Tag: John Tierney

How David Allen increased Drew Carey’s Productivity

David Allen

Comedian Drew Carey outsourced the development of his productivity strategy to David Allen, author of the cult classic, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who “taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals.”

Allen’s system, outlined in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, focuses “on the minutiae of to-do lists, folders, labels, in-boxes.”

When he began working with overtaxed executives, he saw the problem with the traditional big-picture type of management planning, like writing mission statements, defining long-term goals, and setting priorities. He appreciated the necessity of lofty objectives, but he could see that these clients were too distracted to focus on even the simplest task of the moment. Allen described their affliction with another Buddhist image, “monkey mind,” which refers to a mind plagued with constantly shifting thoughts, like a monkey leaping wildly from tree to tree. Sometimes Allen imagined a variation in which the monkey is perched on your shoulder jabbering into your ear, constantly second-guessing and interrupting until you want to scream, “Somebody, shut up the monkey!”

“Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing,” Allen says. “You could tolerate that dissonance and that stress if it only happened once a month, the way it did in the past. Now people are just going numb and stupid, or getting too crazy and busy to deal with the anxiety.”

Instead of starting with goals and figuring out how to reach them, Allen tried to help his clients deal with the immediate mess on their desks. He could see the impracticality of traditional bits of organizational advice, like the old rule about never touching a piece of paper more than once— fine in theory, impossible in practice. What were you supposed to do with a memo about a meeting next week? Allen remembered a tool from his travel-agent days, the tickler file. The meeting memo, like an airplane ticket, could be filed in a folder for the day it was needed. That way the desk would remain uncluttered, and the memo wouldn’t distract you until the day it was needed.

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Besides getting paperwork off the desk, the tickler file also removed a source of worry: Once something was filed there, you knew you’d be reminded to deal with it on the appropriate day. You weren’t nagged by the fear that you’d lose it or forget about it. Allen looked for other ways to eliminate that mental nagging by closing the “open loops” in the mind. “One piece I took from the personal-growth world was the importance of the agreements you make with yourself,” he recalls. “When you make an agreement and you don’t keep it, you undermine your own self-trust.

Psychologists have also studied the mental stress of the monkey mind. This nagging of uncompleted tasks and goals is called the Zeigarnik effect and also helps explain why to-do lists are not the answer.

Zeigarnik effect: Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop.

Until recently we thought this was the brain’s way of making sure we get stuff done. New research, however, has shed preliminary light on the tension our to-do lists cause in our cognitive consciousness and unconsciousness.

[I]t turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

If you have 150 things going on in your head at once, the Zeigarnik effect leaves you leaping from “task to task, and it won’t be sedated by vague good intentions.”

If you’ve got a memo that has to be read before a meeting Thursday morning, the unconscious wants to know exactly what needs to be done next, and under what circumstances. But once you make that plan— once you put the meeting memo in the tickler file for Wednesday, once you specify the very next action to be taken on the project— you can relax. You don’t have to finish the job right away. You’ve still got 150 things on the to-do list, but for the moment the monkey is still, and the water is calm.

This is how David Allen solved Drew Carey’s organizational problems.

“Whether you’re trying to garden or take a picture or write a book,” Allen says, “your ability to make a creative mess is your most productive state. You want to be able to throw ideas all over the place, but you need to be able to start with a clear deck. One mess at a time is all you can handle. Two messes at a time, you’re screwed. You may want to find God, but if you’re running low on cat food, you damn well better make a plan for dealing with it. Otherwise the cat food is going to take a whole lot more attention and keep you from finding God.”

A Brief History of the To-Do List

To-do lists are evil from a productivity perspective, it’s much more effective to schedule time.

This is something New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister expand upon in “A Brief History of the To-Do list,” the third chapter of their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

The perpetual state of the to-do list is failure, something Scott Adams demonstrated with his argument on systems over goals.

Our failure rate keeps climbing as the lists keep getting longer. At any one time, a person typically has at least 150 different tasks to be done, and fresh items never stop appearing on our screens. How do we decide what goes on the list and what to do next?

Well, the first step most of us take it often to set a “clear goal.”

