Slow by Design

A few months ago I started bullet journaling after my brother mentioned that he’d been doing it and that it was working well for him.[1] One reason bullet journalling was appealing to me was how it included task management as part of the practice.

Shortly after graduating from college, I read Getting Things Done and it changed how I kept track of tasks. I found that many of the principles in the book worked well for me, and I applied them (mostly) in a variety of digital task managers.[2] For the most part this worked well, but the one thing I was always really bad at was the daily/weekly review. If I did them at all, it was usually just a cursory glance through my lists where I’d think to myself, “yep, that looks right”.

You see, in these digital task managers, there was no obvious consequence for me short-changing my reviews. The tasks weren’t going anywhere. If they were still relevant, I was in no danger of losing track of them. If they were no longer relevant, it didn’t matter that much because it’s not like they were taking up space, and I always had systems in place to make sure that things that needed to get done bubbled to the top automatically.

Of course, there was a consequence to skipping reviews. I was hoarding project ideas that I wasn’t really interested in because of the possibility that some day I might find time for them. I wasn’t being honest with myself about what was important enough to actually keep around because it was easy to just keep everything, but as a result, looking at my projects lists was really discouraging. It was full of things I wasn’t doing. All of these possible projects weighed on my mind whenever I’d sit down to relax. I felt like I was watching TV or playing games when I could have been working on one of these project ideas.

What does all of this have to do with a bullet journal? Well, since a bullet journal is all paper, you have to do regular reviews. At the very least, once you’ve filled up a notebook and need to start a new one, you have to look through all of your incomplete tasks in the old notebook and decide whether or not you’re going to copy them over to the new notebook. In practice, these reviews happen much more frequently because you’ll want to copy incomplete tasks forward each month (or week) to a clean page so that you don’t have to keep scouring your daily logs for incomplete tasks.

It turned out that, for me, the convenience of digital task managers was actually undermining my motivation to do regular reviews of my tasks.[3] Forcing myself to review my tasks and copy them over or risk losing track of something important was what it took to get me to start doing meaningful reviews. On top of that, having to copy the tasks by hand adds enough friction that I’m a little more inclined to let go of tasks and projects that I don’t really care about anymore.

So adding some friction into my workflow actually improved the results. The lack of automation is a feature; it’s not a problem that needs solving, it’s an essential component for producing quality results.

Chris Coyier recently wrote[4]:

If we lived in a town where the only news of the outside world arrived written on a sheepshide wrapped around a cannonball that fell from the sky every 3.7 weeks, the news would probably be rather sheepshide shaped, not contain soup of the day information, and have a weird skewing toward cannonball related drama.

The Medium Informs the Message

News, I think, is another example where speed and efficiency may not necessarily be a boon. If you only publish news once every 3.7 weeks, you become a lot more thoughtful about what news is worth publishing (no more soup of the day).

Consider a more realistic example. Printing a newspaper is expensive and time-consuming; you’re likely to do it at most twice a day. On the other hand, publishing to a website or to Twitter costs basically nothing—what reason do you have not to hit “Publish”?[5] By making communication faster and “more efficient”, we’ve eliminated a lot of the old incentives to be more thoughtful in our communications.[6]

I think what all of this really boils down to is: when we talk about efficiency, we need to be specific about what we’re making efficient. Being efficient doesn’t have to be about just making processes faster and easier. We could think about efficiency in terms of the quality of the result relative to the amount of work put in. I’m putting in more work managing tasks now with my bullet journal than I was with Remember the Milk, but the results are significantly improved as a result.

Sometimes slowing down a little to be more thoughtful can dramatically improve your results.

  1. Somehow, despite my proclivity for reading about productivity methods, I had missed out on the bullet journal craze from a few years back. ↩︎

  2. Remember the Milk, OmniFocus, Things, and then Remember the Milk again. ↩︎

  3. I’m re-reading Getting Things Done at the moment and, in the updated version, David Allen actually warns about the risk that too much automation might mean you don’t check in on all of your “open loops” often enough. ↩︎

  4. Responding to a post by Jim Nielsen about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death ↩︎

  5. That’s not to mention the incentive to constantly publish new material to bring people back multiple times a day so you can show them ads. ↩︎

  6. Of course, making publishing cheaper and easier has also eliminated some gate-keeping and introduced a greater diversity of voices, which I think is, over all, a good thing. ↩︎