Blaming the Prophet

Consider the fifth argument in the last post. Should we blame a person for holding a true belief? At this point it should not be too difficult to see that the truth of the belief is not the point. Elsewhere we have discussed a situation in which one cannot possibly hold a true belief, because whatever belief one holds on the matter, it will cause itself to be false. In a similar way, although with a different sort of causality, the problem with the person’s belief that he will kill someone tomorrow, is not that it is true, but that it causes itself to be true. If the person did not expect to kill someone tomorrow, he would not take a knife with him to the meeting etc., and thus would not kill anyone. So just as in the other situation, it is not a question of holding a true belief or a false belief, but of which false belief one will hold, here it is not a question of holding a true belief or a false belief, but of which true belief one will hold: one that includes someone getting killed, or one that excludes that. Truth will be there either way, and is not the reason for praise or blame: the person is blamed for the desire to kill someone, and praised (or at least not blamed) for wishing to avoid this. This simply shows the need for the qualifications added in the previous post: if the person’s belief is voluntary, and held for the sake of coming true, it is very evident why blame is needed.

We have not specifically addressed the fourth argument, but this is perhaps unnecessary given the above response to the fifth. This blog in general has advocated the idea of voluntary beliefs, and in principle these can be praised or blamed. To the degree that we are less willing to do so, however, this may be a question of emphasis. When we talk about a belief, we are more concerned about whether it is true or not, and evidence in favor of it or against it. Praise or blame will mainly come in insofar as other motives are involved, insofar as they strengthen or weaken a person’s wish to hold the belief, or insofar as they potentially distort the person’s evaluation of the evidence.

Nonetheless, the factual question “is this true?” is a different question from the moral question, “should I believe this?” We can see the struggle between these questions, for example, in a difficulty that people sometimes have with willpower. Suppose that a smoker decides to give up smoking, and suppose that they believe they will not smoke for the next six months. Three days later, let us suppose, they smoke a cigarette after all. At that point, the person’s resolution is likely to collapse entirely, so that they return to smoking regularly. One might ask why this happens. Since the person did not smoke for three days, it should be perfectly possible, at least, for them to smoke only once every three days, instead of going back to their former practice. The problem is that the person has received evidence directly indicating the falsity of “I will not smoke for the next six months.” They still might have some desire for that result, but they do not believe that their belief has the power to bring this about, and in fact it does not. The belief would not be self-fulfilling, and in fact it would be false, so they cease to hold it. It is as if someone attempts to open a door and finds it locked; once they know it is locked, they can no longer choose to open the door, because they cannot choose something that does not appear to be within their power.

Mark Forster, in Chapter 1 of his book Do It Tomorrow, previously discussed here, talks about similar issues:

However, life is never as simple as that. What we decide to do and what we actually do are two different things. If you think of the decisions you have made over the past year, how many of them have been satisfactorily carried to a conclusion or are progressing properly to that end? If you are like most people, you will have acted on some of your decisions, I’m sure. But I’m also sure that a large proportion will have fallen by the wayside.

So a simple decision such as to take time to eat properly is in fact very difficult to carry out. Our new rule may work for a few days or a few weeks, but it won’t be long before the pressures of work force us to make an exception to it. Before many days are up the exception will have become the rule and we are right back where we started. However much we rationalise the reasons why our decision didn’t get carried out, we know deep in the heart of us that it was not really the circumstances that were to blame. We secretly acknowledge that there is something missing from our ability to carry out a decision once we have made it.

In fact if we are honest it sometimes feels as if it is easier to get other people to do what we want them to do than it is to get ourselves to do what we want to do. We like to think of ourselves as a sort of separate entity sitting in our body controlling it, but when we look at the way we behave most of the time that is not really the case. The body controls itself most of the time. We have a delusion of control. That’s what it is – a delusion.

If we want to see how little control we have over ourselves, all most of us have to do is to look in the mirror. You might like to do that now. Ask yourself as you look at your image:

  • Is my health the way I want it to be?
  • Is my fitness the way I want it to be?
  • Is my weight the way I want it to be?
  • Is the way I am dressed the way I want it to be?

I am not asking you here to assess what sort of body you were born with, but what you have made of it and how good a state of repair you are keeping it in.

It may be that you are healthy, fit, slim and well-dressed. In which case have a look round at the state of your office or workplace:

  • Is it as well organised as you want it to be?
  • Is it as tidy as you want it to be?
  • Do all your office systems (filing, invoicing, correspondence, etc.) work the way you want them to work?

If so, then you probably don’t need to be reading this book.

I’ve just asked you to look at two aspects of your life that are under your direct control and are very little influenced by outside factors. If these things which are solely affected by you are not the way you want them to be, then in what sense can you be said to be in control at all?

A lot of this difficulty is due to the way our brains are organised. We have the illusion that we are a single person who acts in a ‘unified’ way. But it takes only a little reflection (and examination of our actions, as above) to realise that this is not the case at all. Our brains are made up of numerous different parts which deal with different things and often have different agendas.

Occasionally we attempt to deal with the difference between the facts and our plans by saying something like, “We will approximately do such and such. Of course we know that it isn’t going to be exactly like this, but at least this plan will be an approximate guide.” But this does not really avoid the difficulty. Even “this plan will be an approximate guide” is a statement about the facts that might turn out to be false; and even if it does not turn out to be false, the fact that we have set it down as approximate will likely make it guide our actions more weakly than it would have if we had said, “this is what we will do.” In other words, we are likely to achieve our goal less perfectly, precisely because we tried to make our statement more accurate. This is the reverse of the situation discussed in a previous post, where one gives up some accuracy, albeit vaguely, for the sake of another goal such as fitting in with associates or for literary enjoyment.