The technical term researchers use for self-control is self-regulation, and the “regulation” part highlights the importance of a goal. Regulating means changing, but only a particular kind of intentional, meaningful changing. To regulate is to guide toward a specific goal or standard: the speed limit for cars on a highway, the maximum height for an office building. Self-control without goals and other standards would be nothing more than aimless change, like trying to diet without any idea of which foods are fattening.

The problem isn’t a lack of goals, however, it’s too many of them.

We make daily to-do lists that couldn’t be accomplished even if there were no interruptions during the day, which there always are. By the time the weekend arrives, there are more unfinished tasks than ever, but we keep deferring them and expecting to get through them with miraculous speed. That’s why, as productivity experts have found, an executive’s daily to-do list for Monday often contains more work than could be done the entire week.

Even the great Ben Franklin fell victim to having too many goals.

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’ There were a dozen more virtues on his list— Temperance, Silence, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility— but he recognized his limits. “I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once,” Franklin explained, “but to fix it on one of them at a time.” The result was what he called a “course,” and what today would be marketed as 13 Weeks to Total Virtue.

But the virtues were often in conflict with one another.

When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients— and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (“ Waste nothing”) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job— or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: “Perform without fail what you resolve.”

“The result of conflicting goals is unhappiness instead of action,” Tierney and Baumeister write, arguing the byproduct of this is that you worry more, get less done, and your physical health suffers.

The takeaway? Skip the to-do list and schedule your time.

If you must have a to-do list, keep it short.

Too Many Decisions

The first thing you do in the morning is to make a decision. And those decisions pile up fast. Should I hit snooze? What clothes should I wear? What should I have for breakfast? What combination of choices from Starbucks will make my morning go smoother?

You’ve already made more decisions than most of our ancestors would make in a day by the time you arrive at work. Unfortunately — at least as far as the quality of your decisions is concerned — your day is just getting started.

Decisions take a lot of mental effort. And that’s a problem. Making choices reduces physical stamina, reduces persistence, reduces willpower, and even encourages procrastination.

John Tierney, adapted part of his upcoming book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, for a New York Times Magazine article: Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?

Our brains are tired of making decisions. This has been coined as “Decision fatigue” and helps explain why, in the words of Tierney, “normally sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car.”

No matter how rational you are (or try to be), you can’t make decision after decision without paying a mental price. “It’s different”, Tierney writes, “from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.”

The more choices you make, the harder they become. To save energy your brain starts to look for shortcuts. One shortcut is to be reckless and act impulsively (rather than rationally). The other shortcut is to do nothing, which saves as much energy as possible (and often creates bigger problems in the long run).

It turns out that glucose is a vital part of willpower. Tierney writes, “Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and plays less attention to long-term prospects.”

Glucose explains a lot. For instance, why people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives struggle to lose weight. It also explains how someone can resist junk all day but gorge on a bag of chips right before bed. We start the day with a clean slate and the best intentions. It’s fairly easy to resist fatty muffins at breakfast and skip the snickers bar fix after lunch. But each of these decisions—resistances—consumes glucose and lowers our willpower. Eventually, we need to replenish it. But that requires glucose, which creates a catch-22: We need willpower not to eat but in order to have willpower we need to eat.

Tierney continues, “when the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further)…ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf.”

Although we have no way of knowing, it seems like a fairly safe bet that we make more decisions now than at any point in history. That is, we’re under more decision making strain and we’re starting to show cracks.

The internet and our ability to “multitask” isn’t helping, argues Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brian: “A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is also turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.” Carr argues that our continuously connected, constantly distracted lives (read—constantly making decisions) rob us of the opportunity for deep thinking. The kind of thinking that we need to make a lot of decisions. By making thousands of trivial decisions every day, we rob ourselves of the ability to make more difficult contemplative decisions.

There are ways to improve our ability to make better decisions. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has done research showing that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives to conserve willpower. “They don’t,” Tierney suggests, “schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.” Wise advice we should all follow.

Organizations should start thinking carefully about how their employees actually end up spending their time and what they “waste” their precious mental energy on. If they’re filling out forms, trudging through a bureaucratic morass, or attending more than a few meetings a day, they’re likely using their mental energy on things that add little value to the organization.

Still Curious? John Tierney wrote a book about willpower and decision fatigue, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.