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ToDo Lists, Technology, and Simplicity
I'm going to say something obvious and try to make it sound profound: technology changes the way we approach our work.
This realization became salient yesterday as I was thinking about Andre's comment on "How to Write Effective ToDo lists" . Responding to my suggestion to include all the information needed to complete the action, he suggested to go ahead and put things like telephone numbers and email addresses into the phone or application in which you're going to execute the item.
What I love about Andre is his profound one-liners: "the less verbiage an action item contains, the more responsive you'll become to it." They're all over the place on his blog, Tools For Thought, and I may start a collection of them.
My issue (again from the comments) with that is that I need to be careful about doing such things and opening a chain of actions that don't include completing that action. I should note that I'm using a gimp penny phone (penny phone because it was one of those "get the plan and get the phone for a penny" deals) that has a horrible user interface and still has the twelve keys. So, in my context, entering in the telephone prior to actually calling makes the chain look like this:
Identify call to make
Write ToDo to make call
Look up information to make call
Put phone number in cell phone
Make call when planned
The killer for me is that fourth step, for two reasons. The first is that it takes me about 90 seconds to put in the number in my phone, so it adds time to the task. The second reason is that since the pre-portion of the task takes so long, it can throw me off to the fact that I still need to make the damned call. I can't count how many times I've done that very thing only to forget to make the call. Andre picks up on this and comments that the process is a bit different if you have a smartphone - it probably takes him about 15 seconds to the task.
The learning point here is that you have to assess what's more effective in your context. Different tools change the process.
Isn't It Better to Have Fewer Actions in the Process?
There's another train of thought here to ponder regarding action chains and issues of simplicity and complexity. Andre leads his last paragraph with the statement:
I wouldn't refer to this as an action "chain," because it's a single action with a clear boundary - once you've written down "Call Susan re: Project X", you just enter the number into your phone, and you're done.
Aside from the issue of technology already discussed above, it's interesting that we each have different takes on simplicity. To me, it's more simple to write the full information down, since it cuts out that fourth step. Keep in mind that I carry my handy notebook everywhere with me (even more than I do my phone, much to my wife's chagrin), so I'm never without the phone number. Once I've written it down, I'm done - the next step is simply making the call.
This is simpler to me because of my notebook-based system.
I'm taking it that Andre has set up his system such that the action of putting the number into his phone is so reflexive that it's not something he thinks about and because of this there's no mental overhead for him. I also suspect that he carries his phone with him everywhere, so he's never without the number.
For him, it's simpler to keep the number in the device from which he'll make the call.
Our different processes each subtract an action, yet we each think that, in our context, it's simpler to do it the way we do it. And we're both right.
The point: conventional wisdom states that the fewer actions that a process requires for completion, the more likely that that process will be completed. Efficiency theories, seeing that trend, try to eliminate the amount of steps in a given process.
But that misses the point. In some contexts, adding complexity makes things simpler. This is especially true when a step that adds complexity becomes ingrained in the actors in the process - Andre and his phone, me and my notebooks - because those techniques, holistically, fit in with the way the actors complete the process.
Homework: Examine Your Processes!
This is all very theoretical, I know. The difficulty in making this more tangible is that (again, the recurring theme) it depends on your processes and tools. That said, I'll give some homework, focusing on two processes: phone calls and email.
For phone calls, imagine yourself walking through the same process I did above. Quickly jot down the steps to complete the action. Now (the trick!) actually do the steps in context. What you'll probably notice is that there's an action involved that you didn't think of, or, surprisingly, you completed an action without thinking about it.
Walk through the same process for emails. Does your process require you to continually write the full email, or does it auto-select from the address book of your program. Do you have an automated signature or auto-reply?
What you're looking for in these exercises are any actions that might keep you from completing the action. For example, if your process requires you to look up information in places other than the list or the device used to carry out the action, then that's probably something you want to fix. Having to look up that information adds an action that can distract you from completing the process.
If there's an action that you particularly have trouble with for technical or psychological reasons, see if you can either become technically proficient enough or psychologically prepared to complete the process. For instance, some people hate "cold calling" - the problem of completing the process has nothing to do with listing or technology and everything to do with the state of mind of the person avoiding the call. (For a case study on phone phobia and coping techniques, check out this smart gal's issues with calling and how she deals with it.)
You may also find some steps in your process that technically aren't necessary to complete the process but that holistically make sense to you. Rather than trying to eliminate those steps in order to become more "efficient," leave it alone and get on with your work. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Points to Remember
Technology changes the way we approach our work
Your workflow determines which techniques are more effective than others
Simplicity for simplicity's sake is misguided - if a more complex process makes more sense, stick with it
Many thanks to Andre for providing such insightful commentary. If you like what I do here, you should check out his blog - I have to be careful how much I read his blog, for I can easily spend all day reading, commenting, and generally learning how to be better about thinking and doing.