoordination of mistaking it for future reality.

One startup I was helping a while back had serious todo-itis, with the common negative effects. To help: I bought shitty post-it stickers with very poor glue. They would fall to the floor in random fashion after a week or two [1]. This created a ridiculous exercise where the founder would update the notes that were still important to new stickys. But he would also start throwing things away. Stuff that was no longer that important. Wishlist.

Always work on the most important stuff. Items of lower priority can be allowed to fall off the list. By the time you might get around to them the circumstances have probably changed, rendering the original task irrelevant anyway.

1) occasionally by sabotage


I really like this example. If it's not worth the effort to re-write on a Post-it, it's probably not worth doing.


The plain ole todo list works for me as well, but where I really tend to stall out is on the things I don't really want to do and don't really need to do but probably should do at some point. ie- getting the knives sharpened. Eh, I guess they could go another couple weeks/months but on the other hand the big knife was so dull I almost sliced a divot in my finger the other day so maybe I should prioritize actually getting that done!

Same with scanning and digitally filing/archiving a bunch of old family paperwork my mom just snail mailed me.

I don't need a better todo list app. I need a personal assistant! :P


A year or two ago I was writing some training material on how to keep your software solutions as simple as possible. (In my mind this is the most critical skill in software development that nobody seems to actually teach)

I decided to use project management as an example. It's a known field, it's something most everybody can relate to, it looks like something a lot of coders kick around, and it's commonly way, way overdone. So I started with first principles and went at it.

Ended up with a few dozen lines of code and a text file. That's it. That's all you need to manage projects from a single person on up to a large-scale program. I integrated with Trello and Google sheets in order to provide whatever graphics people wanted, but with the same general amount of complexity you could integrate with a bunch of other stuff.

I remain convinced that the greatest learning experiences I've had in software development over the last decade or so have been these little experiments where I take a commonly over-engineered solution area and poke at it to see just how much complexity is actually required. Every time I do it, it astounds me at the amount of counter-productivity we coders bring to many of the things we create in order to increase productivity. A humbling experience, to say the least.


Did you write more about it here or elsewhere?


My second book is all about how to code solutions as simply as possible: https://leanpub.com/info-ops2

As for this particular exercise from the book, I think I did a video on YT. It probably isn't around, though. As a tech coach, I've had programming, management, and consulting experience in this kind of work from solo developer up to 150-person programs. So there's a lot to cover in a stand-alone piece, at least three in-depth topics. (For instance, I'm willing to bet a lot of other consultants with similar experience would say this result wasn't possible. This is what made the exercise so worthwhile; our intuition about the complexity required and the actual complexity involved in solving problems is commonly off by at least a couple orders of magnitude.)


This piece focuses on how organizing tasks doesn't increase much the chance of doing the tasks, and suggests that other techniques than digitalized to-dos yield slightly better returns. One thing I think this is missing is that work is hard and time consuming, and brain juice and time are limited resources.

1) You cant do everything. The more I advance in my career, the more comfortable I become with abandoning things. It is almost the same feeling as deleting dead code. I also realized that there's a better chance that I will do something if I enjoy it (duh) or if it's not menial. Tasks that are completely pointless still have a chance of being done if they are fun to me. Tasks that are neither will likely never be touched unless I might get fired for not doing them. What's depressing is that it takes some courage to admit defeat and cancel tasks, for some reason. Probably the fomo or something like that. But the psychological overhead of maintaining a pile of stuff is so high. Look at most backlogs, featuring pages after pages of valueless features that will never be done and bugs that will never get fixed. Yet when you propose a simple rule that we should just delete or close anything that had been lingering for more than 1y, people look at you like you're crazy

2) work is hard, and procrastination is real: we are cabled to minimize our cognitive expenditure. I think I can do a max of 1 to 2h per day of hard work, maybe a bit more if it's something I really enjoy, and there's probably a weekly cap as well. Doing something hard is not something I look forward to (don't put that on your resume). So when I pick the todo list, and have a choice between "add this fun feature to your pet project" or "define goals for next year", guess which will be done, and which will be postponed every single time.. . I think the only way of doing these harder tasks is by making them easier, less ambiguous, time bound, more fun, i.e lower the entry cost of the task. That's where some of the value of GTD and such methods resides - by defining a mechanism that transform "stuff" into actionable items. But even that is hard. I'm almost 20y in, yet I still struggle to abide to a strict process.

Work is hard.


