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Posted by Chris Murtland
Nov 16, 2011 at 06:19 PM


Ken - yes, exactly, it’s that balance of your own expectations and external expectations that can be so distracting and draining. And most people don’t have the option of ignoring those external expectations, which is why putting some boundaries on it seems so useful.


Posted by Daly de Gagne
Nov 16, 2011 at 07:34 PM


JB, I disagree with your comment on the third point.

Indeed, the problem may be one of stress related from the in-box, and it is possible that the problem is one of compartmentalization capabilities.

But it is not necessarily so.

In fact, that kind of stress is often symptomatic of people who do not have a system which is suitable to their needs.

And, I would say there is no such thing as a meditation issue in this context. The only meditation issue, from a meditator’s perspective, is whether or not he or she is doing the practice. Period.

Mindfulness certainly could be helpful, but we do not live in a world of absolutes, of blacks and whites. So yes, mindfulness might help one to deal with the stress, or to be aware of what is causing the stress, or to be motivated to look for a better system.

I’d say there is no single system that is best for everyone.

However, in this context it is true many of us feel compelled to react to, or to act on, emails which seem more urgent, or sometimes just to get a warm fuzzy feeling we are doing something. One system which does offer a solution to this problem is Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow, with its notion of a closed list, and anything new (unless a genuine emergency or an edict from your boss) goes on tomorrow’s list (because today’s list is closed by the beginning of the day at the latest). It is a simple, very elegant approach.

Forster’s book provides many examples of how to deal with new things which come up during the day; these are set up in such a way that the reader gets to respond to each example before reading the recommended response.

The beauty of Forster’s system - perhaps the very best of the various approaches he’s offered - is its simplicity, ease of understanding, and basic, workable guidelines.


Most of us check email far too frequently. That behaviour in itself may be a sign we are spinning our wheels, or perhaps avoiding (without realizing it) what needs to be done next.

JBfrom wrote:
>Something I perhaps should’ve made explicit is that I do NOT recommend checking email
>often if you are not using Cyborganize.
> >It sounds to me like you go into reactive mode
>when checking email because you do not have an efficient task deferral mechanism.
>Either that or your task prioritization method is broken. Or you are unable to
>compartmentalize the stress radiating from your inbox, and that forces you to deal
>with those items first.
> >Of the three, only the last one can’t be addressed by a
>productivity system, as it’s more of an emotion management / meditation issue. 


Posted by JBfrom
Nov 17, 2011 at 02:33 AM


Hi Chris,

First, thanks for the thoughtful and interesting reply. You are my morning cigarette winner.

“In any case, if I am able to deal with email faster and more effectively by deferring the whole process for a couple of hours while I get some focused work done, isn’t that the essence of productivity?”

Yes. Short of adopting Cyborganize, I think your email checking habits are optimal for you and wouldn’t recommend changing them. I would even recommend them for most people.

** task management

“Also, task prioritization on almost any level seems to fail. “

I would say all task prioritization systems except Cyborganize’s fail, because they are too slow and/or clunky to respond to rapid shifts in user priorities and high volumes of incoming tasks. A task system that’s only half effective is actually zero effective, because task systems must inspire subjective trust and satisfaction to fulfill their intended function.

The task difficulties you outline are not just characteristic of email tasks, but all tasks, and are the reason Cyborganize scraps GTD’s task management system and starts over with something much simpler, faster and more flexible.

The problem of constantly fluctuating priorities that you cite is an excellent example of a reason why GTD simply cannot work. It’s suicide to try to constantly refactor all those individual task prioritizations in light of fluctuating priorities. BrainStormWFO’s affordance makes an alternative task management method possible - fast outline ranking and prioritization by dynamic A/B comparison. This method reveals a far more accurate prioritization tree than what you could accomplish in your head, because humans have cognitive biases that conceal their true preferences from them.

Regarding time sensitivity, Cyborganize handles this either by the category “by time” or with calendar scheduling.

“There has to be a middle ground between simply starring or flagging messages for deferral (having 200 starred messages doesn’t seem like much of an improvement on having 205 unread messages) and having some overly complex system where the properties of each individual task have to be managed constantly. “

I would say that’s a precise description of Cyborganize, since it eschews management of individual task properties.

“An intuitive judgment in the moment based on elements higher than the task level seems to work much better (and with no need to track it or manage it in any way).”

There is no reason you can’t go off of gut instinct while using Cyborganize. I often do. The point is that you have a reliable system as a backstop in case you drop one of the balls you’re juggling. This makes it far less stressful to go with your gut, indulge tangents, etc.

“There are also some related scheduling and capacity factors that I have never been able to figure out how to manage easily.”

The downside of Cyborganize is that its simplified task management system has no sophisticated scheduling and capacity factors. I would argue that for a personal system, a need to use advanced tools to optimize those perspectives indicates a suboptimal life.

** email processing specifically

As for messages that represent complex chains of tasks, that’s no problem. Email processing occurs in two stages:
1. scanning and replying/starring
2. Heavy processing into scratch files and chron tapes, and/or immediate execution

Stage 2 covers the heavy duty stuff, and can handle infinite levels of complexity.

As for letting people know when a block of work will be completed - this step should normally be completed after the scan and star stage, but before one tackles the real work of the email. I would create a separate task item - “notify X when Y will be done”. I’d make this a very high priority (but very easy) task. Then I’d sort my tasks with BrainStormWFO. After I’d sorted my task queue, I could then estimate my workload and expected completion date. Then I’d send a reply email and check off that little task.

By the way, you should not have more than 20-30 starred messages before doing a processing round. More than that and urgent stuff may start slipping by. I prefer to leave only 5-10 starred most of the time.

“having the message as the smallest unit seems to also fail. “

Yes, this is a hopeless strategy.

“Even entering all the tasks represented in mail into a separate system often feels onerous”

It’s far less onerous than the alternative… trying to remember it all, or rereading your inbox to find them. The only way to cut down on this step is to do the small stuff immediately. E.g., David Allen’s rule, “If it will take less than 2 minutes, do it now.”

On a philosophical note, if you are getting a high volume of interruptive, urgent email, then perhaps you need to reorder your life so that you have more uninterrupted time blocks. This problem is beyond the scope of an organizational system. Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away… and if it does, why not ignore it more to make it go away more? You can effectively increase your response time by leaving starred stuff to pile up longer, while still handling the truly urgent.

PS - It may seem like I spent a lot of time writing and organizing this, but it only took me 1 cigarette and 2 scratch files :)


Posted by JBfrom
Nov 17, 2011 at 02:38 AM


Ken, my recommendation to you would be to fully integrate your work and home productivity and info management systems. This will permit you to work from home on the longer range stuff.

Then I would use the increased performance to negotiate less interruptibility and higher pay.


Posted by JBfrom
Nov 17, 2011 at 02:43 AM


One thing worth noting that Dana’s post prompted - processing email is not just about task lists, it’s also about the task context contained in the email. In stage 2 of email processing, all contex should be transferred and the email archived. Otherwise you are not solving the problem of needing to refer back to your inbox.

Regarding multi-user task lists, I think collaborative and personal info tools should be separate. This gives you flexibility in maintaining your own setup while still communicating the minimum necessary to keep you in sync with others.

There is no possibility that email and task management can be combined successfully in a software app, because too much intelligent processing of the text is required, and the individual email unit just gets in the way.


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