Toolin’ for Reducin’ Cognitive Overhead

Productivity and self-help is a pretty major literary genre, both in blog post form as well as published books and articles. Over the years, I’ve written numerous times about various systems I put together to make myself productive:

At this point though, I’m dialing back on the never-ending search to squeak out incremental productivity gains; having spent most of my professional career honing these systems, they’re now comfortable tools which are de facto applied to life and work situations. The cost of picking up something new, which may only potentially better, is not worth the disruption when current frameworks do the job pretty well already.

The real benefit to keeping a comfortable set of productivity tools, however, is that they free up mental energy for other pursuits, and minimize the cognitive tax of how to organize and get things done. It’s one of the central—albeit abstracted—tenets of the Getting Things Done framework: create the procedures to cover for some aspect of your life & work, make it a habit through intention and repetition, and then rely on the system to prevent things slipping through the cracks. Build and adhere to the system enough times, and it becomes trivially easy to set up and maintain, where the net positive effects accrue to an elevated baseline of efficiency.

Take email: most people accept overwhelmed email inboxes as their default. The protocol and usage itself is at this point engrained as a part of work and life, and so the main innovation for email workflows and clients has been to help users control their inboxes, everything from the now-defunct Google Inbox to paid options like HEY and Superhuman. The activation energy required to make the effort to clean up an overburdened email account is already pretty high; trying out and testing now a multitude of services and clients quickly runs into paralysis by choice. In the same way that keeping only one style of clothing makes figuring out what to wear simple, establishing and keeping an Inbox Zero system just removes email management as a concern.

That’s not to say that I’ve completely solved all my workflows with tools, smugly leaning back letting the systems work themselves1. In fact, as work and life have continued to evolve, I end up leveraging many of these aforementioned tools as a foundation for me to develop new systems for myself. As my team at Affirm grew bigger, for instance, I really had to figure out my work calendar and the rules to apply to manage my time. In parallel, parenting my kids as they grow older has also meant coming up with new rules, albeit more to keep them in line.

  1. I’ve been dabbling in the programming/automation game and simulator Factorio recently; in that game, if you play well you do get to sit back and admire your own handiwork.

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