I generally agree with your points, but 1 to 2 hours? When I'm off-rotation I still find the time for at least 3-4 hours of intense productive work in the day, and on-rotation I am focused oftentimes for 10+ hours in a day. Perhaps it's different levels of mental engagement but I'm curious why you say, what seems to me to be, such low amounts.


Most of the deep work I do nowadays is figuring how to navigate politics, pitch features, review designs made by others and such. It features a lot of context switching as well, and it's contained between a host of meetings. I find interest in the overall outcome, but it's mentally taxing. True, when doing an activity that I enjoy by itself (e.g dev), it's not a hassle to stay focused and remain on the task longer


I swear by The Checklist Manifesto[0]

However, it's worth noting that just because you didn't do that one thing on your list, it doesn't mean you're a failure in life. A checklist is just a rough guide. You can always delegate or delay the more trickier tasks too.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Checklist_Manifesto


It’s a great book, but seems more aligned to “doing things correctly [preventing errors]” than to “doing things at all [preventing procrastination]”.


There's a subtle point in controlling process to prevent procrastination vs keeping a list of things to do in hopes that helps you ``know what to work on''.

Checklists are great at the former.


Adam Savage uses checklists as a motivational tool. Something satisfying about marking things as done. On paper, esp.

I could only find this -- with a link to another wired article:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20263850


A simple text file works great for me. Sometimes things get asterisks (or whatever other sophistry I'm hoping in vain will help me actually prioritize according to some sort of 'master plan'), but in the end what's done just gets "//" in front of it and goes in the archive.

I feel it does help me combat feelings of low productivity and/or worthlessness at least a little when I can look back on all I've completed. Otherwise it's more of this vague impression of 'not enough' and the resulting general malaise which can all too often become a tar pit.


Yep! I use RememberTheMilk, and while I still have tasks that are years old, I find it generally helpful. I like the confidence of being able to mentally unburden myself of remembering things (even if I usually still do) and sometimes find myself creating tasks just to check them off, because I've done them but hadn't added them to the list-- why not feel good about your accomplishments?

The reality is, many tasks, people simply don't want to do!


Skip to the end of that thought, and just keep a list where all you do is write down stuff you've done. Soon you'll have trained your brain to look around for stuff to add to your "done list"

(I do this, check out https://donel.ist for a kill-your-todos-get-stuff-done app I built to help myself do it!)


Precisely this. Todo lists are a great way to go through processes, but a terrible way to plan a day's or month's activity.


What is a better way you've found?


I mean, I do have a backlog list, and it is prioritized, but my day-to-day follows a process not a todo list. I keep a daily checklist of priority things to fit in:

Speak politely, two morning chores, answer all messages from my group, workout, read, tinker with something, no coffee (I'm quitting), no drinks (I'm cutting down), meditate, go outside, update the finances, write in my journal.

Each of those is about a 5 minute task or a daily reminder. Read and Tinker often lead to hours-long focus sessions. The key is to show up every day and remove barriers to getting started.

If you want to call that a todo list, that's ok, but I call it a process-oriented checklist because of the way I use it.

I used to be better about keeping a monthly checklist too, but pandemic has removed most the list.


That sounds semi-similar to the “Seinfeld System,” a method that highlights daily streaks.

https://jamesclear.com/stop-procrastinating-seinfeld-strateg...


Time blocking is one. If one doesn’t structure time and context, then todo items can’t get done.

Edit:

Here’s one implementation by Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked” and Indistractable”:

https://www.nirandfar.com/schedule-maker/


A todo list is not a plan to get things done.

If you're serious about getting more done, tracking how you spend your all your time is worth trying as a starting point. It allows you to identify where your time actually goes and what you need to do to prioritize differently (and if that's even possible.)

I try to live a spreadsheet driven life. I have a workbook with a sheet for my todo items with due dates if applicable, a sheet for both prospective and retrospective time tracking, a sheet for things I need to buy, etc. all in one place so I can pull tasks in as part of weekly planning. The week usually doesn't go according to plan but I think I still get more done than if I didn't go through the process. Weekly planning also gives me opportunities to start over fairly frequently if I fall off the wagon.


> You can blame Zeigarnik again. The mere act of making a to-do list relieves so much itchy stress that it can, paradoxically, reduce the pressure to actually get stuff done. “People feel that when they put all their tasks somewhere, they’ve already done most of the work,” Perchik says. But it’s an illusion. The pile of work is still there.

I suspect that this effect can work for you, without working against you.

For personal (non-work-project) tasks, I've been using a variation of Todo.txt throughout the day, for both "to-do list" task management, and scheduling appointments and reminders.