All of this seems to indicate that the general proposal about decisions was at least roughly correct. It is not possible to simply to say that decisions are one thing and beliefs entirely another thing. If these were simply two entirely separate things, there would be no conflict at all, at least of this kind, between accuracy and one’s other goals, and things do not turn out this way.

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Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

We can formulate a number of objections to the thesis argued in the previous post.

First, if a belief that one is going to do something is the same as the decision to do it, another person’s belief that I am going to do something should mean that the other person is making a decision for me. But this is absurd.

Second, suppose that I know that I am going to be hit on the head and suffer from amnesia, thus forgetting all about these considerations. I may believe that I will eat breakfast tomorrow, but this is surely not a decision to do so.

Third, suppose someone wants to give up smoking. He may firmly hold the opinion that whatever he does, he will sometimes smoke within the next six months, not because he wants to do so, but because he does not believe it possible that he do otherwise. We would not want to say that he decided not to give up smoking.

Fourth, decisions are appropriate objects of praise and blame. We seem at least somewhat more reluctant to praise and blame beliefs, even if it is sometimes done.

Fifth, suppose someone believes, “I will kill Peter tomorrow at 4:30 PM.” We will wish to blame him for deciding to kill Peter. But if he does kill Peter tomorrow at 4:30, he held a true belief. Even if beliefs can be praised or blamed, it seems implausible that a true belief should be blamed.

The objections are helpful. With their aid we can see that there is indeed a flaw in the original proposal, but that it is nonetheless somewhat on the right track. A more accurate proposal would be this: a decision is a voluntary self-fulfilling prophecy as understood by the decision maker. I will explain as we consider the above arguments in more detail.

In the first argument, in the case of one person making a decision for another, the problem is that a mere belief that someone else is going to do something is not self-fulfilling. If I hold a belief that I myself will do something, the belief will tend to cause its own truth, just as suggested in the previous post. But believing that someone else will do something will not in general cause that person to do anything. Consider the following situation: a father says to his children as he departs for the day, “I am quite sure that the house will be clean when I get home.” If the children clean the house during his absence, suddenly it is much less obvious that we should deny that this was the father’s decision. In fact, the only reason this is not truly the father’s decision, without any qualification at all, is that it does not sufficiently possess the characteristics of a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, in the example it does not seem to matter whether the father believes what he says, but only whether he says it. Second, since it is in the power of the children to fail to clean the house in any case, there seems to be a lack of sufficient causal connection between the statement and the cleaning of the house. Suppose belief did matter, namely suppose that the children will know whether he believes what he says or not. And suppose additionally that his belief had an infallible power to make his children clean the house. In that case it would be quite reasonable to say, without any qualification, “He decided that his children would clean the house during his absence.” Likewise, even if the father falsely believes that he has such an infallible power, in a sense we could rightly describe him as trying to make that decision, just as we might say, “I decided to open the door,” even if it turns out that my belief that the door could be opened turns out to be false when I try it; the door may be locked. This is why I included the clause “as understood by the decision maker” in the above proposal. This is a typical character of moral analysis; human action must be understood from the perspective of the one who acts.

In the amnesia case, there is a similar problem: due to the amnesia, the person’s current beliefs do not have a causal connection with his later actions. In addition, if we consider such things as “eating breakfast,” there might be a certain lack of causal connection in any case; the person would likely eat breakfast whether or not he formulates any opinion about what he will do. And to this degree we might feel it implausible to say that his belief that he will eat breakfast is a decision, even without the amnesia. It is not understood by the subject as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the case of giving up smoking, there are several problems. In this case, the subject does not believe that there is any causal connection between his beliefs and his actions. Regardless of what he believes, he thinks, he is going to smoke in fact. Thus, in his opinion, if he believes that he will stop smoking completely, he will simply hold a false belief without getting any benefit from it; he will still smoke, and his belief will just be false. So since the belief is false, and without benefit, at least as he understands it, there is no reason for him to hold this belief. Consequently, he holds the opposite belief. But this is not a decision, since he does not understand it as causing his smoking, which is something that is expected to happen whether or not he believes it will.

In such cases in real life, we are in fact sometimes tempted to say that the person is choosing not to give up smoking. And we are tempted to this to the extent that it seems to us that his belief should have the causal power that he denies it has: his denial seems to stem from the desire to smoke. If he wanted to give up smoking, we think, he could just accept that he would be able to believe this, and in such a way that it would come true. He does not, we think, because he wants to smoke, and so does not want to give up smoking. In reality this is a question of degree, and this analysis can have some truth. Consider the following from St. Augustine’s Confessions (Book VIII, Ch. 7-8):

Finally, in the very fever of my indecision, I made many motions with my body; like men do when they will to act but cannot, either because they do not have the limbs or because their limbs are bound or weakened by disease, or incapacitated in some other way. Thus if I tore my hair, struck my forehead, or, entwining my fingers, clasped my knee, these I did because I willed it. But I might have willed it and still not have done it, if the nerves had not obeyed my will. Many things then I did, in which the will and power to do were not the same. Yet I did not do that one thing which seemed to me infinitely more desirable, which before long I should have power to will because shortly when I willed, I would will with a single will. For in this, the power of willing is the power of doing; and as yet I could not do it. Thus my body more readily obeyed the slightest wish of the soul in moving its limbs at the order of my mind than my soul obeyed itself to accomplish in the will alone its great resolve.

