Productivity culture, cognitive triage and the pseudo-commensurability of the to-do list

For a couple of years I’ve been striving to empty my e-mail inbox on a daily basis. It doesn’t particularly bother me if I don’t succeed and I often don’t. I go through phases of doing this daily and then, for whatever reason, fall out of the routine. I’ve rarely had to spend more than a hour a day on e-mail this way because there’s only so much that accumulates in the space of twenty-four hours. It’s left me with a firm conviction that e-mail is only really a problem if the quantity exceed a certain point (e.g. if dealing with a day’s e-mail always took a few hours or more) or if you don’t attend to it regularly. Obviously, it can be difficult to attend to it regularly for all sorts of reasons. That in fact is why I write this as someone who does ‘inbox zero’ for a couple of weeks at a time rather than as a continuous feature of my life. But from my point of view what I formerly experienced as a real problem now just seem as if I was doing it wrong. It used to stress me out a lot and, at least when I’m in a phase of emptying my inbox daily, it just doesn’t stress me out at all. I drink coffee, listen to Today on Radio 4 and have cleared my inbox by the time I start my day.

What struck me this morning however is that this process can have unforeseen consequences. It’s not a case of ‘stress’ caused by e-mail giving way to an absence of stress but something more subtle than that. I tweeted earlier today:

I was suddenly struck by the horrible repetitiveness of this process. Had the character limit not precluded it, I would have likely added a fourth line: “continue daily until death”. Well actually I probably wouldn’t because of how unspeakably depressing a sentiment that would be in the absence of the navel-gazing contextualisation a blog post like this would provide. Nonetheless I’ve been thinking about that feeling all morning. It quickly passed but it was an arresting sense of the intrinsic pointlessness of practices conducted in this mode.

I say intrinsic because it has all sorts of extrinsic benefits: by dealing with e-mail in this way I neutralise it as a source of stress, I ignore my inbox for the rest of the day*, I have more time and energy for the things I care about etc. But in and of itself, the practice of ‘inbox zero’ is devoid of value: it’s a kind of cognitive triage, systematically attending to what is urgent in order to free up resources for what is important. That at least is what it’s supposed to do. But I think the instrumentalism of triage practices, desiring to do something as quickly as possible because you’re fundamentally irritated by the fact it’s necessary and want to get it out of the way, risks seeping into how other activities are engaged with.

What provoked that slightly despairing feeling in me this morning was the exercise of going from e-mail to omnifocus: clearing my inbox, clarifying the necessary actions ensuing from those e-mails and filing them in my organiser. Suddenly the various lists contained within that organiser grew dramatically – in one case going from 10 items to 20 items. My problem is that while some of those tasks were incredibly dull, others were not and yet the way I framed them led me to see them all as problems to be solved. They were irritants, barriers to a conceptually incoherent state I was implicitly seeking to attain in which everything I’d ever have to do was now done.

This is the mentality that cognitive triage generates: things are conceived as obstacles to be eliminated rather than activities to be enjoyed. As the list gets bigger, it becomes harder to see the individual ‘to do’ items as activities in their own right. They are reduced to uniform list items and nothing more. Things you enjoy and things you despise are given equal weight. The logic of the to-do list is one of commensurability and this is the problem with it. The process of triaging combined with the logic of the to-do list can lead to an evisceration of value: the potential goods internal to activities, those experiences of value that can only be found through doing, get obliterated by the need to cross items off a list. There’s a relational richness to practical activity which can easily be obliterated at the level of phenomenology by the tendency of ‘productivity’ to give rise to ‘mindless busyness’. This is how Heidegger describes it in What Is Called Thinking?

A cabinetmaker’s apprentice, someone who is learning to build cabinets and the like, will serve as an example. His learning is not merely practice, to gain facility in the use of tools. Nor does he merely gather information about the customary forms of the things he is to build. If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood – to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its nature. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintain the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork, any occupation with it will be determined exclusively by business concerns. Every handicraft, all human dealings are constantly in that danger. The writing of poetry is no more exempt from it than is thinking.  (pg 14-15)

In other words: your desire to ‘get things done’ obscures the fact that you actually like many of the things you’re doing and, as a statement about moral psychology, if you forget this fact then you’re much less likely to enjoy doing them. Being in a rush to get something done runs contrary to attending to the task itself. Unfortunately, it is only through attentiveness that we derive value from practical activity. Focusing on the next thing you have to do squeezes out awareness of what you are presently doing. Wondering how quickly you can get something done makes it hard to focus on the logic of the task itself. Seeing something as an obstacle to be overcome precludes experiencing it as a source of fulfilment. Productivity culture or rather the various forms of triaging it encourages can easily undercut many of the things which motivate it in the first place e.g. seeking to perform mundane tasks more efficiently in order to have more time to write.