I suppose this Zeigarnik effect described by the article might be helpful, and not defeated, partly due to the priorities assigned the tasks.

Tasks are assigned priorities A-Z. I usually only end up looking at priorities A-C (occasionally D).

One effect of this might be that prioritizing a task as D or E gets it off my mind (thanks, Zeigarnik)... but another effect is that I keep being reminded of the A-C tasks on days that I could do them, so they don't feel done (take that, Zeigarnik).

(Some notes on my variation on Todo.txt, and a snippet of Emacs Lisp that helps support it, is at: https://www.neilvandyke.org/todotxt/ )


> You can blame Zeigarnik again. The mere act of making a to-do list relieves so much itchy stress that it can, paradoxically, reduce the pressure to actually get stuff done. “People feel that when they put all their tasks somewhere, they’ve already done most of the work,” Perchik says. But it’s an illusion. The pile of work is still there.

If it went so long without being done, perhaps it wasn't so important after all, and giving yourself permission to quit thinking about it is just what the doctor ordered.


For quite a while I have not used any project management or todo-lists at all. I usually have a project or few that I need to progress and I just keep them in my head. Sometimes I book some appointments with some other people which gives me a deadline to make some progress. For some crucial chores I may do a temporary todo-list of maybe three trivial items.

Not sure how optimal this is, but I've managed to stay employed and get most important things done. A plus side is that this has a sort of automatic priorization and pruning: I just forget some of the things or projects or ideas, and probably there's a (negative) correlation between importance and forgetting.

Perhaps people are on average a bit too preoccupied with planning and "tasking up" and managing and measuring things to do. I've found its often more trouble than it's worth. Also in anything more complicated the plan usually collapses quite rapidly, and having a strict task-structure etc may well cause people to keep the wrong course for too long.


My app for a summary of things I have done is my time tracker.

The time horizon for my to-do list is a week. Further out than a week is probably a scheduled item which is a different thing than a to-do.

Everything else is an idea among my notes. My backlog is my notes. It's the place where I go to jot something down and then forget about it until something happens to surface that item again. If that happens, then maybe I'll act on it. Maybe I'll just add to the note and forget about it again.

Anything on my to-do list which isn't done a week from being added gets turned into a note, to be forgotten about.

Information dense project task flows aren't to-do items and I manage them in a proper PM app rather than a to-do app.

I think it's important to be constrained with how you use todos. My list is short and easy to manage. Even being memory and attention challenged, it's easy to get a quick grasp on everything I need to do for the next few days.


There is only one way to get things done [1]. It is just DO and stop thinking about it or how to do it.

Todo apps will not help you get things done, they will only help you accumulate much more tasks that you can do.

I mean how can some people think that software will make them do more ? The app will not do the task for you.

Contrary to what the title states, some people get things done. But productivity is the same thing as loosing weight. It is very easy to understand what to do, (eat less/work (real work) more hours). But there a tons of business trying to sell you something to achieve it. If you want to get things done, just do it. I don't know what else I can tell you

[1] https://blog.luap.info/the-only-way-to-be-productive.html


That article seems a bit silly to me. Of course the way to do more things is to do more things. That doesn’t mean “how?” isn’t a reasonable question. For example, it could be helpful to read tips for inventorying how exactly I spend my time, to help me identify areas where I’m spending more time than I had realized.

This article reads like “reading about how to get better at weightlifting won’t help you, because the only way to lift a heavy weight is to literally lift a heavy weight.”


The problem is that "how?" doesnt have any convincing answer. People who are GTDoners are not more motivated by the things they do than other people. The only difference is they do the work and spend the less time as possible thinking how to work more, how to be faster, ...


>Every to-do list is, ultimately, about death.

This succinctly captures something I've thought more about as I've gotten older (now 47). This is especially true around the "Someday/Maybe" category in my system. Some items in there are themselves nearly teenagers! And it is sobering how few of these bigger items actually get done or even thought about in a year. But at least I'm checking off dozens of minutia tasks each week :/


Saturn has completed slightly more than an entire orbit in the time I’ve been theoretically designing a video game. Someday/maybe indeed!



Article is about personal productivity moreso than corporate, but I'm going off on the corporate tangent because I think the HN crowd can relate.

A personal failing of mine, that I'm working on improving, is progress tracking that's as close to understandable-at-a-glance to management as possible.

Historically I've always been focused on progress, moving on to the next thing, keep pressing forward, but this comes at the expense of management understanding when it comes to status updates and awareness around delays.

