Snowballing the Angel of Death

In Wrestling With The Angel of Death, Stowe Boyd addresses an essay in Wired by Clive Thompson.

I tend to agree with Mr. Boyd’s points. He does a great job of walking through many of the problems… including the problem of being overwhelmed:

“We call it snowballing,” says Amir Salihefendić, who founded the app Todoist in 2007; it currently has 30 million users. “They keep postponing stuff. And then suddenly you have a hundred tasks that you need to do.” Weeks or months later, your Todoist app is a teetering ziggurat of tasks, too painful even to behold. Omer Perchik, the creator of another app—Any.do—calls this problem “the List of Shame.”

I do believe that Stowe is a little uncharitable to those behind him on the work-life maturity. After all, he spends his professional life imagining healthier and better information work! As Stowe mocks some of the strategies people use to avoid snowballing, I believe Stowe is forgetting the personal growth, personality, or work-culture that teach people to not treat their task lists as “must do.” It’s not natural to most folks. I had to “be enlightened:” a list of tasks is a map of things I could do. I can stop pushing the sisyphean boulder.

I am always a fan of learning about other people’s systems, so I enjoyed Stowe’s comments and description of his “Taskora” system. It seems tailored to his work and writing, and I would personally characterize it as a “creativity system.”

Stowe correctly identifies that the connective tissues between context and tasks are often lost in many task systems. I think that is part of why I love Things.app… and why emacs org-mode persists through the decades.

Thompson describes various approaches he’s used to manage tasks and they share one glaring characteristic: they were isolated from the tools and methods he uses to keep track of everything other than tasks.

I think this is the missing link between the essays: Thompson blames the snowball effect, claiming that overwhelmed users declare bankruptcy and trying a new silver bullet tool, there fore all the tools are useless. Stowe scoffs because he has built a Stowe-shaped system based on basic principles that work for him. I too believe in principles over tools. Bullet Journaling, Omnifocus, GTD, won’t fix your problem, but the principles they employ.

If you read my blog, you’ll probably enjoy both essays. They are worth reading… but look to cherry-pick principles that apply to where you are in your productivity journey. Wholesale adoption of systems doesn’t work. Understanding and building your own based on useful principles is very worthwhile.