How can there be such a strange anomaly? And why is it? Let thy mercy shine on me, that I may inquire and find an answer, amid the dark labyrinth of human punishment and in the darkest contritions of the sons of Adam. Whence such an anomaly? And why should it be? The mind commands the body, and the body obeys. The mind commands itself and is resisted. The mind commands the hand to be moved and there is such readiness that the command is scarcely distinguished from the obedience in act. Yet the mind is mind, and the hand is body. The mind commands the mind to will, and yet though it be itself it does not obey itself. Whence this strange anomaly and why should it be? I repeat: The will commands itself to will, and could not give the command unless it wills; yet what is commanded is not done. But actually the will does not will entirely; therefore it does not command entirely. For as far as it wills, it commands. And as far as it does not will, the thing commanded is not done. For the will commands that there be an act of will–not another, but itself. But it does not command entirely. Therefore, what is commanded does not happen; for if the will were whole and entire, it would not even command it to be, because it would already be. It is, therefore, no strange anomaly partly to will and partly to be unwilling. This is actually an infirmity of mind, which cannot wholly rise, while pressed down by habit, even though it is supported by the truth. And so there are two wills, because one of them is not whole, and what is present in this one is lacking in the other.

St. Augustine analyzes this in the sense that he did not “will entirely” or “command entirely.” If we analyze it in our terms, he does not expect in fact to carry out his intention, because he does not want to, and he knows that people do not do things they do not want to do. In a similar way, in some cases the smoker does not fully want to give up smoking, and therefore believes himself incapable of simply deciding to give up smoking, because if he made that decision, it would happen, and he would not want it to happen.

In the previous post, I mentioned an “obvious objection” at several points. This was that the account as presented there leaves out the role of desire. Suppose someone believes that he will go to Vienna in fact, but does not wish to go there. Then when the time comes to buy a ticket, it is very plausible that he will not buy one. Yes, this will mean that he will stop believing that he will go to Vienna. But this is different from the case where a person has “decided” to go and then changes his mind. The person who does not want to go, is not changing his mind at all, except about the factual question. It seems absurd (and it is) to characterize a decision without any reference to what the person wants.

This is why we have characterized a decision here as “voluntary”, “self-fulfilling,” and “as understood by the decision maker.” It is indeed the case that the person holds a belief, but he holds it because he wants to, and because he expects it to cause its own fulfillment, and he desires that fulfillment.

Consider the analysis in the previous post of the road to point C. Why is it reasonable for anyone, whether the subject or a third party, to conclude that the person will take road A? This is because we know that the subject wishes to get to point C. It is his desire to get to point C that will cause him to take road A, once he understands that A is the only way to get there.

Someone might respond that in this case we could characterize the decision as just a desire: the desire to get to point C. The problem is that the example is overly simplified compared to real life. Ordinarily there is not simply a single way to reach our goals. And the desire to reach the goal may not determine which particular way we take, so something else must determine it. This is precisely why we need to make decisions at all. We could in fact avoid almost anything that feels like a decision, waiting until something else determined the matter, but if we did, we would live very badly indeed.

When we make a complicated plan, there are two interrelated factors explaining why we believe it to be factually true that we will carry out the plan. We know that we desire the goal, and we expect this desire for the goal to move us along the path towards the goal. But since we also have other desires, and there are various paths towards the goal, some better than others, there are many ways that we could go astray before reaching the goal, either by taking a path to some other goal, or by taking a path less suited to the goal. So we also expect the details of our plan to keep us on the particular course that we have planned, which we suppose to be the best, or at least the best path considering our situation as a whole. If we did not keep those details in mind, we would not likely remain on this precise path. As an example, I might plan to stop at a grocery store on my way home from work, out of the desire to possess a sufficient stock of groceries, but if I do not keep the plan in mind, my desire to get home may cause me to go past the store without stopping. Again, this is why our explanation of belief is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one explicitly understood by the subject as such; by saying “I will use A, B, and C, to get to goal Z,” we expect that keeping these details in mind, together with our desire for Z, we will be moved along this precise path, and we wish to follow this path, for the sake of Z.

There is a lot more that could be said about this. For example, it is not difficult to see here an explanation for the fact that such complicated plans rarely work out precisely in practice, even in the absence of external impediments. We expect our desire for the goal to keep us on track, but in fact we have other desires, and there are an indefinite number of possibilities for those other desires to make something else happen. Likewise, even if the plan was the best we could work out in advance, there will be numberless details in which there were better options that we did not notice while planning, and we will notice some of these as we proceed along the path. So both the desire for the goal, and the desire for other things, will likely derail the plan. And, of course, most plans will be derailed by external things as well.

A combination of the above factors has the result that I will leave the consideration of the fourth and fifth arguments to another post, even though this was not my original intention, and was not my belief about what would happen.

David Allen vs. Mark Forster

Mark Forster remarks on time management systems:

There’s a well-known quote about the evolution of fishing boats:

Every boat is copied from another boat… Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied… One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Alain (Emile Chartier), 1908

It occurred to me that exactly the same could be said about time management systems or methods. The best will naturally rise to the top because the people promoting them will have better time management than those who don’t use them.

“One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is time herself who fashions the methods, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

If you want to know what the best time management system is then look at the most successful ones for the authors themselves. Using that criterion I think Getting Things Done (GTD) would still win the prize.

