I’ve long struggled with putting people first, putting relationships ahead of the projects that are taking up my time and focus. As soon as I started writing online and learning about personal productivity, this theme was playing itself out in my life.
I started thinking again about what it really means to follow the concepts that make up GTD. And how that fits with being a christian. One is focused on tasks and the completion thereof (on the surface at least). The other is focused on relationships. My relationship with God, and my relationships with my fellow man. I started wondering if these two seeming opposites could be reconciled.
This is one reason I liked Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next. He states that God wants us to be productive, but the goal is so that we’re free to do good works that benefit others. We discipline ourselves and make the most of our time so that when unknown needs arise (someone else’s, not our own), we’re able to stop what we’re doing and lend a hand. But I find any time that you try to approach things systematically, I put my attention too much in the wrong place. The system itself.
Even my much younger self quickly realized the issue was not with the tools, but with me. I could tinker with software or productivity frameworks or notebooks all day long and it would not bring about the correct results. What is needed is a change of desire.
And this is also true for the Christian life.
The Chicken or The Egg?
For those of us who struggle to put the first things first, for whom the spiritual often gets swept aside by the things that seem more urgent, how do we make seeking him the top priority of our life?
Our current culture loves to discuss the systemization of life. “Life hacks” are a popular subject. This is why I mentioned GTD above — this is something I’ve struggled with for quite some time. And in the long run, discipline and productivity tricks and hacking your brain all fall short. The heart wants what the heart wants and you can only force a change in behaviours for so long before you “fall off the train”.
So while discipline has a role to play in this struggle, the actual goal is a change in our desires. We use the disciplines of the Christian faith to get us started, but the goal is to want communion with God so badly that discipline is no longer required.
Yet, Scripture calls us to work hard at working out our salvation (not working for). Discipline is the tool that can help us initiate a change in what we actually want. I often shake my head and wonder what comes first: my desire to change or my forcing myself to do what my head knows is right when my heart wants to be lazy?
This Applies to All Areas of Life
The funny thing is that this is not only applicable to our walk with Christ. It applies to all areas of life. Read any article about productivity and underneath it all the need to put routines and systems in place to enable and force us to do good work, rather than succumb to the siren call of busy work and social media.
But you first need the desire to change before that can happen. If you're going to learn to focus deeply rather than succumb to the desire to do the easy thing (check email, Twitter, or even take care of the minute, small duties of your job), you have to want it. If the desire is not there, change will not happen.
And when it comes to making the changes, whether in our work lives or in spiritual matters, the focus must be in the right place. The end product.
GTD, or whatever your system of choice, are merely tools to accomplish that which you want to achieve. When the tool becomes the focus — the only focus — then we've missed the mark of what GTD was intended to improve. Namely, completing work and our ability to do so … If you find yourself working on your system, rather than in your system (or better yet, your system working for you), then you probably know what I'm talking about.
And the recommendation I had at the time was that one has to change their priorities and habits in order to focus on what matters.
Back to The Christian Walk
This fits so well with the life of a Christian. In my work, I need to focus on the end result, to envision how I want to feel about my work and my career 10 years down the road. But as a Christian, I need to focus solely on Christ … for he is both my end goal and the means of achieving it.
The goal of the Christian life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. And we glorify him when we do his will. What is his will for his children? For them to be conformed to the image of Christ, the firstborn over many brethren.
And this is a big reason why I always return to the classic disciplines of the Christian faith. They help me get my gaze pointed in the right direction. Yes, I can twist things to focus on the temporal, or on the tools themselves. But things improve over time. My study, prayer, meditation, and the like all get better as I get older. As I (slowly) lost my taste for the things of this world.
This is a bit of a repeat of late, but one I hope you’ll forgive me for. As I watch my goal for reading books week after week, I’ve been considering how to start a system similar to what Shane Parrish outlines in this article. Not to give myself something else to do, but simply to retain more and take what I’m reading and apply it to my every day life.
It’s been a while since I’ve considered other task management tools than 2Do. Well, except for Basecamp at work. And well, it’s been less than a year since I switched from OmniFocus to 2Do …
Hey, that is a long time for some of us, ok?
Anyway, over the past year I’ve had coworkers singing the praises of Todoist. But it was never of interest to me. 2Do is far more visually appealing and I tend to dislike apps that are cross platform.