*Well actually I don’t but at least I recognise that it’s blind compulsivity that undermines this rather than any practical necessity.

89 responses to “Productivity culture, cognitive triage and the pseudo-commensurability of the to-do list”

  1. Very insightful observation. i compulsively mark all emails as ‘read’ because I can’t stand my inbox being out of my control. I find this concept of mindfulness so incredibly difficult! The more I try to focus, the more I notice how scattered I am inside. How focused on becoming I am rather than the being. How fixated on the extrinsic values ( goals,milestones – anything that can be validated by others) I am to the detriment of the intrinsic values of simply being. Ironically, one must master being in order to become. Again, very elaborate and deep post.

  2. The bizarre self-imposed dichotomy of “work” versus “play” is the worst disease of our age. I blame Protestants.

    They say if you do something you love you never have to work again, presumably because you are laughing it up all day long. But never underestimate a human being’s ability to turn an enjoyable activity into work. We do it constantly for two reasons.

    One, society gives out points for suffering, not success. If you were born rich, you’re a slug, but if you slaved for an appropriate number of years through an appropriate pile of shit and pain, now you deserve that Lexus, we’ll give you a pass. Any desirable thing not purchased with a long history of misery and struggle is unfair, anybody happy when we are not is just wrong.

    Two, human beings are uninformed about the power of their own minds. It’s ridiculously easy to alter perception and turn any situation around to one’s advantage but it’s more fun (and socially acceptable–Hi, Protestants!) to complain about it and get those points for suffering instead.

    Ever get together with friends and talk about nothing all night but how fabulous everyone’s lives are and how much you appreciate what you have? I rest my case.

  3. This is wonderful in so many different ways. I like how you made the connection between the quotation by Heidegger and the ritual of email inbox cleansing as symbolic of the way we increasingly view things these days.

  4. I think part of the problem is that to initiate such a conversation would make you seem conceited – so there’s no social opening for that kind of dialogue to emerge, even if both people are privately feeling it.

  5. Indeed, many things we do lack mindfulness and “being present”! I think you’re right about “to-do” lists, which is probably why I’m so bad at making them. The tasks/chores/things we actually enjoy doing become check marks on a list, and we rush through them without really being present doing so.

    In my last profession, I had a daily running list. There were always things on that list when I walked in every day. As I went through the day, I added more and checked some off. At the end of the day, I was lucky if I finished the day with less than I started with, even though I had worked my butt off!

    Now, I don’t really do lists unless I’m super busy and need to keep my head straight. Otherwise, I’m a “Wow, you’ve got a clean inbox” kind of guy on the daily. I want that inbox – like my lists – mostly empty!

  6. It hadn’t occurred to me to think of it as a ‘ritual’ – actually that’s another dimension to this which is really interesting. E-mail as cleansing ritual to make oneself feel in control. Inbox zero as a particularly extreme form of ritual.

  7. but why? so so I and I’m now thinking, after another comment, that this is incredibly ritualistic. it’s a daily purify ritual to produce a sense of control over my life.

  8. I love the (definite ritual) of checking off the to dos and making sure that the inbox has all been taken care of, but on some days I definitely feel that it IS possible to also enjoy the tasks that come out of that as stand alone challenges. It doesn’t happen every day, but more often than not. Though the caveat would probably be that the best days are when you can focus on one thing and ignore lots of others!

  9. Whoa – hold on there. Don’t rock my world this early in the morning – I haven’t even checked my emails yet!

    My inbox IS my to-do list. My calendar even sends me emails when I’m supposed to do something or think about something (really, I schedule time to think about projects when I don’t want to think about them right now). I’ll have to schedule some time to re-evaluate my inbox philosophy – I’ll send myself an email reminder.