There may be a problem with this criterion, since people have different personalities and different systems may work better for them. In particular, my guess, based on Mark Forster’s blogging, is that he has much more of a problem with procrastination than David Allen (the author of Getting Things Done). And consequently Mark devotes a lot of attention to developing a system that might address procrastination in his personal situation. But procrastination is essentially a problem quite different from the problem of time management. We can see that by considering the comparison between budgeting time and budgeting money. If you earn $50,000 in spendable income per year, you can devise a reasonable budget that tells you how much you can spend in each category. Likewise, since you absolutely must live on 24 hours a day, you can devise a plan on how much time you can spend on various things during a day. That kind of planning, in each case, is budgeting. But nothing prevents you from creating a budget and then going and spending your money or your time on other things instead. Time management is therefore creating a reasonable budget with your 24 hours. Procrastination is simply what you do when you spend your time on something else instead.

This does not mean that it is impossible to devise a system for avoiding procrastination, but this is different from budgeting your time, and even if you do devise such a system, there will be no guarantee that you will in fact follow the system rather than doing something else, and thus no guarantee that you will actually avoid procrastination.

In terms of budgeting time as such, Forster’s system is objectively better than Allen’s system, because Forster’s system forces you to watch yourself and to decide how much you can really get done in a day. David Allen refuses to budget time in this way. Thus he says:

Reminders of actions you need to take fall into two categories: those about things that have to happen on a specific day or time, and those about things that just need to get done as soon as possible. Your calendar handles the first type of reminder. Three things go on your calendar: time-specific actions; day-specific actions; and day-specific information.

No More “Daily To-Do” Lists Those three things are what go on the calendar, and nothing else! I know this is heresy to traditional time-management training, which has almost universally taught that the “daily to-do list” is key. But such lists don’t work, for two reasons. First, constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment. Trying to keep a list in writing on the calendar, which must then be rewritten on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. The “Next Actions” lists I advocate will hold all of those action reminders, even the most time-sensitive ones. And they won’t have to be rewritten daily.

Second, if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do. If I have to call Mioko on Friday because that’s the only day I can reach her, but then I add five other, less important or less time-sensitive calls to my to-do list, when the day gets crazy I may never call Mioko. My brain will have to take back the reminder that that’s the one phone call I won’t get another chance at. That’s not utilizing the system appropriately. The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all. The only rewriting should be for changed appointments.

The idea in Forster’s system is that the day is almost entirely planned out from the beginning, in that almost everything you are going to do is already on a list that already exists at the beginning of the day, the list having been created the previous day. Allen clearly wants nothing to do with such a system. You might have a list with two or three things on it, the things that “absolutely have” to get done that day, but not anything like a list of nearly everything that you are going to do.

Obviously we are talking here about detailed practical matters where there can be substantial differences in different cases, but I think that to a first approximation, Allen is simply giving bad advice here, basically like saying, “There’s no need for a budget. You never know what you might have to buy next. Just spend the money you have, and maybe set aside a small amount for some absolute essentials.” And indeed that can work to some extent, but it will often mean you don’t have money for things that you feel you need, because you already spent it on something else. The same kind of thing will happen if you refuse to budget your time.

Let us look for the source of the problem. Consider Allen’s statement that “constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time.” Again, this may be more or less true depending on the particular work a person is doing, but a large part of this is simply a necessary result of the way Allen deals with incoming work.

When you have some incoming item that requires action, Allen proposes this decision process:

Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It Once you’ve decided on the next action, you have three options:

1. Do it. If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined.

2. Delegate it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, ask yourself, Am I the right person to do this? If the answer is no, delegate it to the appropriate entity.

3. Defer it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, and you are the right person to do it, you will have to defer acting on it until later and track it on one or more “Next Actions” lists.

The reason that things taking longer than two minutes are not done immediately is that this is a process for dealing with immediately incoming things. It would be extremely disruptive to try to take care of everything the instant it comes to your attention.

But I suggest that Allen’s first rule, that you should do anything that takes less than two minutes immediately, is the basic reason that he feels that his day is constantly being reconfigured. We do many more such things than we realize; working an eight hour office job, you might well be spending two hours every day on tasks that take less than two minutes each. Additionally, you might suppose a quick phone call will take less than two minutes, but it might end up taking 10 instead. In such a case, if the need for the call came up suddenly, and you did it immediately on account of Allen’s rule, you will begin to feel that your day is being disrupted. And it is, but it is the rule that is disrupting it.

Consider Forster’s response to whether you should respond immediately to an email that requires a one-word response:

Remember the degree of urgency of the response depends on the urgency of the request, not on how easy it is to respond. I would be fooling you if I said that I would never reply to an email like this the same day. But if I do I usually end up regretting it, because once I start responding to one email I tend to go on and respond to others. Also I find that a too rapid reply to an email can lead to emails batting back and forth all day. My advice is not to answer it today unless your colleague says it’s urgent.

Answering it immediately is like an impulse purchase. Sure, it won’t affect your budget in any significant way to spend $2 or $3 that you didn’t plan to spend. But unless you have some budgeted spending money, you are already starting down the wrong path, in terms of budgeting, as soon as you do it once. And if you find yourself doing it repeatedly, soon you will no longer be following your budget. In the same way, a one-word response is not going to ruin anyone’s plan for the day. But the feel that you need to deal with it right away, just because dealing with it doesn’t take that long, is already going down the wrong path, in terms of budgeting time.

