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.

Dick Pics and Cable Company Fuckery

John Oliver has become the most important voice in tech policy (and maybe policy in general). His gift, his talent, his skill: turning wonky policy language that makes people glaze over into messages that people connect to and care about it. Last fall, he did took what may be the most boring, confusing term ever,… Read more »

Failure is the tuition you pay for success

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Financial Planning for the 90%

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The Light Inside, The Fire Inside

Last week, a friend passed away after a relatively brief but intense battle with lung cancer.  I didn’t know Paul well, but he was very close with a few of my very close friends, and I had spent enough time with him to understand that he was special: he had a light inside of him.   A… Read more »

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The magic of making hard things easy

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Everyone is broken and life is hard

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Anti-workflow apps

“Workflow” apps hold so much promise.  Whether it’s a CRM, project management tool, to-do list, or some other tool, the promise in each case is to clean up our messy lives and help us be more organized and effective. The problem, though, is that getting people to adopt a workflow is really really hard.  That’s… Read more »

Finding Flow: writing vs. coding

When I first started to learn programming, about 15 years ago, I remember being surprised at how easy it was for me to get focused and stay focused.  I loved (and still love) the feeling of getting lost in a project, and could easily spend hours upon hours “in the zone”. No procrastination, no resistance, only focus… Read more »

Crowdsourcing patent examinations

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Support services for the Indie Economy

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The Professional Amateur

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Half, not half-assed

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This is what an Internet Candidate looks like

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Disgusting

I got this in the mail: It’s an ad for an extended warranty, disguised as an urgent extension of existing coverage. This makes we want to throw up.  A business blatantly based on tricking people. “Immediate response to this notice required…. Our records indicate that you have not contacted us to have your vehicle service… Read more »