I am setting a reminder to find a todo app to manage my bullet journal.

A week or so ago, I ran across an older episode of Wade Roush’s podcast Soonish. The episode was a high-level overview of the tools by which we manage all the stuff we have to do—primarily email, task lists, and calendars.

After listening, I got to thinking about how often discussions of task and schedule management tend to be focused on the specific tools and methodologies themselves, e.g., long blog posts about how a particular task management app works, or detailed YouTube videos about one person’s ongoing journey with David Allen’s GTD system. What I would like to see or hear more about is how people migrate between these different systems over time and why.

In the Soonish episode, Roush asks productivity consultant Stever Robbins to what degree he thinks that people are attracted to a particular productivity app or methodology for aesthetic reasons—for the pleasure of using it. Robbins agrees that (I am paraphrasing here) aesthetics probably play a pretty big role. In other words, if I like the app or methodology and enjoy using it, I am more likely to stick with it.

As I have been thinking about these questions over the past week, I have gone down something of a rabbit hole of YouTube videos about bullet journalling. While the bullet journal system does not seem like one that would work for me, I can understand its appeal, and I have found the videos and blog posts on the topic to be a useful exercise for trying to get a feel for why people spend so much time and energy on this stuff. The videos are endless, and people are extraordinarily proud and excited about setting up and maintaining their journals and planners—some are simple, but many of them get crazily baroque, with hand-drawn, multi-color illustrations, stamps, pasted-in collages, and intricately lettered calendars.

How much of this is driven by the need to increase views and traffic on their channels, versus the utility of the actual journal itself? In many cases, it seems to be more about the presentation, and I wonder how many people who watch these videos end up implementing something based on what they see, as opposed to saying “That’s really neat!” and moving on.

People and organizations tend to get hung up on tooling and methodology debates around productivity and work management, losing sight of whatever it is that they are trying to use the tool to accomplish. This sort of thing often gets written off as procrastination, work avoidance, or dysfunction, but I think there is more to it than that.

Tools are useful and important, but they are some problems they can’t solve. Despite claims to the contrary, coming up with a list of things that need to be done, prioritizing the list, and keeping track of what is done and what is not done is not a simple problem. We think we just need to put the problem through the right machine—get the proper view of it—and it will become untangled. Why wouldn’t we think that? Technology has solved so many other problems.

We can put the list into a tool, but none of these tools or systems will actually prioritize anything for us—we still have to do that work. I wonder if people’s obsessive uptake and maintenance of these systems is a means of avoiding responsibility for making the judgement about what is actually important. The tools and systems are attempts to turn ourselves (or in the case of organizational adoption, to turn us) into productivity machines.

It is no wonder we that we flit from one tool to the next. The only aspect of these tools that is human is the fun of learning a new one, and maybe the aesthetic appeal of one over the other. I am not suggesting that productivity tools are useless, but rather that to a significant degree, the interesting part of how they function is at a meta level. We find human pleasure and creativity in the inhuman day-to-day work of our jobs by illustrating it with colored pens in our planning journal, or we try to understand the structure and relative importance of our work not by putting into a single system, but into many. In other words, it is not the work we do or the system we use to plan it that is important, but the relationship between the two over time.

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