Allen’s system would be improved by removing this rule completely, and not having anything done at the time it is processed as incoming, or it could be improved somewhat less by reducing the time: e.g. it could be processed immediately if it would take less than 30 seconds. But complete removal is better.

Nonetheless, Allen does have a point about trying to make a list that will include everything you are going to do that day, both because at least a few things might come up that really do need doing the same day, and because if you are already committed to a full day’s worth of work every day, it is very difficult to ever fit in anything new. These factors make it easy to overfill a day, and make it difficult to reduce your commitments once this has happened.

Forster summarizes the system himself, and remarks on advantages and disadvantages:

Brief Summary

The book’s basic premise is that we get behind on our work because we don’t pay attention to the basic formula “One day’s outgoing work much on average equal one day’s incoming work”. The idea is that one day’s worth of incoming work is collected for action the following day in a dated “Task Diary”. A line is drawn at the bottom of the day’s list so that each day there is a finite amount of work to do. Tasks which arise during the day and have to be done that day may be added to the list “below the line” but the default is to add tasks to the next day’s list. If one falls more than a few day’s behind, then it is important to audit the outstanding work in order to cut it back so that one can keep up. There is also the concept of the “Current Initiative”, by which one project is focused on first thing every day. This is particularly suitable for backlogs, work on improving systems, and getting major projects up and running.

Advantages

By providing a finite amount of work to be done each day, the system enables you to know when your work for the day is finished. It makes it easy to diagnose what the matter is if you fall behind. It also introduces several important concepts which are made further use of in the subsequent Autofocus systems, such as little and often, recurring tasks, and so on.

Disadvantages

The two main disadvantages are that people are often reluctant to carry out a proper diagnosis when they fall behind. This considerably reduces the effectiveness of the system if it is constantly running behind. There is also a considerable effort needed to push through to completing a day’s work, which can lead to resistance building against the system.

Why are people “reluctant to carry out a proper diagnosis when they fall behind?” This may be partly because they feel tired because of feeling overworked, and so not wanting to put the effort into the diagnosis. Likewise, they do not want to admit that they are over-committed, and do not want to take anything away from their plans.

The “considerable effort” that is needed to do a day’s work of course should just be exactly the amount of effort that is in fact needed for a day’s work. But since as I said in the comment here, our commitments tend to increase to fill all available time, this tends to imply that “a day’s work” will tend to grow as much as it can, until you can barely fit it into a day, even if you are following the system correctly.

I am personally using a sort of hybrid system, adopting elements from both systems. The basic idea is to apply Do It Tomorrow, but to first restrict “a day’s work” to quite a bit less than I can actually do in a day, but not restricted to the degree that Allen is doing by saying that you should only schedule things which are absolutely essential for that day. In other words, rather than “diagnosing” the problem when I cannot finish, I run such a diagnosis even when I can finish, if the list is actually using all of my time. This is a lot like setting aside $500 from your salary and budgeting the rest of your money.

So what do I do with the $500, or in other words, with the additional time that this system appears to create? This is the part that which is assigned to a more GTD-like system. In addition to my lists for “today” and “tomorrow,” I also have a vague and indefinite list which is much like all of Allen’s lists. Whenever there is time left over — which should be, and in fact is, almost every day — I do some work from this list.

Forster notes that if you try to do everything you would like to do in theory, you will run into problems:

In yesterday’s article Overcommitment and what you can do to prevent it I drew attention to the formula given in Do It Tomorrow:

Backlog = (Average work coming in each day) – (average work going out each day)

In spite of all our efforts to ignore this rule there really is no way round it. However we can continue to fool ourselves by acting in much the same way as a chronic debtor continues to get further and further into debt. In other words we put things off into the future. In the same way that the debtor always believes that “something will come up”, so we believe in a magic fairytale day in which we have nothing else to do other than catch up with our work. Of course this day never arrives, and if by some amazing chance it actually did the sudden relaxation of tension probably would mean that we spent the whole day goofing off rather than working.

It’s interesting to see how this truth about workload plays out in various situations. How does it work with a “catch-all” list? Now the great advantage of a catch-all list is its completeness. You get everything on your mind down on paper so you no longer have the worry of trying to remember it all. There is however a problem with this. The work does not stop arriving just because you have written it all down. In fact writing it all down may make it less likely that you will get everything done, rather than more. This is because there is a certain natural selection going on with tasks, which means the stronger ones survive while the weaker ones go to the wall. The problem with writing everything down is that this natural selection is inhibited because the weaker tasks can’t take the natural path of dropping out of your memory and your life.

Anyway, as I said in yesterday’s article overcommitment is a systems failure, and the first step with any systems failure is to look at what is happening in our present system. How does this apply to a catch-all list?

Potential candidates to be tasks on our catch-all list come from a multitude of sources, e.g. our own “brilliant ideas”, our bosses, our clients, our colleagues, our families, our reading, social media, the tv, etc, etc, etc. On top of these existing tasks which need further work get re-entered on the list rather than deleted.

Let’s first of all look at the input procedure:

A potential task arrives on the scene from one of the above sources

A catch-all system is designed to catch everything. So the task is put on the list without further ado.

Another task arrives on the scene and is put on the list

and so on

No problem so far. The input procedure is doing exactly what it is designed to do.

What about the output procedure? That’s even simpler:

We do one task after another (according to the criteria of whatever system we are using to process the list)

But it’s here that we run into a problem: the time it takes to do a task is usually longer than it takes to write a task down. Since that means that tasks come in faster than it’s possible to do them, more and more tasks get pushed into the future.