But there was one feature that kept me coming back and reviewing the app every 3,4 weeks. Karma. That’s right, a scoreboard. I’d keep checking out the service to see how it was progressing, would compare the UI with 2Do, then walk away. But I finally decided to give it a test run.
Jokes aside, I’m a big believer of one of the pillars of 4DX. Keep a compelling scoreboard. The premise is that people play differently when they’re keeping score. And while that may seem childish when it comes to our own productivity, I believe the concept has merit.
But how does the feature pan out? Is it a gimmick, or can it improve one’s focus? I wanted to find out.
How It Works
Overall, the app is well designed. It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing, but that is likely intentional and it appears to be focused on providing a similar experience on the multiple available platforms. But for getting tasks into Todoist, then actually doing them, it’s a good tool.
My intention here is not to write a full review of all the features. I’m focused solely on the Karma feature. How does the karma in Todoist work? Details are available on their support site.
You gain or lose points in the following way:
adding and completing tasks
completing tasks on time
using labels, recurring due dates, and reminders
achieve your daily and weekly goals
keep a streak of meeting daily and weekly goals
have tasks that are greater than 2 days overdue
Simply put, completing tasks and projects contribute the most to your score. And you are able to set goals for your weeks and days: I want to complete 5 tasks per day and 30 per week. Doing so gains you points, and so does keeping a streak of days and weeks going. You can see this in the screenshot above.
Using Todoist IRL
It’s clever in many ways. Here are my observations in a month of usage.
Let me start with my biggest complaint, a very obvious one. It would be good to be able to differentiate between busy work and tasks that actually move your most important work forward. Unfortunately, a reminder to take some meat out of the freezer for dinner carries the same weight as writing a new draft of an onboarding email for the product I’m working on … this makes the statistics of far less value.
Tracking progress is important though. Perhaps for some people, certain methods are more useful than others. You can use use a journal (pen and paper even), a spreadsheet, or a wall or desk calendar to achieve the same purpose. But having this done automatically for you by your task management app is valuable.
Back to my first point, if you were to manually track your successes, you would not write down the fact that you took out meat for your dinner. It would be great if the app could recognize the difference. I want a tool where I can remind myself of items like prepping dinner, but also track the things most important to my life goals. With 2Do, I used it to track the latter, and set reminders for myself with Fantastical and Reminders on macOS.
Karma is not a great measure of your true success (or lack thereof). Since feature usage is included in gaining karma, it’s also fundamentally more about Todoist’s success than yours. Why should using labels increase my score?
All said, it is a good way to measure your cumulative activities. The streaks feature is fantastic. There is power in the habit of tracking your habits (see James Clear for more on that). So an app that keeps this in the foremost of your mind is a good thing.
You have to work hard to force yourself not to game it. Go ahead and add the little administrative tasks that are a part of your day. That's a part of life as well.
But more importantly, it helps you to really take your most valuable work, break it into discrete, concrete tasks, then work on those. Every day. This helps you to build confidence that you're making real progress and not just busy work. And it adds incentive to keep those streaks alive.
It’s clever overall. I’m not sure I’ll stick with it, but I appreciate this feature. If it was included in 2Do, I’d be a very happy man.
Related to my focus last week, Shawn Blanc and his team are experimenting with how they structure their work time in 2017. Taking cues from the Basecamp team, they’re trying an 8 week cycle, where focused work happens in weeks 1–6, followed by a buffer week, then finishes up with a week off.
It’s an interesting concept with a couple of benefits. One, the team members will take time off. That sounds a bit pedantic, but in environments like Shawn’s, with basically an open vacation policy, people end up taking far less time off than they should. As Shawn alludes to:
During those 20 months, I took roughly 3 weeks of vacation time, and that includes holidays. I was so locked in on a few huge projects I was working on that I kept pushing forward and took very little time off.
Second, the 6 week period of work should be very focused and productive. Since they know they have a buffer week to take care of all the little details, plus a week of rest, those first 6 weeks should be free from some of the regular concerns that take up a lot of our time.
Is this something everyone should do? I would not go so far as to say that. There are a couple of aspects of this schedule that would not sit well with me. First, the extreme focus of the 6 weeks of focus work may get boring. I like some variety, so I want to work on a couple of major initiatives at the same time. Second, I’d be curious to see if that one week of buffer is enough.
If you focus so hard for 6 weeks that some of the administrative responsibilities of your job are put aside that entire time, I’m not sure 1 week would be enough. On top of that, Shawn mentioned that buffer week is also intended as a time of review of the past 6 weeks, plus planning for the next 6 week cycle. That all sounds like a bit more than can be handled within 5 business days.
