How to design a work system

Once you have to do more than a handful of tasks (i.e., once you have a normal white collar job) you need to adopt a system in order to get your work done on schedule. Your system will ideally

  • remind you to do the things you absolutely have to do,
  • prevent you from working on things that aren't important to you,
  • facilitate constant review of all your projects,
  • make it easy to capture all thoughts, reference material, and interactions with others,
  • compel you to make a decision about each item you've captured, and
  • encourage you to keep your inbox clean.

In short, you want a system that ensures you're doing the important stuff, so you can sleep at night, but actively prevents you from spending time on the wrong tasks. That's why the traditional "dump everything on your to do list" approach doesn't scale. You put everything on a big list, but you don't know which ones you should do and which you shouldn't, and your list ends up serving no purpose. Lists only help if you can do each item without having to constantly do an assessment to determine which you want to do. That's a lot of work, and since you don't have all of your information in front of you at a point in time, it's nearly impossible to do it right. Lists with random items aren't helpful.

Once you decide on the things your system needs to do, you need to minimize two things as much as possible:

  • cognitive overhead
  • maintenance time

The first refers to how much you have to think about the system in order to use it while you're doing your work. An example would be the thought that goes into processing an email that you need to keep for reference. If you have hundreds of places you could put an email, both within your email system and outside of it, the cognitive overhead score is extremely high because it's a lot of work remembering where every possible email can go. In the future, when you want to retrieve that email (if you even remember it at all) you will have to know exactly where you put it. That's a terrible system because you won't be using it for long. A system with high cognitive overhead makes it harder to do your work. The natural response is to stop using it.

"Maintenance time" refers to how much work you have to do to keep your system running properly. This could be during your work or outside it. A great example of maintenance is a system that's complicated to set up. If you buy a new computer, you'll resist setting up your system because it's too much work. Because your system is not used all the time, it's reasonable to abandon it, which you inevitably will. Other types of maintenance that will cause you to give up include large organization requirements and review requirements. You want something that is sufficiently automatic that you generally don't have to process things twice. Double processing is to be avoided as much as possible.

Often people will reverse this. It's not uncommon to put things on a to do list without much information. You think you're saving time by focusing on your work but lack of information causes an exponential increase in the maintenance burden. You don't want to do the items on your to do list because each one requires remembering all the details of what you were thinking at the time (cognitive overhead), researching what you have to do/need to know to complete the item (maintenance), and decide whether it's something you should be doing, and if so, when (cognitive overhead). Congratulations, you've just designed the world's worst work system! A little extra effort when adding the item to your list adds neither cognitive overhead or maintenance, and as such, it's just fine for that to be part of your system. If anything, it reduces the cognitive overhead by allowing you to feel comfortable not thinking about it any longer. If you don't write down all the details, you'll continue to hold everything in your head, making it harder to do your actual work.

Here is a short, nonexhaustive list of tips that work for me:

  1. Have one place for all your notes. A note might be nothing more than a link to the actual note/item stored somewhere else, and that's just fine. You want to know where to look. Project-related notes are actually reference material and should be kept within the project.
  2. Your lists are notes and should be stored with all your other notes.
  3. One of your lists should be a complete list of every active project.
  4. Review the master list regularly - every day is good, every week is a must.
  5. Have a reminder system for anything you have to remember. Not just appointments, but anything, even if the reminder date/time is arbitrary. That is something you should automate.
  6. Plain text is one way to keep it simple.
  7. Valuable things go on your to do list. A to do list is not storage for things to think about maybe doing one of these days.
  8. Have one inbox to make it easy to review.

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