So our problem with the existing system can be summed up as:

Potential work coming in each day is basically infinite

Work going out each day is finite

Therefore the list is potentially liable to expand infinitely

Fortunately in reality this doesn’t happen to quite that extent, but it’s easy to see what the present system is inevitably going to produce. Overcommitment.

My way of preventing this is to make the additional, non-daily list, into what Forster calls a “closed list.” Nothing can be added to it; things can however be subtracted from it, if they turn out to be unimportant or unnecessary by the time I get to them. Nothing ever goes on this in the first place if it is time sensitive in any way, or at least if it is really necessary that it be done within the next month or two; in any such situation I arrange things with Forster’s original system.

The fact that the list is closed means that I have still another list, an open list, to which the “potentially infinite” things are added. This open list becomes the new closed list when the original closed list is completed.

This might naturally lead to the problem that Forster is remarking upon: you can think of things to do faster than you can do them. And since it is currently taking me about two months to work through the closed list, there is no proof that this will not happen in the future. However, judging by the number of items on the open list, I seem to have reached a relatively stable equilibrium, for reasons much like the reasons that people do not in fact go infinitely into debt: there might be an infinite number of things you would like to buy in theory, but you do not even think of most of them, let alone buy them, since it would be immediately obvious that you will not be able to actually buy them. In a similar way I could potentially think of an infinite number of things to do, but there is no reason for me to bother, since there is already enough on those lists. And on the other hand, since I keep my “absolute” and time sensitive commitments below a true day’s worth, there is no difficulty in handling new things of this kind when they come up.

Some of the details here of course are related to facts about my personal circumstances, and thus the details might need to be modified to apply to other individuals. Nonetheless, overall I am finding that it has most of the advantages of both Do It Tomorrow and of Getting Things Done, while avoiding most of the disadvantages.

 

If At First You Don’t Succeed

Suppose you have a dozen problems in your life that you are trying to solve. And suppose that whenever you try to solve one of them, you almost always fail. Is there a chance that a time will come when you have solved them all?

There is such a chance, of course. You almost always fail, but if you continue to try other possible solutions, you might hit on a solution sooner or later. And then you will have only 11 issues remaining, and you can continue from there, working on the next one.

And even after more or less resolving one problem, you might later discover a still better solution. Thus for example I discussed a certain solution to time management here, but my current solution is substantially better, although including important elements of that one.

In a similar way, I discussed the general idea of progress in the posts here, here, and here. A very simple summary of the ideas argued there is that people are trying to make things better for themselves and others, and even if they do not always succeed, they sometimes do. And for the reason assigned above in this post, you do not have to succeed in solving your problems all of the time, or even most of the time, in order to generally make progress.

In economics, there is a similar reason for the fact that markets do as well as they do, and in biology, why natural selection works as well as it does, despite the fact that a majority of individual changes either do nothing or are actively harmful.

 

Do It Tomorrow

While this title seems to promote procrastination, rightly understood it is the complete opposite. It is actually the name of a book by Mark Forster on time management which presents a response to Arnold Bennett’s question on how one can live on twenty-four hours a day.

Even before the beginning of chapter 1, Forster presents a summary of his method:

Quick Start Guide

How to get everything done by doing it tomorrow

  1. Put all the work that you are behind on in backlog folders (email, paper, etc.) and put it where you can’t see it.
  2. Collect all your incoming work during the day and deal with it in one batch the following day. Group together similar activities like email, paper, phone calls and tasks. Aim to clear the lot every day.
  3. If anything is too urgent to leave to the following day, write it down on a separate list and action it at a convenient time during the day. Never take even the simplest action without writing it down first.
  4. Spend some time on clearing the contents of the backlog folder( s) first thing every day. When you’ve finally cleared them, find something else you want to get sorted and start doing that first thing every day instead.If you follow this simple process you will be totally on top of new work by tomorrow and you will be well on your way to clearing your backlog.

    This book will tell you much more about how to do this, but the method essentially consists of these four steps.

Forster’s first step is to collect together all the work where you are behind and to “put it where you can’t see it.” While there is obviously a sort of psychological motive for this, we can understand it better by looking again at a passage from Bennett’s essay:

Philosophers have explained space. They have not explained time. It is the inexplicable raw material of everything. With it, all is possible; without it, nothing. The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly singular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!

For remark! No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say:—”This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste to-morrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

As we noted in the last post, Bennett is comparing time and money. Here he points out a difference: you can borrow money, spending it in advance, so that money you receive later will be already owed to another. You can get into debt. You cannot do this with time. There is no way to borrow time and spend it in advance; you can only spend the time you have now. Each day you receive anew 24 hours to spend as you will, just as everyone else does. In this sense, it is impossible to “get behind” on anything. No matter how much work you have neglected in the past, your day today is just as intact as everyone else’s.

Forster is taking advantage of this fact in order to relieve people of the burdensome feeling of “being behind.” There is a sense in which the feeling does not correspond to anything real, and consequently it is not helpful. Drop the feeling, Forster advises, and just take today as it is. This is somewhat analogous to Jesus’s advice, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Just as it is better not to worry about tomorrow, so it is better not to worry about yesterday.

As a second step, Forster says, “Collect all your incoming work during the day and deal with it in one batch the following day.” Wait a minute, you might say. What about today? If you’re going to take care of all of your incoming work tomorrow, what work will you do today?

