live by the calendar, die by the calendar

Apple’s App Store slogan has long been, ‘There’s an app for that.’ And by and large, that has proven true. Even if you weren’t a Mac acolyte, whatever smartphone system you chose would probably feature a similar glut of options: a slew of competing apps for every function, with a few rising above the rest with their sparkling UIs and singularity of purpose. Fine. Good.

Yet if you look at the nature of the apps being produced, specifically productivity apps, you see a certain bias behind the whole idea of them. There are countless list apps of varying complexity that are incredibly powerful, but all focus around the idea of ticking items off a list; items that can be connected to location, dates, or tagged with degrees of importance. There are apps that will let you block out every minute of every day, so you don’t forget anything. I don’t actually believe that any of the motives behind this are malevolent, but I can’t help but feel that there are a few misconceptions, or oversights at least, when it comes to thinking about our productivity and the usefulness of such apps. Or maybe it speaks to how we’ve come to feel about organization and efficiency; perhaps the blame lies not in our apps, but in ourselves.

Many people subscribe to life by the calendar and some variation on David Allen’s GTD – keeping lists and mapping out each day for fear of forgetting important or letting things slip through the cracks. But how many of us actually work this way?

What none of these apps seem to address is the fact that life often happens whether we want it to or not, and things change. Plans get interrupted, something comes up. We have to make a hundred on-the-fly decisions every day in response to the outside world that rarely, if ever, goes along with our plans. The element of unpredictability is wholly ignored by the world of GTD, or so it seems to me. This alone isn’t such a big deal, but there is more to it.

I think the real issue is the backwards way we look at productivity. GTD enables you to completely map out all your obligations, regardless of size; but nowhere in there is a guide for making better decisions about what’s worth doing (it is certainly implied that the ability to make those decisions is essential, but it leaves that up to the user). It perfects the science of organization and efficiency, but can’t tell you what’s important. For what it is, GTD works.

Dan Pink gave an excellent TED Talk about the science of motivation – namely, how we do better when we operate by intrinsic motivation as opposed to external reward.  I think this has everything to do with how productivity is currently viewed: We make lists of things we need to do. Sometimes we even make lists of things we want to do, but these lists are usually so extensive that it becomes a) impossible to do them all and b) stressful to think about. Even the things we want become things would should do, when we have the time. Pink, in his talk, gets at something called Results Only Work Environment – a system where we can do what we want, when we want, as long as certain things get done in a timely manner. No more blocking out our schedules, no more running from one task to the next. We have a list of things that need to get done, and as long as that happens, everything else is up to us (needless to say, companies that have implemented this approach have found it to improve employee morale, productivity, and innovation by a huge margin).

This can easily be translated into the world of personal organization. We make lists of the few things that need to get done each day, while keeping an eye on leaving plenty of wiggle room to allow for our own moods, meanderings, and interactions with the world. Rather than constantly referencing our lists and calendars, we trust that we’ll take care of the important stuff, but when we feel like it. I can only guess at this point, but I imagine that living in this way would make us much happier and, perversely, ultimately more productive. Now where’s my app for that?

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