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On Confronting the Productivity Dragon (take 2)

On a recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, a listener asked me what to do when one feels overwhelmed with incoming tasks, requests, and ambiguous obligations — a problem that has become unfortunately common in our current period of largely remote and persistently frenzied work.

The temptation in such moments is to curl up as the onslaught engulfs you; perhaps answering the most recent emails to arrive, or tackling a sampling of tasks that seem particularly urgent, but otherwise just hoping the rest will dissipate.

In the mythology of your professional life, in other words, you decline to confront the dragon, and instead put up a half-hearted warning sign, or rage to anyone in earshot about the unfairness of the dragon’s existence in the first place.

My advice was to resist this temptation.

I told the listener to instead confront the dragon. Jot down every loop that opens; whether it comes via email, or a phone call, or a Zoom meeting, or Slack. Because these loops might emerge rapidly, use a minimalist tool with incredibly low friction.  I recommended a simple plain text file on your computer in which you can record incoming obligations at the speed of typing (a strategy I elaborate in this vintage post).

Then, at the beginning of each day, before the next onslaught begins, process these tasks into your permanent system. In doing so, as David Allen recommends, clarify them: what exactly is the “next action” this task requires? Stare at this collection before getting started with your work.

It’s quite possible that the list will be terrifying — way more assignments and activities than you can ever hope to accomplish in time. But you should still confront it. Quantify the impossibility of your load. Visualize its contours. Walk into the cave, shield raised, prepared to face what lurks.

I can offer three justifications for this recommendation:

  1. As David Allen argues, obligations that are kept only in your head cause stress and drain mental resources. An overwhelming number of tasks captured in a system that you regularly review will generate a fraction of the angst spawned by trying to instead pretend that those same tasks don’t exist.
  2. Quantifying the impossibility of your assignments makes it much easier to argue for change. When you instead just battle your inbox all day, switching haphazardly between the easy and unavoidably urgent, you can convince yourself that you’re simply busy and need to hustle harder. Enumerating the absurd quantity of these demands will sharpen your conviction that something has to give.
  3. You can optimize. If you have 400 tasks on your list, there’s no way you can accomplish them all in a single day. But if you can see all 400 obligations in one place, then you can choose the five or six that will have the biggest impact. This is almost certainly better than just jumping on whatever caught your attention most recently.

In summary, I told this podcast listener not to confuse the systems with which he organizes his work for the actual quantity of work with which he has been burdened. Abandoning the former won’t reduce the latter, it will only make its metaphorical fiery breath burn all the hotter.


Speaking of productivity, one of my favorite productivity writers, Laura Vanderkam, just published a new ebook original titled, The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work from Home. I couldn’t think of a more relevant book for the frustrated many, like my overwhelmed podcast listener, currently struggling with the “new normal” of the remote workplace.

24 thoughts on “On Confronting the Productivity Dragon (take 2)”

  1. Note: In my first attempt to post this article, I grabbed an image of St. George from Wiki Commons that seemed to be of the right resolution and dimensions. But I missed one crucial detail: his heralding was full of swastikas! (I think it was from a wikipedia article about Nazi mythology). Needless to say, I deleted that post and am trying again without the offending image.

      • Swastika is fundamental to your site, hear me out.
        Swastika in Sanskrit means Su(Good) – Asti(Being) that is “conducive to well being” and we come to your site for our well being.
        Hitler ruined the Hindu/Buddhist symbol, I did see some domestic miniature temples in Hindu households with the symbol on copper plates and they also draw it on auspicious occasions.

        The irony of this symbol is worth appreciating.

        • It was also used extensively in the Middle Ages, particularly in Poland. They were a “hooked cross”, used in part because it sort of looked like a cross, and in part because it sort of looked like something common in Greek and Roman mosaics. That’s why the Germans chose it as their symbol–it was something pretty much everyone associated with good things.

          So if you look at pre-WWII imagery, including historically accurate Medieval imagery, you’ll often find swastikas. They had no racist implications (they were part of a theocratic system of government, but that’s a separate issue), nor were they associated with Nazis (who didn’t exist until hundreds of years later).