And indeed, if you are just beginning to follow Forster’s advice, there is no need to do any work today. All you need to do is gather your “incoming” work so that you can do it tomorrow. If you receive some emails, do not answer them. Leave them for tomorrow. If people ask you to do some things for them, do not do those things. Leave them for tomorrow.

On the second day, however, you will have some work to do. You will have all of that work that you collected yesterday and did not do. Do this work, and insofar as possible, no other. Anything else that you are asked to do, collect together to be done the next day. So each day you do one day’s worth of work, and collect the next day’s work for the next day.

Why do this? Basically it a method of budgeting, of living within one’s means in terms of time. At the beginning of each day, you will have a list of work gathered yesterday. This is all the work you need to do today, more or less. If it is impossible to get that list done today, and if that happens regularly, then do not say, “I don’t have enough time to finish my work, so I will just have to leave it for later. I’ll do it when I have more time.” As Bennett said, you will never have more time, because you already have all of the time there is, and there will never be more. If each day, you are being asked to do more than a day’s worth of work, you will not do it later: you will not do it at all, because no one will ever have more than a day of time within a day. If this is happening to you, therefore, you are not living within your means, and the only thing to do is to cut your expenditure of time. Do not save those emails and say that you will answer them someday; delete them, or save them if you wish, but admit that you will not answer them at all. You will only be living within your means when you stop accepting more than a day’s worth of work within a day.

By saving today’s incoming work for tomorrow, this kind of budgeting becomes much easier, simply because it is perfectly clear at the beginning of the day how much work you plan to do. If you simply respond to things as they come up, on the same day, it will not be clear whether you are accepting more or less work than you can actually accomplish in a day, and this budgeting process becomes far more difficult.

Forster’s third step concerns things which actually cannot be put off until tomorrow; incoming work that actually must be done the same day. He suggests that you write it down on a separate list. The idea is that the list you wrote yesterday is only allowed to diminish today, not to increase, to ensure that you can finish it. Additionally, he says, before you do that extra thing for today, make sure that you write it down. By doing this, at the end of the day you will have a specific list of the “urgent” things that you did during the day. If that list is very long, and if this is typical, there is a problem, because you will likely be unable to live within your budget of time. Also, you will be able to look at the list and consider, “Is it truly urgent, or is it possible to put it on tomorrow’s list, as is the norm for work coming in today?” Writing it down presents an additional opportunity for reflection.

The last point concerns the areas where one was “behind.” You started out with this “backlog”, as Forster calls it. From now on you are not allowed to add anything to that backlog. Each day you do all of yesterday’s work: each day you are doing one day of work, and consequently that backlog cannot increase. And so you consider the act of spending a bit of time taking care of a bit of that backlog as just one of your daily tasks. Thus the backlog will only decrease, and soon it will vanish. In fact, Forster points out later in the book, “Even if you don’t make any effort to deal with the backlog it will tend to get smaller of its own accord.” Of course this is not true in a physical sense, but the idea is that the contents of the backlog will become less and less relevant over time. Suppose you receive 500 emails during the next week, and never do anything with them for the next 10 years. It will surely be pointless by that time to attempt to answer those emails. As long as you are not adding anything to your backlog, it can only diminish, and even if you do nothing about it, it can only become less relevant to your life.

Of course this simple summary does not explain everything, and the rest of the book is not useless. For example, this summary appears to say nothing about dealing with large projects that do not seem like “incoming work” from day to day.

Most people seem reluctant to try following such a system. It cannot work, they say, or at least not for me. There is simply too much that is actually urgent. Or, the book assumes that I am organizing my own day, and I am not. I spend all day at a cash register. Or I spend all day taking care of my children. These are immediate tasks that take my current attention, so I can’t be carrying out a list of things from yesterday. Or, they say, “I have too much to think about right now.” Forster explains:

The methods that I am going to be teaching are very simple. They don’t require years of learning or practice. They are the sort of things you can put into use during the course of an afternoon and find them having an immediate effect. In fact, I will give you a challenge – you can be completely organised twenty-four hours after reading this book! Does that sound possible? Well, I can assure you that it is in the sense that you can be completely on top of all your current work and have a workable plan for dealing with any backlogs of work that you may have.

Some people listen to my methods and their reaction is to say, ‘That sounds great – I’ll put it into practice just as soon as I’ve caught up with my work.’ That’s the wrong way to go about it. Put my methods into practice, and then you will be in a position to catch up with your work!

Much of the work that you consider urgent is probably less urgent than you think it is. But even if it is true that your work is truly immediate, like the work of the cashier or of the mother, this does not change the fact that you must live within your means. You have no other option, because as Bennett points out, you will never have any more or less time than you actually have. If every moment of your day is immediate in this way, then stop worrying about being “behind.” You are already doing everything you can, and nothing more can be asked of you. More likely, in reality you do have some time for yourself, some time where you can decide what you are going to do. In fact, it is perfectly obvious that this is the case, since you are currently reading this blog post. Suppose that time comes to 90 minutes each day. Then everything which does not fall into the “immediate” category is going to have to be done within that 90 minutes. Even in this situation, getting “behind” doesn’t make any sense: you simply have to reduce your commitments until you are only accepting 90 minutes worth of such commitments each day, and carrying out 90 minutes worth of such commitments.

There is another reason people fear putting this system into practice: the fear that it might actually work. The “work” that you have before you is basically a set of commitments. If you carry out the things that you have committed to do, this will affect other people, often with the result that you will receive new work. If you answer your mail or your email, you may receive responses. If you finish a project, you may be asked to start a new one.

