43 Folders

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

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

Systems, ciphers, and the dirty little secret of self-improvement

My theory is that the secret code for most self-improvement systems—from Getting Things Done through Biofeedback and the Atkins diet—is not hard to break; any idea that helps you to become more self-aware can usually help you to reach a goal or affect a favorable solution. That’s pretty much the entire bag of doughnuts right there.

Self-improvement juju works not because of magic beans or the stones in your soup pot; it works because a smart “system” can become a satisfying cipher for framing a problem and making yourself think about solutions in an ordered way. Systems help you minimize certain kinds of feedback while amplifying others.

Also, when you’ve undertaken most any kind of program, there’s usually a built-in incentive to watch for change, monitor growth, and iterate small improvements (think: morning weigh-in). While I don’t doubt that some systems empirically work better than others, I suspect that success with any of them has much to do with how we each think, behave, and respond to our environment.

One reason I’ve remained so attracted to elements of GTD is its onboard iteration patterns; its core practice is to fashion a simple system and then re-examine the effectiveness and completion of it on a regular basis, making small corrections and minimizing duplicate effort wherever possible. Dopes like me can sometimes take this to an extreme and end up thinking a lot more than doing, but whose fault is that? It’s a poor carpenter who blames his next actions list.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this stuff a bit lately since so many people right now seem attracted to ideas about managing their time, increasing productivity, and making personal improvements in their lives. People arrive with a curiosity about this nutty “cult” and see how their friends seem so enthused about it. In itself, that’s not so different from any other fad, whether it’s achy-breaky line dancing, suburban wife swapping, or pet rocks.

I think the thing that distinguishes this stuff—whatever you choose to call it—is that there are a few basic ideas that can and should stand without the need for a handsome guru or a celebrity-studded special on Fox. I mean, encouraging your friends to find simple affordances for handling their life and work is an idea that’s never going to jump the shark, I hope. Long after our paperbacks and calorie counters are attracting dust on the shelves of our neighborhood Goodwill, we’d be well-advised to remember a few basic and seemingly immutable principles:

  • action almost always trumps inaction
  • planning is crucial; even if you don’t follow a given plan
  • things are easier to do when you understand why you’re doing them
  • your brain likes it when you make things as simple as possible

Whether you’re talking about Freud, The Old Testament, or the self-improvement meme du jour, I think the idea basically stays the same; listen critically, reflect honestly, and be circumspect about choosing the parts that comport with your needs, values, and personal history. Above all, remember that the secret code isn’t hiding in the tools or the charts or the sacraments—the secret is to watch your progress and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep remembering to think, and stay focused on achieving modest improvements in whatever you want to change. Small changes stick.

Merlin's picture

Yeah, Alison, I’m basically ripping...

Yeah, Alison, I’m basically ripping off Dwight Eisenhower, who became a thought leader in the field of project management the moment he said: “The plan is nothing; planning is everything.”

The idea is that it’s valuable to layout all the risks and possibilities for a project as early as possible and to identify the stress points, dependencies, and critical paths. Still, having done all of that thinking and planning, it can be very challenging for even the best PM to develop a Unified Field Theory that accounts for every variable—especially days, weeks, and months into the unknown. After all, we’re not Kreskin, right? ;-)

The notion, ultimately, is to manage action by understanding the rules and constraints of reaching the goal. Making a plan is not hard; anyone can build a GANTT chart that has nothing to do with reality. But making sure that the most important touchpoints of a project don’t get neglected during the inevitable bloodbath is a good deal harder. That's where the real art of project management lives, IMHO.

Make sense?




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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