Anti-workflow: to-dos

A while back, I wrote about Anti-Workflow Apps — apps that solve problems for you without forcing you to adopt a workflow that you may never fully be able to adopt.  Workflow apps (CRMs, to-do lists, project management tools) are super hard to drive adoption towards, as everyone works differently and really resists this kind of change.  (of course, it’s possible when the reward is super good — e.g., slack and git/github — bit those times are rare and more often than that an attempted re-workflow goes splat)

So I’ve been on the lookout for Anti-Workflow tools.  Solutions that solve a problem that you think requires a new workflow, but may actually be more effectively solved another, more clever way Today I want to talk about to-dos, because I seem to have found my own personal anti-workflow solution.

I’ve always struggled with to-dos — I’ve used every to-do management tool on earth, and have never been able to adopt a workable, effective system.  I’ve tried everything from complicated tracking systems like OmniFocus to simple to-do lists of every possible flavor.  Nothing has stuck.  For years and years, I kept trying, trying and trying again.

In the end, I just gave up and said, fuck it, I’m not using a to-do list anymore. Not going to even try.

What happened was that I ended up keeping track of my priorities in a totally different way — a way that was actually more in tune with my existing workflows.  One part of the solution was pretty obvious, and one was surprising.

On the obvious side: the calendar.  For things that I absolutely must do, and that require dedicated time, I just use my calendar.  I’m in my calendar all day long, so it’s the perfect place to block out time for important things.  So now I set calendar entries for myself, to make sure I set aside time for things that need focus.

The calendar is good for things I know I need to do, and that I know are important.  What it’s not good for is capturing notes, ideas, and small to dos, which often just need to be captured in the moment and prioritized & dealt with (or not) later.  This is the use case that has always drawn me back to to-do apps, to no avail.

In particular, the really bad thing about a to-do list for this use case is that all it does is make you feel guilty.  Items get added to the list, and whether you really need to do them or not, you feel drawn to.  And then when it doesn’t happen the to-do list just becomes a giant pile of guilt that you do your best to ignore (that’s what happens to me at least).

That brings us to the less obvious solution.  What I’ve found is that a great way to handle both the capture / prioritization issue and the guilt issue is to use a Sparkfile.  Long time readers will know that this blog is named after my favorite idea from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: the “slow hunch” approach to developing ideas.  Another idea from that book — unearthed by studying epic thinkers of the past like Darwin and DaVinci — is the Sparkfile: a long, running list of thoughts & ideas.  Fragments that pile on one another over time. One way to cultivate the slow hunch is not only to keep a sparkfile (in addition to other kinds of journals), but to constantly pour back through it re-reading and reconsidering your previous thoughts, ideas and observations.

Turns out that this is also a pretty good way to filter inbound ideas of things to do.  Just add them to the spark file, continually review the list, and occasionally do things (immediately or via calendar), and then add new stuff to the top as you think of more things.  No pressure — and absolutely no expectation — to do everything on the list or turn it into a perfect set of priorities.  Just let the mind run, capturing as you go.

For me, this idea ties back into anti-workflow because I’ve been keeping a personal blog/journal for about 7 years now.  Which was in many ways a sparkfile, though it started out slightly more long form (starting with a private wordpress blog).  The big revolution happened last fall, when I switched over to using Diaro.  Diaro is a personal journal tool, with both a desktop web client as well as a mobile app.  The mobile app is the key, as it makes it possible to really quickly jot down a thought — as quickly as you’d do on a to-do app, or email, or notepad.

So in the end, the solution to my to-do workflow was not to add a new to-do workflow.  Rather, it was to extend the workflows I already had going, calendars and the sparkfile.  Boy it feels good.

6 thoughts on “Anti-workflow: to-dos

  1. Extending existing workflows ftw. I’ve also been enjoying the physical creation and limitations of using small postits for the spark list.

    There’s also something about the nature of letting things remix and decay that I think is central to these methods. Gives a chance for our own background processes to contribute, rather than relying on the surface/rational/planning part of the brain that ‘keep, prioritize, do all the things’ burns out.

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      1. Hey Michael — sorry for the delay here; somehow i missed this when you wrote it.

        Yes, totally agree. There is something so freeing about decay. I suspect this will become more and more true as more data becomes stored forever. We will come to appreciate the ability to forget things.

        Slack, Yikyak, Snapchat, etc. All have an element of this. What is actually neat about slack is that the data is retained but the structure is such that you don’t feel responsible for responding to everything or really having to deal with it once it’s in downstream in the wind

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      2. Really interesting point – and maybe even signalling that we’re at a cultural tipping point that our general experience/expectation is that data is always saved and accessible.

        Evernote grew out of the fear that it wouldn’t be.

        Slack was built on the premise that it would be.

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