On the other hand, if you get nothing done, after a while people will begin to stop asking you to do things, because they will see that asking is ineffective. So doing your work generates more work, and avoiding your work prevents new work from being generated. At some level people understand this, and so they fear getting too much done.

This fear is not entirely mistaken. If you do follow a system like this, one thing that must be avoided is the attempt to “get ahead.” Suppose you are working on yesterday’s list, and you finish at 3:00 PM. There is still more time in the day, so you may be tempted to start doing the work that came in today, namely so that you are working on the list that is actually meant for tomorrow. You might think this is a good idea: “This way, I’ll be totally on top of things, in fact I won’t even have any work that I need to do tomorrow!”

You will find that the opposite happens, unless you typically finish that list at 3:00 PM. It may be that things went really well and so you finished unusually early. If so, if you do more work, in essence you have done more than one day’s work in a day. And since work generates work, this will likely generate more than one day’s worth of work. And so the next day, or anyway the day after that, you will find yourself busier than ever. Instead of doing this, you should limit yourself to one day’s worth of work in a day. And if you finish unusually early one day, the rest of that day is free: do not use it for things which will simply generate more work.

Neglecting to set limits on incoming work is also a reason why someone might end up giving up this system even after putting it into practice and seeing its benefits. If you tell yourself that you will always get everything done that anyone asks you to do, the more successful you are, the more people will ask you to do, until accomplishing everything becomes physically impossible. So the setting of limits is an absolutely necessary part of the deal here.

 

 

24 Hours

Arnold Bennett, in an essay called “How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day,” speaks of the use of time as though it were a kind of money:

You have to live on this twenty-four hours of daily time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect, and the evolution of your immortal soul. Its right use, its most effective use, is a matter of the highest urgency and of the most thrilling actuality. All depends on that. Your happiness—the elusive prize that you are all clutching for, my friends!—depends on that. Strange that the newspapers, so enterprising and up-to-date as they are, are not full of “How to live on a given income of time,” instead of “How to live on a given income of money”! Money is far commoner than time. When one reflects, one perceives that money is just about the commonest thing there is. It encumbers the earth in gross heaps.

If one can’t contrive to live on a certain income of money, one earns a little more—or steals it, or advertises for it. One doesn’t necessarily muddle one’s life because one can’t quite manage on a thousand pounds a year; one braces the muscles and makes it guineas, and balances the budget. But if one cannot arrange that an income of twenty-four hours a day shall exactly cover all proper items of expenditure, one does muddle one’s life definitely. The supply of time, though gloriously regular, is cruelly restricted.

Which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say “lives,” I do not mean exists, nor “muddles through.” Which of us is free from that uneasy feeling that the “great spending departments” of his daily life are not managed as they ought to be? Which of us is quite sure that his fine suit is not surmounted by a shameful hat, or that in attending to the crockery he has forgotten the quality of the food? Which of us is not saying to himself—which of us has not been saying to himself all his life: “I shall alter that when I have a little more time”?

We never shall have any more time. We have, and we have always had, all the time there is. It is the realization of this profound and neglected truth (which, by the way, I have not discovered) that has led me to the minute practical examination of daily time-expenditure.

“We shall never have any more time,” Bennett says, in the sense that we have 24 hours each day, never more and never less. The time is always the same; it is just a question of how that time is used. In principle, “balancing the budget” with respect to time should be just as easy as balancing the budget with respect to one’s income. Bennett illustrates this with an imaginary example:

“But,” someone may remark, with the English disregard of everything except the point, “what is he driving at with his twenty-four hours a day? I have no difficulty in living on twenty-four hours a day. I do all that I want to do, and still find time to go in for newspaper competitions. Surely it is a simple affair, knowing that one has only twenty-four hours a day, to content one’s self with twenty-four hours a day!”

To you, my dear sir, I present my excuses and apologies. You are precisely the man that I have been wishing to meet for about forty years. Will you kindly send me your name and address, and state your charge for telling me how you do it? Instead of me talking to you, you ought to be talking to me. Please come forward. That you exist, I am convinced, and that I have not yet encountered you is my loss. Meanwhile, until you appear, I will continue to chat with my companions in distress—that innumerable band of souls who are haunted, more or less painfully, by the feeling that the years slip by, and slip by, and slip by, and that they have not yet been able to get their lives into proper working order.

When someone says, “I cannot afford that,” typically this does not mean that it is literally impossible to buy it. He may have enough money in his wallet, or in his bank account. If he does not, he might easily save enough; or if even if this would be difficult, it might be possible to get a loan to manage the purchase. In the end, in most cases the person who says this really means that such actions would not be prudent, and that he would prefer to do other things with his money. The real issue is not the amount of money, but the person’s preferences, whether these be reasonable or unreasonable.

The same thing applies to time, but even more so, since everyone has the same amount of time. If we say, “I do not have time for that,” the real meaning is this: we prefer to do other things. And that preference must be rather strong, in fact, since the implication is that we prefer to do other things, not only sometimes, but all day, every day.

This does not necessarily imply anything blameworthy. A person can be quite reasonable in saying that he prefers to use his money for one thing rather than another, and he can be quite reasonable in saying that he prefers to use his time for one thing rather than another.

But what is not reasonable is to assert that we have a strong desire to do the thing that we say we do not have time for. If “we do not have time for that,” then our desire to do it must be relatively weak, in fact, since we let our desires to do other things take precedence over that desire, not only sometimes, but all day, every day.