The sickness of efficiency.

I suffer from a strange affliction that I’ve lived with for some time now. I’ve spoken to others in my circles and I take some solace in knowing they share either symptoms of it, or experience it full-blown. It’s a sneaky sickness that manifests itself in an all-consuming urge to deconstruct patterns, methods, and expectations in my life in a constantly self-doubting and brutally examined way.

I am, of course, referring to my addiction to task management applications.

We joke about it, those of us who know. Here’s a new one, anyone tried it yet? I’m back on Reminders (again). Screw Reminders. When is the update for [App] coming out? This doesn’t do custom repeating alerts? (Do I need custom repeating alerts?) YO GUYS you can totally hook up Drafts/Launch Center Pro/etc. to grab stuff and pass it in. Swoon. I’m always looking at, trying, evaluating, and otherwise just exploring the landscape. Sometimes that exploration leads me back down familiar roads.

Yesterday I re-re-re-downloaded OmniFocus again and dumped all my things into it. I do this every summer, it seems, although the constant tinkering is a year-long battle. I keep as much of this from my family as possible, for I fear they’d stage an intervention for this behavior as clinically speaking, I’m sure there’s a buried DSM-5 classification for it, or at least some heading under which it could be placed. So I’m finally going to try to break this into what I believe to be its component parts to try to understand why I’m this way as a person, why I’m forever chasing the last high of streamlining data input and retrieval for things as complicated as multi-stage projects and as mundane as taking out my trash on the right day.

I see the never-ending shift between these apps as an interplay between the following things I’ve identified in myself:

  1. An inherent need, despite the fact that something may be working, to explore, experiment, and generally try different kinds of software and see new ways to solve similar problems
  2. A desire to change the UI of whatever it is I’m using since I spend so much time in it every day that I tire of it, notice its shortcomings, etc.
  3. An internal nagging to always be assessing the state of my workflows and methods to determine if they are actually the best possible ways to do my work
  4. An ever-present doubt, that coupled with item 3 insists that I’m missing steps, forgetting things, dropping threads (which is sometimes manufactured and sometimes very real)

So let’s break these down. I’m not talking about specific apps from here on out, because it’s utterly irrelevant in the math here.

  1. I help to design and develop software almost every single day that I’m awake. On weekends, I download and try things, help friends with interface questions, find bugs, and generally fool around with personal projects if time permits. I know that there exists in my life a finite set of productivity problems that I need to solve for, and sometimes the thing that sets my mind off in a new direction actually helps me think about something else unrelated to what it is I’m focused on at the moment. If I never tried new software, I wouldn’t see how other people solve for the same problems, just the same way that you don’t get a pizza from one place and never eat another slice anywhere else. Life would be so boring without that kind of exploration, no matter how simple.

  2. I’m a super-visual person. I need to see things in front of me to make sense of them. I have a really hard time with audiobooks because my mind will wander and I’ll lose the story for my own thoughts and so read on my Kindle instead. My eyes are the way into my brain and my brain tells the rest of me how to feel about things. There are certain aspects of my daily experiences that I simply can’t change (easily–I know I could hack just about anything if I wanted to). The look of the operating system can’t really change. The interface of Mail is what it is. The Finder is windows and lists, and it’s fine. I don’t need those things to be different, because they’re all tools like my garden hose–I use them, I move away from them. I don’t care how my hose looks, I just want water to come out in varying degrees of force when I turn it on. I don’t need Finder to blow my mind, I need it to move my files around the same way, every time. But since I can easily change the look and function of my task lists, I’m tempted to do so and offered the opportunity almost every week. It’s an embarrassment of nerd riches. As I continue to design interfaces, I notice things I like in apps and things I really don’t, and they help me make better decisions in the work that I do. It’s valuable to me to keep my eyes fresh, and task apps are a weird, easy way to do that without a ton of disruption in my life.

  3. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a problem with keeping things the same for too long. I would endlessly rearrange my bedroom furniture, often in the middle of the night without my parents knowing. They’d wake up and see a completely different room than the night before. I had a limited kid-bedroom canvas to work with, and I was always looking to maximize the space I had to move around as well as the storage and access of all my stuff. This is but one example of this kind of behavior. As an adult, I don’t have the time or energy to move furniture all the time (and my wife would likely divorce me should I decide to make this a focus in my life again), but I look for other small efficiencies in my life that I can optimize. Rearranging the silverware drawer to gain access to the stuff we use the most. Same for the kitchen cabinets, putting things within reach and moving other things further away. The garage. My desk at work. My car. Shall I go on? Anywhere I see a repeatable task or a friction, I find a way to make it perfect (or as perfect as it can be within the limits of reality).

  4. This one’s the toughest. The fact of the matter is that I get everything done that I’m supposed to. I’m pretty good at it. I base everything against dates, and I’m brutally honest with myself about when things need to be accomplished. A former procrastinator in my youth (in stark contrast to what I just revealed in the above paragraph), as I got older, I realized that honesty and planning are better for me mentally than avoidance. However, I do capture things without dates, or without an immediate need. And they sometimes linger, or I forget about them. Sometimes it’s fine, and they never really needed to get done in the first place, and sometimes it’s dinner with a friend from six months ago and I’m a horrible person and let’s finally finally get together sorry man. Some of this dropping creates doubt in my systems and nudges me into new directions. Some of it is completely true and I find I’m not managing things as well as I think I’d like to–with little ill effect, other than a desire to improve as a person. But it’s there. Real or not, the thoughts are there and they need to be addressed.

All this considered, it’s worth noting that when I’ve got a lot to do, and people are depending on me, I don’t mess around with my system. I focus, get my stuff finished, and move on. I’m not a monster, after all. Work is work, and all this fiddling doesn’t matter at all when things are on the line. And I haven’t touched on it, but I absolutely, unequivocally realize the irony in wasting time trying out productivity software. Some people take it to extremes, and it just becomes farcical.

The last point I’ll make is that if I’m being honest, I have to say that my needs sometimes actually do change too. I might use Reminders between iOS and OS X and it’ll be just perfect for a few weeks or months, but then I realize that I actually do need a feature it doesn’t support for something. And not a manufactured need, but a real, honest-to-goodness need. It might even be a temporary need, but once I recognize it, it starts me thinking and the machine spins up all over again. Then I wrestle with some feelings–truly–about how and why I am the way I am. Why can’t I just leave well enough alone? What am I hoping to gain by engaging in this activity for the third time this month? I’ve become comfortable with my shortcomings, real, perceived, or otherwise and I just want to do good work. If a little dicking around with tasks makes me feel better and isn’t hurting anyone (and I’m still actually doing the things I need to), I guess I’m fine with it. I could have worse habits, I suppose.

But when time permits, and my mind wanders, or my eye tires, or the little kid in me really wants to move his bed and dresser again because maybe, just maybe he could fit some more stuff in here somehow… now I just open the App Store. It’s a wonderful time to be a lover of software, and we often forget just how great things are.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some data entry to do. Again.