  2. Oh! Just noticed that the article title when you click through has “Take 2” included, but the front page doesn’t, like you’ve inadvertently linked through to a second draft Instead of actually updating the original. If that helps

    • I erased the original article then posted a new version with the “take 2” title so that my RSS feed would spread it. I think some people who saw the original article just have it temporarily cached in their browser.

  3. I heard your podcast two evenings ago, and when you told your reader and us to “slay the dragon” – that was good advice. You are right. Often, we avoid things, when we should not, no matter how long the list it. Now, seeing your post, could I reconsider and see St George as the saint of productivity?

  4. I’m a new listener/follower of you, Dr. Newport. I recently bought two of your books (Deep Work and How to Become a Straight-A Student), and I am really enjoying both of them! Keep up the great work!

  5. Context: I have not listened to the podcast, but I just read the email post and have a thought.

    Is the listener an employee in an employment organization? If so, it is the accountability of an employee’s manager to clearly, specifically identify and prioritize tasks he/she is delegating to subordinate employees. I have interviewed thousands of employees at all levels in small, medium and large size for-profit and non-profit organizations, and when I hear comments such as those of your listener, my default is to question the clarity, specificity, and priority of the task (communication) from the manager. I help accountable managers give clearer and more specific task assignments by using a task assignment template. When managers learn how to give effective task assignments, I rarely hear comments such as those from the listener.

  6. Thanks for posting this Cal – very timely for me, I am currently rereading Allens GTD text. I just finished reading How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens, and much of his text references the GTD system.

    I first read GTD about 4 years ago, and have built up a decent, solid personal productivity system since then. But rereading GTD is enhancing my systems even further.

    I think the greatest point is capturing everything you have to do externally, out of your mind. My current intellectual interests are examining the intersection in will power, decision fatigue, and the benefits of external minds (i.e. captured tasks, etc).

    Love your work mate,

  7. I love the idea of taking the mundane and raising it to mythological proportions. I particularly enjoy this analogy of a confronting a crushing workload like facing a fire-breathing dragon in its lair.

    Reminds me of the Stoic’s idea of “cosmic consciousness,” the technique of elevating your perspective (through contemplation) so that your concerns appear minute in comparison (per Hadot’s “Inner Citadel” and “Philososophy as a Way of Life”). This “face the dragon” technique inverts the technique, elevating the work burden to a beast of mythological proportions. I think the “face the dragon” technique is far more useful for generating the sense of urgency needed to get things done, the “cosmic consciousness” technique useful for reducing stress.

    Fantastic post Cal, thank you!!

  8. I just finished a one year term as interim chair of my academic department, and let me assure everyone who reads this that Cal speaks the truth here. I’ve been practicing GTD for years but being a department chair was a new level of challenge, precisely because there SO MUCH stuff coming in constantly, and it takes a lot of time simply to decide whether each item is actionable at all.

    I went one step further in the recommendation of using a text file and did the pre-processing in a paper notebook. Something about pulling completely away from the screen and physically writing things down makes me think twice about committing to actions, and has a calming effect on me.

  9. Cal,

    I saw the image you previously posted. At first, I questioned your reasoning. However, I could tell the period from the picture was well before War World II so I dismissed it. Nevertheless, thank you for changing it so quickly.

  10. Perhaps a fourth justification, related to #3: certain obligations are best captured and deferred, potentially falling off your list later and thus reducing your overall workload.

    Obligations evolve — some requiring less work later, losing relevance, or even completely resolving on their own. Unfortunately, there’s no way to guarantee in advance which ones these are, so they should stay on your list. However, by tracking all your obligations and attending to the high impact items first, you can let other obligations incubate.

    Further, the most tempting items to handle in the moment also tend to be the easiest and lowest impact, and perhaps the most likely to spontaneously resolve. I’m thinking, for example, of those vaguely worded multi-party emails — it’s easy to crank out a response, though these are best left ignored for a while, and often never need a reply.


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