Concerns aside, it’s a curious approach. I’ll be interested to hear their results.
What Is The Perfect Structure For A Work Week?
This has been talked about a lot in the last 5–10 years. As the internet enabled the rise of remote work and distributed teams, we started to ask questions about our typical, expected, current ways of working. One specific question has been whether the amount of time for a week should remain as it has for the past century.
As companies in the SaaS and design world asked these questions, some have come to the realization that the maximum amount of time possible does not necessarily equate to the best end results. Sadly, others are still firmly buying into the idea of hustle, of working as many hours as physically possible each week. Simply because investors require a return on their investment and the clock is running (and the investors are not afraid to back teams making competing products).
So what is the best way for a team (small or large) to structure their week?
The answer is it depends.
Dave Martin from Help Scout makes a case for simply keeping things to their 40 hours. And he gives tips for doing just that. And for people in our industry, especially start ups, that’s an important message.
There are too many places putting the pressure on to work up in the range of 60 hours per week. There’s enough research out there now to make a strong argument that this is actually a detrimental approach — you’ll produce worse results rather accomplishing more. Even if some teams achieve success over the short term, our businesses should support us living a successful life, so we must measure the different approaches over the long term.
Mikael Cho from Crew takes it further and says that it’s time to get rid of the 40 hour work week. The de facto norm is a holdover from another time, when work was structured in different ways with people doing vastly different things. And while I agree with him in a sense, this is not the reality for some industries. For knowledge workers, that’s great. For tradespeople, not as much.
Some careers are seasonal; you’ll work more than 40 hours a week in some months, then no work at all for others. And some trades provide services in emergency situations and, as a result, some weeks will end up being longer. As long as it’s not the norm and workers are compensated, this is not necessarily an evil. There is no “one right way” to how we should work.
But for many of us, is the century old practice of putting in a solid 40 hours a good one? The team at Basecamp has experimented in this area and settled into the rhythm of 40 hour work weeks for most of the year, then switch to 4 day work weeks over the summer months (32 hour work week). Other teams have since followed suit and seem to do all right.
In his post, Mikael addresses a few more related points; this discussion is not merely about the total number of hours. If we’re going to consider changes, then we should also answer the question of what hours of each day make the sense. Is 8–4 or 9–5 the best time for everyone? And do they have to be consecutive hours, or does it ok to break your hours into chunks?
My opinion? Well, I certainly value that we’re blessed in this day and age to ask these questions. In most cases, our parents and grandparents were not having this type of discussion.
Overall, I also enjoy the flexibility and freedom provided by my employer, Wildbit. We’re firm on no more than 40 hours, but if you get your best work done in 32 hours and the remaining 8 would just be filler, no one will complain. In fact, I feel more driven to do my best because of the grace I’ve been given to guide my own efforts.
And in my own life, I’ve watched my habits and tendencies as my overall life changed. When our children were 5 and under, our days felt very different than what they feel like today (our youngest is 6). And so having a role that can shift with those needs feels like the best possible option. Exactly what hours of the day I do my best work will change over the season of life.
Hopefully, the nature of work is changing enough that we can adapt.
Tim Harford takes a good look at what makes for the best productive work environment. Surprise — pristine, design focused spaces are not the answer.
He covers some history in this post, including the details of M.I.T.’s infamous Building 20 (also covered in detail in Deep Work) and the Pixar offices under Steve Jobs. Through the piece, Harford is making the case that so many great innovations come from spaces where the worker is in control of the environment. He refers to studies that prove just that:
Haslam and Knight have confirmed what other researchers have long suspected – that lack of control over one’s physical environment is stressful and distracting. But this perspective is in stark contrast to those who see office design as too important to be left to the people who work in offices.
So why has the trend of building elaborate buildings loaded with all the bells and whistles and free beer become a fixture in the Valley? Harford claims we put the emphasis in the incorrect order.
But we’re often guilty of confusing causation here, believing that great architecture underpins the success of great universities, or that Google flourishes because of the vibrancy of the helter skelters and ping pong tables in the Googleplex. A moment’s reflection reminds us that the innovation comes first, and the stunt architecture comes later.
For those of us who work from home, this is a good reminder. We’re in control. We do not have the budget to build a Googleplex, but we do have the ability to shape our space as see best fit. And that is something to be embraced.