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Rational Doing

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  • Rational Doing

    About seven months ago I posted a message here about Wired magazine's article on David Allen. That article was written by Gary Wolf.

    Today I read in the current issue of Wired another article by Gary Wolf. This one's about Piotr Wozniak, the creator of an electronic flashcard program called SuperMemo. I believe that Wired posts their articles on the web a few weeks after the print edition has been distributed.

    What was fascinating about Wozniak (to me) was that he lives his life by following a principle diametrically opposed to one of the principles that underlies David Allen's GTD system. Wozniak enters absolutely everything into his system (so far so good). And he assigns it a priority (you can see where this is going). His system then spits out an ordered list of what he should be doing, which he slavishly obeys.

    Wozniak was not always like this.

    By the mid-'90s, with SuperMemo growing more and more popular, Wozniak felt that his ability to rationally control his life was slipping away. "There were 80 phone calls per day to handle. There was no time for learning, no time for programming, no time for sleep," he recalls.

    . . . He doesn't own a phone. He ignores his email for months at a time. And though he holds a PhD and has published in academic journals, he never attends conferences or scientific meetings.

    . . . [Now] Wozniak no longer wastes time worrying that he hasn't gotten to some article he wants to read; once it's loaded into the system, he trusts his algorithm to apportion it to his consciousness at the appropriate time.

    The appropriate time, that is, for him. Having turned over his mental life to a computerized system, he refuses to be pushed around by random inputs and requests. Naturally, this can be annoying to people who messages tend to sift to the bottom. "After four months," Biedalak [CEO of SuperMemo World] says sadly, "you sometimes get a reply to some sentence in an email that has been scrambled in his incremental reading process."
    I have a lot of admiration for people who live in a world they create, even at the cost of monetary reward. But most human beings are social creatures with all kinds of bonds and connections to other people. Very few of us can live as Wozniak does, or would even want to. For the rest of us, David has it right. We do need to be able to respond to the rapidly changing environment that we inhabit. Sure, some of it's noise, and we need to develop methods for filtering it out. But my real world will always be a few steps ahead of my electronic representation of that world (at least until I can hook up the electronics directly to my brain). For that reason, I am in Allen's camp, not Wozniak's. I am not going to follow an ordered list that my system spits out for me. Rather, I am going to decide, on the fly, which action to do next.

  • #2
    How very fascinating. I think there are some posts (a very few) on this forum that are looking for the Wozniak system. I'm glad though that GTD lets me live a lot more in the moment. Things change constantly and quickly; by the time Wozniak gets around to something, it may already be obsolete and, hence, a complete waste of his time.


    • #3
      You do not need to choose either DA's approach, or the program.

      Lifebalance, and the other more speedily updated equivalent program (can't think of name) do something similar. I could not see following blindly what the program recommends. OTOH if you have lots of to dos there is something comforting about using the program and choosing which of the items near the top to do right now. Even if you scan the whole list once a day or two.


      • #4
        Piotr Wozniak's system works for him, due to specifics of his goals and situation.
        It would be rather hard to find more other people in same situation, unlike with GTD which applies well to situation of a lot of people.

        My impression is his method of time scheduling is only a side effect of his way of learning. He learns and reads what gets automatically scheduled, so it only made sense to extend it to other life areas, where I believe he probably doesn't have as much tasks - IMHO he has mostly learning stuff on his list and little to no deadlines to meet.


        • #5
          Well put, Tomas.

          David teaches the system that he's observed works well for most people. If a very different system works for some people, fantastic! However, it may only work for those people.

          I fear for what Mr. Wozniak may be missing from his extremely rational life. We don't live in an extremely rational world.


          • #6
            Perfect Timing; I just bought SuperMemo

            What a coincidence, before reading this post I had just purchased SuperMemo for Palm. I can think of several uses for such program. seems like a great tool for language reviews, class reviews, etc... as well as helping me remember shortcuts, the steps to GTD collecting, organizing, etc...

            Mr. Wozniak does lead an interesting life which I guess is somewhat maintainable because of his isolation and ability to ignore outside input. He should collaborate with the author of “4 Hour Workweek”. Hope he has a good system back-up and plenty of redundant uninterruptable power sources.


            • #7
              The article has now been posted online.

              I've been using SuperMemo for years as a tool to help me remember what I've learned. But I do not use it to calculate when the best time is for me to do my tasks.


              • #8
                Thanks for the article link.

                It's a fascinating glimpse of not just the algorithmic nature of Wozniak's tasks, but also his ideas about using technology to enhance our lives.

                A lot of my GTD and productivity hacks evoke strong reactions in people who aren't comfortable with technology, and I'm not even close to Wozniak's level of use. Just using my phone cam to snap a picture of where I parked has been enough to make a few people accuse me of doing something "wrong" by not entrusting that kind of memory to my brain.

                Having read the entire article, it seems more similar to David Allen's ideas about creating a trusted system than I epxected based on the excerpt. There's a common thread between Wozniak's approach and Allen's explanations of GTD about using assistive technology to free your mind to do the types of things it does best, as well as create the freedom the live the life you want without guilt and stress. Both approaches strike me as way of utilizing something artificial to rediscover and connect with our humanity.

                I'd be interested to know what thoughts the article sparks for other people about their use of a system.


                • #9
                  Originally posted by dhartzell View Post
                  [...] using my phone cam to snap a picture of where I parked [...]
                  Brilliant! I'm stealing that idea next time I park at the airport (so much better than my old method of wandering aimlessly around the parking lot hitting the panic button on my key fob and listening for the horn to start honking).


                  • #10
                    The catch to these kinds of systems is that you must assign a priority to everything. How do you do that consistently? The priority of a new task is inherently relative to the priorities of everything else. Do you have to try to keep track of all undone tasks and their priorities so that you know how to fit the new item into that stack in the correct position? If you get the priority wrong, an important task can slip way down the list and remain undone too long.


                    • #11
                      I fear for what Mr. Wozniak may be missing from his extremely rational life.
                      I don't think so. As it was written in the article, he is a very happy man.

                      Originally posted by Barry View Post
                      The catch to these kinds of systems is that you must assign a priority to everything.
                      Right so.
                      Fired up the Tasks part (that I never used) of my Supermemo 2006, that I'm almost sure is what Piotr Wozniak uses for his tasks list, and to each task you can assign value, time, priority and impose a deadline, and half-time.

                      Here is a a screenshot and more details:


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Tomas D. View Post
                        I don't think so. As it was written in the article, he is a very happy man.
                        One can be very happy, but still miss the important.


                        • #13
                          Are you sure you know what is important?

                          Originally posted by Brent View Post
                          One can be very happy, but still miss the important.
                          Are you sure you know what is important?


                          • #14
                            Important things do not always bring you happiness. Ignoring them may ... for the time being.


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by TesTeq View Post
                              Are you sure you know what is important?
                              Ah, that's the question, isn't it?

                              Indeed, what is happiness? And should we pursue it at all costs?