  10. We were just having this exact conversation the other day in the office. Checking email and creating daily “to do” lists seem to take up a huge portion of our day. So much so, that by the time emails are attended to and sorted, list written and prioritized, you feels so mentally drained that actually performing the daily tasks seems almost daunting. There has to be a better way! I for one am a huge fan of the “mark as junk mail/spam” option as opposed to just marking as read or deleting. It really reduces the crap so I can focus on the important tasks at hand. Not to mention, I have a severe case of OCD when it comes to email and have labels and folders for EVERYTHING! As far as the daily to do list, call me old school, but I prefer the good ol’ notebook and pen. This way I can make notes if needed and go back and reference if needed.

  11. I agree with you about keeping the email box down daily helps to keep control and make me feel less frantic. I love to do lists because I tend to be forgetful and will end up doing other tasks that could have waited. For me, it also helps me stay on track when I take breaks in between tasks. I think people forget that a to do list is a guide not a work schedule.

  12. Great post, Mark, and I’d never thought about how viewing tasks as…tasks would strip them of joy. Maybe it says something about my present state that even the ones I would traditionally designate as ‘fun’ (working on my comic, cleaning my room) have become chores to prove a point about how effective a human being I am rather than whatever the alternative is. I would disagree though with the assertion that viewing things as to-do list items automatically takes away from being fully engaged with the activity. Productivity culture gives strength to the vague voice feeling that more work awaits, which if you pay enough attention to will detract from engagement, but if you put your mind to it (particularly for enjoyable activities) it’s definitely very possible to remain fully within the task at hand.

  13. This reminds me of what happened to my TV watching habits when I got TiVo. I began to see the list of shows I had recorded not as enjoyment, but as a to-do list or something that needs to get done (watched). It’s hard to get around that.

  14. I basically agree, I’m just not convinced it’s as straight forward as just putting your mind to it though

  15. If I buy too many digital comics, something which is usually engrossing becomes a chore because I’m not sure how to manage the surplus

  16. Reblogged this on Anissa Yost and commented:
    Read this particular post this morning and it struck a chord inside me as this seems to be a daily struggle in my own life. Thought I would share as maybe some of you will also have an interest.

  17. In my line of work (RE), it is not just the email communication, but the technological progress that is made overall. I find it difficult to catch up with all the latest apps, but I have to use them in order to provide the best for my customers. Apps like Matterport are crazy and effective as hell. The only problem is the time I have to dedicate to search for new utilities, making me work less on the real world issues. I can directly apply this to my email communication as well. I’m obsessive compulsive with my emails, and I try to respond to them all right away. And sometimes I think how the heck I can continue like this for another twenty years. This growing anxiety will drive me mad.

  18. thanks so much for such an insightful piece! i am compulsive about having inbox zero for my work emails (which are voluminous on a daily basis) but as those come at a separate address from personal ones i actually don’t feel compelled about my person inbox with which I associate no stress at all (usually). I don’t know whether it means I need to calm down about work and enjoy it a bit more rather than freak out about not achieving inbox zero, or whether it means i need a new profession but that’s a separate thought i suppose… 🙂

  19. This rings so true… I have recently been trying to downsize my personal library and it seems like I’m skimming pages to flip them faster so I can throw the book in a donation bin, but I’m not retaining anything from the stories! In some ways, my bookshelf is a lot like your inbox. And I think you’ll agree, as gratifying as the mental triage can be, remaining mindful is ultimately more beneficial to your thoughts/creative productivity.

  20. I like you how reconciled a mundane act with a well thought philosophy. I partially agree that the value of one’s action is reduced when it becomes a ‘habit’ or viewed as a task instead of a conscious decision to exercise it. But that is because it is expected of us, as a thinking being, to find meaning and joy on what we do. It is sad though that most of the time people would assume there is a dichotomy between work and pleasure, rather than viewing work as an expression of a person’s creativity; therefore, deriving pleasure from work.

  21. Reblogged this on La Dolce Vita and commented:
    As I trudge through that time of year where my future looms over me in the form of The Omnipresent Application, it’s healthy to attend to the problem of employment and finances rather than cross it off my list.

  22. hello, i would like to know how can I make all my posts favored by many bloggers like your blog? Do you want to share with me? thank you very much 🙂

  23. Oh my, the to do list. Even finding the time to make the list can be overwhelming. Getting through email with all the”stuff” that comes in. It’s a daunting task. So I go through the first ten and the rest build up. I should just scrap the whole 1,700 of them now and start over. Our I won’t get anything else done! Great article.

