43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Dear Me: Get to work

The Problem

GTD is all about rapid, intuitive selection of what you need to be working on now. Whip out your context list appropriate for the time-place-opportunity-space you are in now. Scan through it, then do.

For the longest time I was having a problem with this. I'd scan through my context lists and I'd see things like:

  • Pack box up
  • Ask Bob about meeting
  • Review new design book
  • Send Cherry income information

Scanning down a list of actions in a context list should be like running your hand across a silk sheet. Scanning through these tasks felt less like silk and more like sand paper. Pack what into the box? What did I need to know about the meeting? Review the book for what, specifically?

With a moment's thought I could remember what I meant when I wrote most of these tasks, but they were difficult (if not impossible) to scan through, select rapidly and then act on. I was losing speed. Mind less like water, more like ketchup.


Looking back, it's not hard to see what the problem was: unclear writing. I simply wasn't being descriptive enough. Yet for the longest time I didn't see this. The actions were "understandable enough" with a bit of work. That "bit of work", of course, is the silent killer of GTD. Anytime you are putting in work to decipher your system, your energy and productivity are being slowly siphoned away.

Tasks must be immediately clear without needing interpretation. To use a geeky metaphor, they are precompiled instructions waiting for execution, not a script that's interpreted at run time.

After I realized this, I tried to address it, but I ended up with excessive detail (and thus wasted time in the planning stage) or fell back into old habits of too little information.

Then I started using a hack: I stopped deferring my tasks and started getting someone else to do them for me.

Solution: Write your tasks as if you are delegating them to someone you actually know.

Ok, back to reality: it would be nice if there was someone willing to actually do all my tasks, but that's not the case. None the less, I stopped writing my tasks down as if I was going to do them later, and I started to literally write as if I was delegating them to someone else.

To make this trick work, you need a delegatee firmly in mind:

  • Someone real. It doesn't help if, every time you are going to faux-delegate, you have to re-imagine some fictional character.
  • Ideally someone a bit outside your knowledge domain. This prevents a certain laziness in phrasing tasks.
  • Someone that you don't normally delegate a lot of tasks to. Again, avoiding the "common knowledge" problem.

Every time I draft a task, I am mentally writing it as if I will be handing my context list over to someone else (in this case, it's my wife Bee since she's at least twice as clever as I am but whose work has little overlap with mine). These are, of course, all my tasks, but I am quite literally delegating (not simply deferring) when I'm writing them down.


Revisiting the poorly written task in my example above, I keep my delegatee firmly in mind and tell them to:

  • Pack winter clothes in corner of bedroom into airmail box
  • Ask Bob for the date of the next website revamp meeting
  • Review "Page Design" book for three examples of three column page layout
  • Send Cherry second quarter income statements (doc link in notes)

Why this works

The secret to all this is that, when you are writing down your deferred tasks "normally", in truth you're actually delegating but you just don't realize it. You are simply delegating to your future self. The problem is that, in our present-self state of mind when planning tasks, we are filling in the gaps in our writing with present-knowledge. This knowledge fades quickly and by the time our future-self picks up the work, the mortar of that transient information has dissolved, turning what seemed to be a solid, actionable task into an unclear jumble of words. By shifting our mindset from "I'll do this later" to "I need to assign this to so-and-so", we hack around this problem.

So tighten up the descriptiveness of your tasks today: defer as if you delegate. And when you finally have an army of minions that you really can delegate your every whim to, you'll be ready with tasks in hand.

About Ethan

Ethan's picture


Cross border gadabout, Ethan has worked as farm hand, staff in a psychiatric treatment facility, university lecturer in SE Asia, ad man in greater China, con man, second story man, man's man and is, of late, Head of Marketing at The Omni Group in Seattle.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »