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.
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.