Forever Learning

Forever learning and helping machines do the same.

The Curse of Getting Things Done

with 8 comments

I consider myself to be well organized. Both in my professional and personal life I use Remember the Milk for keeping track of almost everything I do using some of the techniques described in Getting Things Done and practice Inbox Zero almost religiously.

If I ever actually forget to do something, it’s probably because I forgot to write it down.

Adding an Idea to the List

Adding an Idea to the List

But being super-organized does not make one super-human (sadly), so the fact that I do not forget does not mean I can actually do everything I intend to. At the end of the day many of the things I want to get done are not; they get postponed, put off, perhaps indefinitely.

I have a repeating weekly task that reminds me to write a post for this blog every Friday. As you might have noticed, that does not result in weekly posts. I didn’t forget, but as much as I want to write, I had other things to do.

Each day I actively and consciously decide to not do many things that I would really, really, really like to. This, for me, is the Curse of Getting Things Done. I am fully aware of my own shortcomings; completely knowledgeable of me failing to do That One Thing that was So Important; explicitly confronted with Not Getting Everything Done.

In general this is probably a good thing. I can consider the pros and cons of completing a task versus postponing it and get to decide what to do, and what not to do, with my time; while still being able to work towards long-term goals. But the physical act of postponing a task comes at a mental price. It’s one thing to simply forget to do something, but it is something else entirely to explicitly decide not to do something simply because it is not important enough to you.*

I understand that I am only human, but I still feel guilty every time I postpone a task.

Perhaps it would be better not to know. Perhaps ignorance truly is bliss.

[* “It’s not that I can’t do it today, but just that I consider sleep to be more important right now.”]

Written by Lukas Vermeer

October 15, 2010 at 23:40

Posted in Meta, Psychology

8 Responses

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  1. If you really follow GTD, then discarding stuff isn’t bad. If you don’t have time for something it means you deem it not important enough to make time for, and therefore should not worry about not doing it (which is also a waste of time and energy). I too find this step very difficult, but sometimes you just have to let things go. Sitting at home and reading a book in the evening might not be the most efficient way to spend time, but it does help in relaxing. My most helpful thought is that it is impossible to be 100% efficient 100% of the time…


    October 18, 2010 at 12:05

    • Thanks for your input, Wybe! What you are saying is absolutely true. But feeling and thinking are two different things. I know that discarding or postponing tasks is not bad, but I still feel guilty.

      I got the idea for this post from the book Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. At some point in his book, Taleb describes a hypothetical stock trader. When this man looks at his returns once yearly, he’ll see he’s doing pretty damn good. But when he observes his progress (relatively, of course, up or down from the last time) each minute, the odds of being ‘up’ approach those of being ‘down’. Of course, on average he will be up more times than down, but the emotional response to losing money is much, much stronger than that to gaining a few cents.

      The same applies here. I _know_ that postponing is not bad, but I still _feel_ bad. The question is whether I would feel better or worse when I simply forget to do stuff every once in a while. Is ignorance bliss? I don’t know.

      Also, sometimes, I’m just too damn ambitious. 😀


      October 18, 2010 at 12:31

      • Funny, just this week I read an article by Malcolm Gladwell about Nassim Taleb called “Blowing Up: How Nassim Taleb turned the inevitability of disaster into an investment strategy” (bundled in Malcolm Gladwell’s book What The Dog Saw).

        Interesting passage on feeling versus thinking:

        “What Empirica has done is to invert the traditional psychology of investing. You and I, if we invest conventionally in the market, have a fairly large chance of making a small amount of money in a given day from dividends or interest or the general upward trend of the market. We have almost no chance of making a large amount of money in one day, and there is a very small, but real, possibility that if the market collapses we could blow up. We accept that distribution of risks because, for fundamental reasons, it feels right. In the book that Pallop was reading by Kahneman and Tversky, for example, there is a description of a simple experiment, where a group of people were told to imagine that they had $300. They were then given a choice between (a) receiving another $100 or (b) tossing a coin, where if they won they got $200 and if they lost they got nothing. Most of us, it turns out, prefer (a) to (b). But then Kahneman and Tversky did a second experiment. They told people to imagine that they had $500 and then asked them if they would rather (c) give up $100 or (d) toss a coin and pay $200 if they lost and nothing at all if they won. Most of us now prefer (d) to (c). What is interesting about those four choices is that, from a probabilistic standpoint, they are identical. Nonetheless, we have strong preferences among them. Why? Because we’re more willing to gamble when it comes to losses, but are risk averse when it comes to our gains. That’s why we like small daily winnings in the stock market, even if that requires that we risk losing everything in a crash.
        At Empirica, by contrast, every day brings a small but real possibility that they’ll make a huge amount of money in a day; no chance that they’ll blow up; and a very large possibility that they’ll lose a small amount of money.”

        So all they do is buy options all day long. They’re losing money almost every day, but trust that they make a fortune every once in a while (they did when 9/11 hit for instance). I think it would be pretty hard to watch my graphs going down more than 99% of the days…

        Nils Breunese

        October 24, 2010 at 10:27

        • Thanks for sharing! Interesting stuff. Taleb goes into the details of his investment stategy a little more in his book ‘Black Swan’, but I had not heard of that particular Kahneman study before. People are strange creatures, indeed.

          Yesterday, someone else recommended ‘What the Dog Saw’ as well; to complete my Gladwell collection. Sound like I really need to read that. I’ve put it on my to-do list… 🙂


          October 24, 2010 at 11:42

          • Funny, I hadn’t heard of either Malcolm Gladwell or Nassim Taleb until I started reading Nieske’s copy of What The Dog Saw while on vacation, but that Kahneman/Tversky experiment sounded familiar somehow.

            Nils Breunese

            October 24, 2010 at 12:05

    • The fact that you don’t do something doesn’t have to mean that you don’t deem it important, nor does it mean that it *is* not important. If you lose motivation for stuff that is important then it’s probably a good idea to kill some less important projects, so you have more energy next time.

      Sjors Provoost

      October 25, 2010 at 19:26

  2. It can be really nice too. I once spent an entire day not feeling like doing anything. Every hour I deleted a todo item that would have taken an hour, but wasn’t essential.

    Sjors Provoost

    October 25, 2010 at 19:22

  3. […] been a while. Too long, to be precise. I did not forget, I’ve simply been postponing writing anything for this blog for days on end. Not that […]

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