Progress reporting, from a purely technical viewpoint, is a bunch of bullshit that gets in the way of progress, but from a business viability, profitability, and general good-management, it's essential. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

How this relates to the article: project task time must be allocated to determining and documenting progress. The best way for this to take up a minimal amount of time is to have a methodology determined up front: give management an expectation of what they'll see, and the technical folks an understanding of where progress milestones are, so they'll know what markers are important to progress reporting. It's got to be collaboratively developed.

This, in itself, also takes time.

More directly related to the article, continually trying to find "the perfect to do app" is just a distraction. Any app is fine. If you're not getting to your tasks the problem is you and / or your expectations, not the app(s). Been there, still doing that...

Apt quote from article regarding personal expectations of productivity: "Present self screws over future self".

I've stuck with tiddlywiki / noteself as my Swiss-army-knife note taking and organizational tool. I'm also messing with it for tracking project "threads".


Perhaps being so fixated on productivity is not healthy. The whole concept was really only introduced to society along with mass industrialization. It seems that for most of history in most of the world most humans have spent a lot of their timing just sitting around, hanging out. I'd guess we're designed to do a certain amount of that each day.


“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” –General Dwight D. Eisenhower


If we were actually interested in getting things done, we'd get them done, right? It seems like the core of the problem is people having priorities imposed on them that don't match their own, actual priorities. When people aren't getting things done, they're usually doing other things, their actual priorities, not staring idly into space. (Usually. And maybe staring into space is fine too).

If your well-being or the well-being of others is at stake, then you got to do what you got to do, and "get things done". But a lot of this sounds like people feeling guilty about not going the extra mile on things they don't actually care about.

EDIT: Wow I guess this struck a nerve.

EDIT 2: And I think "people having priorities imposed on them" would also include people imposing priorities on themselves without sufficient self-reflection.


Yes! I used to be obsessive about TODOs but never found a solution that worked for more than a year. After the novelty wore off, my lists would grow longer and the satisfaction of clearing them would wane. Then I just stopped.

And my productivity grew anyway! If I value the task, it gets done because it stays on my mind. Reminders help because there’s no giant list to maintain or to make me feel guilty or defeated. Without the TODOs, I have been more spontaneous and naturally more selective about where I focus my attention.


These softwares exist to create stats to find out who to punish


I think this article was very good. It captured the same though process I went through: from trying different apps, to trying to build my own, to realizing it’s all about human condition after all.

I do think, however, that software for TODO lists sucks, and should support humans better https://blog.frantic.im/all/todo-apps-are-meant-for-robots/


Classic. Users asking for an obvious and predictable feature they will never use and that will only taint the app. We throw it in because it is obvious and "you gotta have that." Resist.


The discussion quickly goes into corporate inertia, which I think is a different issue than the article, which is more to do with individual productivity.

I find it quite interesting but I am definitely guilty of it. Planning some new idea makes me feel a short-lived sense of achievement that I am using my brain but then I realise my Onedrive is full of things that would be great that I never finished (or even started properly in some cases).

I guess one problem is that the tools, processes and online stimulation/information, makes us think that we can be productive without hard work, long hours and risk-taking. Even the highest achievers (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, whoever) didn't get there by tools, processes and planning. They took hard decisions and made mistakes.

The real question is which of our dreams or ideas is worth sacrificing our spare time to pursue? Which would make the world better? Which others would be better consigned to the bin of "some-else could probably do this better than me" or "If I did this, would I even care on my death bed?"


I do mise-en-place (preparation) and use TeuxDeux as my todo list. It’s so super simple but such an effective tool, so limiting it’s not getting in my way.

I tried everything else, every tool, every technique - nothing works for me. I can’t even use JIRA at work, I put things in TeuxDeux or on a paper list, otherwise I will forget what I need to do.

I always wondered if other people had similar challenges. Maybe I am too simple for tech productivity tools.


I had an idea about To Do lists a few years ago. I realized that one of the biggest problems was the hidden complexity of the tasks, and unexpected roadblocks that I'd encounter. Some tasks involved a lot of unknowns, or things that I would have to figure out as I went.

The idea I had was premade To Do lists for various common tasks such as automobile maintenance, planning a trip, organizing an event, etc.

Never did much with it.


One thing that so many of these productivity apps (and "productivity hacking" in general) seem to miss is that simply doing more "productive" things doesn't make you more effective, and can in fact have the opposite effect.

