I referred to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) a couple of times before, as not being rocket-science, motherhood even, but simple and practical methods for personal productivity nonetheless.
I see he has a blog, and links to several subtle contributions, on identifying and achieving important work. This is his link to Paul Graham’s essay on procrastination, which itself includes this link to this 1986 Richard Hamming essay on prioritising research tasks.
Via Jim McGee’s musings, which also includes a link to John Perry’s 1995 piece “Structured Procrastination”
Structured procrastination sounds like “skilled incompetence” to me. One of those “necessary hypocrisies”. Anyway, I like the idea that creating a to-do list is possibly itself a displacement activity from more important tasks. I also like the idea that to any thoughtful person all these prioritisation methods actually involve subtler psychological tricks, almost deliberate self-deceptions, sneaking up on tasks. ie if you have a really important difficult task to do, go and clean the toilet. I can see how that works on at least 3 or 4 meta-levels. To every simple rule – like most metaphorical adages – there is a completely opposite, but equally valid simple rule.
I think the key is the psychology – right rule in the right context – and the recognising levels as well as scales of importance – hygiene / infrastructure, operational, tactical, strategic, blue-sky levels. My personal method is to cycle the rules. Struggle on with big tasks feeling guilty about overdue simple tasks, use little tasks to displace difficult tasks (and still feel guilty). Take a break and compile a to-do list, that tells you nothing you didn’t already know (and feel guilty again)
In the (a) (b) (c) choice – of do nothing, do the simple tasks you can complete, or do the important tasks that you may not complete. Only the “do nothing” choice is wrong. The right choice is to cycle between the other two. None of this in itself makes the prioritisation any easier – some tasks that look like “do nothing” may really be valuable tasks on some level, and being “honest” about which tasks really are the important ones is full of phychological tricks and self-deceptions (and “category errors” ?).
Hmmm. Strange loops between levels ? Oh, oh, Hofstadter again.
“The world is divided into people who do things, and people who get the credit. Try, if you can, to belong to the first class. There’s far less competition.” (Dwight Morrow)
“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” (George Bernard Shaw)
“Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” (Sir James Barrie)
“A life spent in making mistakes is not only more honourable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” (George Bernard Shaw)
“One must not confuse thinking with doing nothing.” (anon) Or, in fact “A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is visible labour and there is invisible labour.” (Victor Hugo)
“Time spent thinking outside-the-box is also time spent thinking outside-the-[rewards]-structure.” (Steve Robbins)
“Dialogue is thinking about something with two minds instead of one.” (Daniel Quinn)
Now this really is becoming a displacement activity. Ian.
Post Note : Spookily on “Poetry Please” last night,
Roger McGough presented …
The Old Sailor by A.A. Milne
There once was a sailor my grandfather knew
Who had so many things which he wanted to do
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin
He couldn’t because of the state he was in.
He was shipwrecked and lived on an island for weeks,
and he wanted some breeks;
And he wanted some nets, or a line and some hook
For the turtles and things which you read of in books
And, thinking of this, he remembered a thing
Which he wanted (for water) and that was a spring;
And he thought that to talk to he’d look for, and keep
(If he found it) a goat, or some chickens and sheep.
Then, because of the weather, he wanted a hut
With a door (to come in by) which opened and shut
(With a jerk, which was useful if snakes were about),
And a very strong lock to keep savages out.
He began on the fish-hooks, and when he’d begun
He decided he couldn’t because of the sun.
So he knew what he ought to begin with, and that
Was to find, or to make, a large sun-stopping hat.
He was making the hat with some leaves from a tree,
When he thought, “I’m as hot as a body can be,
And I’ve nothing to take for my terrible thirst;
So I’ll look for a spring, and I’ll look for it first.”
Then he thought as he started, “Oh dear and oh dear!
I’ll be lonely tomorrow with nobody here!”
So he made in his notebook a couple of notes:
“I must first find some chickens” and “No, I mean goats!”
He had just seen a goat (which he knew by the shape)
When he thought, “But I must have a boat for escape.
But a boat means a sail, which means needles and thread;
So I’d better sit down and make needles instead.”
He began on a needle, but thought as he worked,
That, if this was an island where savages lurked,
Sitting safe in his hut he’d have nothing to fear,
Whereas now they might suddenly breathe in his ear!
So he thought of his hut…and he thought of his boat,
And his hat and his breeks, and his chickens and goat,
And the hooks (for his food) and the spring (for his thirst)…
But he never could think which he ought to do first.
And so in the end he did nothing at all,
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.
And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved-
He did nothing but basking until he was saved!