  24. Reblogged this on Watch and Whirl and commented:
    Oh my, the to do list. Even finding the time to make the list can be overwhelming. Getting through email with all the”stuff” that comes in. It’s a daunting task. So I go through the first ten and the rest build up. I should just scrap the whole 1,700 of them now and start over. Our I won’t get anything else done! Great article.

  25. Interesting light shedding on modern habbits. To further another avenue to the wood shop example: the wood crafters shop in Florence, Italy will always have some sense of constant continuity, constant production of Pinocchio’s (probably made in some other part of Italy) the store having to be open every week for the millions of tourists each year. In comparison, the wood crafter shop in Pacentro is only open by ear, and the crafter has the privilege of producing upon inspiration and request (the shop was rather his home, as well, not a place for tourists to commonly visit (or consume, for that matter). Our “getting things done” is comparative to our excellent ability to consume products, and even our time (emails).

  26. Inbox zero calms me. But in response to the lists, I’ve found that if you can do it now, don’t write it on the list, just do it, get a snowball effect rolling. Stuff that needs to be done tomorrow, write on a list. Not for everyone since people forget things but it helps keep the focus on the action and not listing everything and then feeling the burden of it.

  27. Nice post! I’m truly inspired but I have to comment that I am the type of person that has email checking on the top of the hourly checklist. Interesting point for a psychological study even!

  28. Ahh, the safety net of the to do list! Great post, stumbled upon via Freshly Pressed. It made me think back to an interesting TED talk I saw last week by a Harvard scientist called Matt Killingsworth. I haven’t linked it – not everyone is a fan! – but if you’re interested it was called ‘Want to be Happier? Stay in the moment’.

  29. “Being in a rush to get things done runs contrary to attending to the task itself” – by some strange coincidence I also realised what you’re writing about this past week. In response I’ve begun to see things not merely as tasks to be finished, but as experiences to be carried out with curiosity and attention – and that has totally changed the tone of my days.

  30. Excellent! How are you doing it? I find it much easier to write than to put into practice

  31. There where the practice lies, no? In the end it’s a process of learning what our particular triggers and habits are… But so far I’ve found that recognising resistance or distraction are big things for me. Often the resistance is an unwillingness to accept the inevitability of the tasks given current circumstances. And by distraction I don’t mean other tasks, but other matters that are occupying my mind – something I’m upset or dissatisfied with usually. When I’m clear of these it’s easier to know what needs to be done, and focusing comes more easily. Of course, awareness is needed for all this – mindful and meditation help.

  32. One more thing that sounds a bit obvious. Stop wanting to complete things all the time, just do what feels right. Trying it for a day does wonders to recalibrate the mind.

  33. I could definitely relate to this post… often times we do things just to get them done. I’ve found myself practically being lost without my to do lists as well. You make a very good point.

  34. This seems more of an issue of prioritizing and knowing which things you enjoy and which you don’t. For me, my to-do list is organized around which things are related to each other such as vicinity of doing the activities listed – the whole killing two birds with one stone idea. The other thing organizing my daily to-do list is work/reward. I do a few things on the list that I do not enjoy and then I reward myself by doing something on my to-do list that I do enjoy. I also know which things are urgent, which are convenient, which are unnecessarily stress inducing and which will bring a sense of fulfillment.

  35. Reblogged this on ROBERT CULLEN'S 3S BLOG and commented:
    Here’s a post to think about when trying to achieve a #3S life:

    “your desire to ‘get things done’ obscures the fact that you actually like many of the things you’re doing and, as a statement about moral psychology, if you forget this fact then you’re much less likely to enjoy doing them. Being in a rush to get something done runs contrary to attending to the task itself.

  36. It was like a day dream when you put yourself in a position to “keep up with the Jones family”. It’s a start but the foundation has to be built as I post this comment.

  37. I loved reading this post and it’s reaffirming to recognize the way our brain and minds rationalize our daily tasks…being present in the moment is essential for practicing gratitude and happiness. I regularly get together with close friends (or Skype) and recognize the amazing things in our lives. I think it’s a key to being happy – knowing how blessed you are and knowing how to pay it forward. It difficult to have that conversation on a societal level but with close people you trust, it should be celebrated and your positive energy spread outward.

  38. I procrastinated the first three years out of hs away and now I actually find myself having ambition but my procrastination basically gets the better of me unless I make lists and reminders and etc but I see your point about it being repetitive you have to look at the thin line of it being helpful and productive and don’t let it become just a semi useful habit that keeps you droning on to the same routine.

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