Certain tasks that you undertake will have an impact that is 3 or 4 orders of magnitude more than lower-importance tasks, and when the scaling gets that extreme it's a completely valid approximation to bin a "productive" task such as "type polite email response to customer who clearly isn't interested in buying your product" in the "non-productive" category alongside "go for a walk" and "play video games".

I've spent the last year optimising one of my businesses by simply avoiding tasks that I neither enjoy nor bring in a significant amount of value and the results have been stellar. We've grown enough to the point where we've hired our first employee, and the amount of hours my wife and I are putting in since a year ago has halved.


Great read. I feel like task lists are really a coping mechanism we resort to when we are placed in a somewhat natural situation--that is, having an overwhelming load of tasks to complete. Once the tasks are "out of mind" and on the list, then they can be completed sequentially--sort the tasks by priority, and then do them in that order. If to do lists were really about our life goals and dreams, then the Seinfeld method still reigns supreme; that is, do the most important thing you need to do every day, even just a little bit of it, and note how many days in a row you've done it.

https://jamesclear.com/stop-procrastinating-seinfeld-strateg...


It's a popular technique but apparently Seinfeld did not do this, it was a throw away comment that became pop culture.


Sometimes (regularly actually) i'm fascinated about society as a system, so much fuzz so much ignorance, so much unknowns and noise .. yet it kind works (massive crisis aside).


I recently removed my personal todo list.

I found that it was usually a way to not think about the different issues/projets I had in mind. Removing the todo list forced me to remember the list, to think about possible solutions or related task I wanted to do.

I was really, really productive for few weeks...

Unfortunately, I quickly fallback to my old habits of listing todo... Simply because I don't give myself proper time to think about what I want to do.


I think the gist of it is that TODO-lists don't get done, but that just fine. They are still useful.

The purpose of TODO is not to commit to doing something, it is to create a possible plan for accomplishing something.

Whether you ever get to actually doing it, it is good to have a plan, in case you a) need to do it b) realize at the time of doing it that there is a better way of doing it, or that in fact you need to do less, or do some different things.


The bit about the Zeigarnik effect was interesting, I didn't know about it but it does make sense and matches my experience.

But the reason tasks aren't done frequently usually has nothing to do with how the to-do list is organised, and I'm not sure why the app creators from the beginning of the article were surprised about their checklist not being more effective than any other method. It still doesn't mean it was useless.


When I get even little bit excited about something and act on it, then it's easy to get things done. No tools required!

Then again, when I'm asked to do something that isn't really my thing or something is off, then I just can fix it with some task manager (!).

Sure, even the most exciting project may feel little bit boring at times but.. as long as it's not all the time I let it be.

It's not healty to be productive all the time.


This resonates a lot with me. I've tried so many todo apps, but in the end I always returned to a simple piece of paper.

It did bother me that paper is not very flexible, so I'm experimenting with a digital 'paper to-do' version. If you're curious, check it out at https://can.do :)

Feedback of course most welcome.


What would someone do if their to do list was finished? Presumably a person always has more to do. And presumably people think of doing a lot more than they actually can do. Your reach should always exceed your grasp. (Or, less politely, when all is said and done, there is a lot more is said than done.)


You never finish a to-do list. They are endless. You will always have stuff to do, and it literally never ends. My solution is to be at peace with the fact that it's endless and I'll never be able to stop and say, "that's it, I've completed my to-do list."


I've found that GTD apps, TODOs, and even simple task lists, are rarely effective for me.

That does not mean they aren't effective. The Japanese corporation for which I worked, lived by them, and they were very effective.

But for me, I seldom need more than a couple of reminders on sticky notes, on my desk.


I think if it was only a couple of reminders, sticky notes would be a general solution. It's when it's double-digits of _stuff_ that you need something more structured.


> If you ask people to accomplish a loony amount of work this week, they’ll go, No way. Can’t be done. But if you tell them they’ll need to do that same bonkers amount in a single week one year from now? They’ll think, OK, sure, I could do that.

Really hit home.


“Every to-do list is a midlife crisis of unfulfilled promise.”

While reading, “Wow, a thoughtful piece on to do list software,” after finishing and noticing the byline, “Oh! Clive Thompson! That dude always makes sense.”


Yay! article validated, tried and true practice: pen and paper

Welcome to the FPN Nuthouse: https://www.fountainpennetwork.com/


What if apps aren't the solution to getting more will power.


Because it's a people problem.

When i work with a good engineer who wants to get things done like me, we could easily solve all problems and get things done.



I find a to-do is mostly useful for just tracking all the things that pop into my head




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