The Simpleton and the Grail

Well, it’s been about a week since the release of the D*I*Y Planner Hipster PDA Edition, and the feedback has been excellent and very constructive. I’ve also had a few dozen people writing me about how they implemented the Hipster PDA in their own systems, and it’s been some interesting reading. However, there seems to be a disconcerting trend among a few users, and there is one person in particular whose email illustrates it well. Let’s call him Ringo (and I thank him for his permission to post about his situation).

Ringo wrote me a message asking for my opinion about how he might tweak his setup. Normally, my standard reply is “whatever works for you, my friend,” since everybody’s situation is so very different, and I advocate a process of discovery. But this email caught my attention, since it epitomised a number of problems I see emerging among some productivity tweakers.

His GTD-based system involved Outlook, Excel spreadsheets, a wiki, a web-based to-do application, a Palm synced with both Outlook and Palm Desktop, some Perl scripts to import and export CSV and tab-delimited data files to and from various applications, a D*I*Y Planner Day-Timer and a rather thick set of Hipster PDA cards using most of my templates. I won’t get into the details: suffice it to say that the system was detailed in 17 steps, was about three pages long, required carrying a large bag filled with his tools, and done daily. I must say, as I read his email, I could certainly admire his technical abilities and –in certain cases– his ingenuity. His Perl scripts used a number of CPAN libraries to retrieve and post information from his private wiki and prep it for his Palm, and his next stages were to involve Plucker in the mix using some Python scripts and then use pilot-link libraries to import to-do’s and memos into his Palm. Ringo is a part-time CGI programmer, and quite the smart cookie.

Too smart, I think. It seems like all the really smart people (and notably the ones with technical abilities) overcomplicate matters, and make the productivity process far too difficult and inefficient.

I’ve noticed some people are sharing their planning mantras. Here’s mine: simplify.

The Grail\'s Mysterious Call, by Pogany (1912)In the body of Arthurian legends, you’ll find various tales of the Sangraal, the Holy Grail, the sacred cup that once contained the blood of Christ and which possessed the abilities to heal the land and its people of infertility, disease, despair and –some would say– ignorance. The earliest legends had for their central character the knight called Perceval. (Other Arthurians, please forgive my mixing of versions in the effort to make a point here.)

Now, Perceval’s mother wanted to shield her baby from the nasty world outside, from its war-mongerers, its tempting damsels and its enticing evils. She retreated to the Welsh wilderness and raised him there in the wood for 15 years in complete isolation without the benefit of books, visitors or tutelage in outside matters. Then one day, Perceval experiences knights for the first time. He was amazed by the sight of the armored warriors, and in his naivété he couldn’t comprehend that their metal casings weren’t skin. Finally, in the face of a barrage of questions that forever broke open his self-contained little world, his mother gave in, and told Perceval of his noble birthright and knights and kings and chivalry. Perceval, the young fool, pitched some food into a sack and left for the cities, forever leaving behind his weeping mother and the tranquil life of the forest.

The Quest for the Holy Grail was the medieval epitome of the search for excellence. Many great knights, including the great Lancelot du Lac, tried to achieve the magical vessel and failed miserably, for they were flawed in their thoughts or deeds. Eventually, it was Perceval –the naive, the unlearned– who attained it. Despite the powers and techniques and worldly experience of the other knights, it was only Perceval that possessed the one thing that could lead to the Grail. The simpleton’s secret? Focus. While all the other knights spent most of their time jousting in tournaments, chasing damsels, conquering evil knights, sleeping with queens, and sundry other glamorous tasks, Perceval was single-minded upon reaching his objective.

I’ve always thought that the moral of the tale is to keep things as simple as possible and to focus entirely on the desired outcome. I used to be like Ringo, and had some pretty …uhm… “interesting” ideas on how to use technology to tie together my information and organisational methods into a coherent system. I was always questing, but taking my eye off the Grail. There were so many interesting and glamorous diversions in implementing the various tools that I rarely stuck with my procedures long enough to be efficient. Each new side-quest was alluring, filled with the promise of fulfilling the end goal while making my life easier.

It was only last fall that I realised I was in a never-ending spiral of productivity tweaking. I sat down with a blank piece of paper and wrote down the types of information that I needed to use to keep myself productive. The solution was actually far simpler than I would have imagined. Within a day, I had figured out what I had to do. Within a month, I got the bugs out of the system. Six months later, I only make small and incremental changes –which the Japanese call Kaizen– but only if they are simple, effective and focused. (I’ll write about my own productivity methods at a later date, for those who are interested.)

My most important lesson learned: unless it’s simple, I won’t do it, or won’t find it efficient. Simplify.

Update : I’ve written a post concerning how I simplified matters, entitled The Beginner’s Mind.

12 Replies to “The Simpleton and the Grail”

  1. I’m reminded of a cartoon that was brought into a first year class in art school. I heard the story second hand.

    I think it goes something like this:

    A caveman is drawing a bull on the wall of the cave, and says to himself, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

    Then again, maybe you have to be an artist or art historian to find this funny… or I should work on my delivery, but the mantra is similar. (BTW, if anyone has seen this cartoon, I’d love to know the source.)

  2. There are SOOO many versions of the Parsifal legends, thank you for another version.

  3. This post really hit home as I had to pull myself out of the never ending spiral not too long ago.

    I went through the same endless quest (at times I still do because, well, it’s fun to try new things) then I decided to think through it backwards. My thought process went like this:

    1) What aspects of my organization tools need to be mobile?
    2) What am I willing to carry around on a day to day basis?

    Those two questions got me pared down to a my 1) blackberry phone which syncs my addresses and calendar to my computer, 2) a moleskine memo accordian folder and 3) a pen.

    I use each compartment in the accordian folder as an @category and file index card accordingly. Write down thing I want to focus on in a given day on one index and keep that in the front. When don’t have time to whip out the writing tools I send myself an email from my blackberry to my gmail account for processing later.

  4. Lyndon, I’m detecting a hint of sarcasm there, although I do take your point.

    I’m an Arthurian going way back, and have spent countless hours studying the legends. Even learned Ancien Francais and some Welsh, Breton and Latin (including vulgar) to read the original texts. I regard quite highly the work of Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and the anonymous authors of the Mabinogion, Perlesvaus, Didot-Perceval and the Vulgate Cycle (among other tales). And I dream of the day when the lost Perceval of Robert de Boron is found.

    As I said above, though, I hope other Arthurians would give me a little latitude in how I mix some of the legends (in a much abbreviated way) in my effort to prove a point, as in my mind there is no definitive version of the legend, not even Wolfram von Eschenbach’s. Like the rest of the Arthurian mythos, there is a constant shifting of ideas, characters and story elements within the basic plots, not to mention the merging of the tale with other legends.

    Were I to get into this, though, I have no doubt I would lose 99% of my readers. 😉

  5. Nothing to add for comment on subject content, I will add I absolutely love the image you put with it. Made my day just to see it. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I saw the “simplify” story written up the following way (hard to show in typeface…)

    — Henry David Thoreau

    and then the first two “Simplify” and the “Henry David” are struck through. Draw it on a page, and you’ll see why it’s funny.

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