1.08 | 05.11.17

My friends know that I'm a big nerd for productivity and time-management systems. So yeah, of course I was going to make a show eventually about the technology side of personal productivity.

How does that relate to the the main theme here at Soonish, which is the future and how we think about it? Well, time management and task management are all about how we plan and use our personal, short-term futures.

That's my excuse for this episode, anyway. In reality I just wanted to have on-tape conversations with a few friends who are thoughtful on the subject of productivity tools, including Ellen Petry Leanse, Stever Robbins, and Robin Seaman. And I wanted to check in with companies like Evernote and Droptask where designers and software engineers are still working hard to build better tools for managing our busy modern lives.

If you think about it, the future is the only malleable part of our personal timelines. After all, what happened in the past is over and can’t be changed. What’s happening now in the present is mostly determined by what just happened a minute ago. We can choose how we perceive or experience the present, but as individuals there isn’t much we can do to control it. The only kind of time we can truly hack is future time.

That’s why people like me and Robin Seaman and probably you have such a strong impulse to plan the future, to chop it up into little squares on a calendar and fill up each square with tasks and events. But on top of our calendars, we’ve got a mish-mash of other ways to visualize and manage our personal futures, including to-do lists and email. 

To use a physics metaphor, there’s no grand unified theory of time management.

Physicists figured out years ago that three of the four fundamental forces—electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force—are all aspects of the same force. But our explanation for the fourth force, gravity, doesn't fit with the other three. 

And it’s the same in personal productivity. Our basic trio of productivity tools—calendars, to-do lists, and e-mail—hasn’t changed much in 20 years, which is odd considering that they’re made of nothing more than software code. Plenty of software designers and entrepreneurs have had ideas about how to bring these three tools together, or about how to expand one in a way that subsumes the other two. But so far no one’s come up with a single solution that’s so great that it’s displaced the old triumverate.

I covered various attempts at this in a 2014 Xconomy feature called The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-Mail. In a way, this episode represents a continuation of the quest I was pursuing in that article.

For this week's show, I asked my sources what’s wrong with our current tools for managing our personal futures and why no one’s solved the grand unification problem. I talked with folks who are pursuing new techniques or new technologies for keeping our lives organized. I looked at the sometimes kludge-y solutions people have hacked together for themselves while they wait for a perfect new system to arrive. And I asked whether, in some way, we’re all missing the real point. Maybe in the rush to be “productive,” we’ve forgotten how to prioritize the things that truly make us happy.

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See Also

The Full Stever Robbins Interview



Chris Griffiths, CEO, iMindMap and DropTask

Ellen Petry Leanse, leadership coach and author of the forthcoming book The Happiness Hack

Andrew Malcolm, SVP, Marketing, Evernote

Stever Robbins, career coach, author, speaker, podcaster

Robin Seaman, Director, Content Acquisition, Benetech


Mentioned In This Episode

PalmPilot, the first popular PDA

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen

Inbox Zero, an email management technique developed by Merlin Mann

The Get It Done Guy's Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More, Stever Robbins' podcast

Toodledo, a popular online to-do list system

Lifestreams, a proposed operating system from Yale's David Gelernter

Mind Mapping, the original concept by Tony Buzan




How to filter your to-do notes (checklists), from Evernote Pro Tips

How I Learned to Stay Organized With Evernote, Post-Its, and Foamcore, a 2014 Xconomy column on my hybrid physical-digital task management method

Bullet Journal, an analog task management system developed by Ryder Carroll



Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay, with special guest appearances this week by Jamie Roush, Jennifer Athey, Kieran Alexander Athey Roush, and Lucy Elaine Athey Roush

Ad music: Why from Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

All additional music by Lee Rosevere:

Let's Start at the Beginning from Music for Podcasts

Snakes from Music for Podcasts 2

Here's the Thing from Music for Podcasts 3

Featherlight Remix from Music for Podcasts 2

Musical Mathematics from Music for Podcasts

Reflections from Music for Podcasts 2

Biking in the Park from Music for Podcasts

Going Home from Music for Podcasts


Special Thanks

Mark Pelofsky and Graham Ramsay listened to and commented on drafts of this episode.

Thanks very much to Ellen Petry Leanse and Robin Seaman for hosting me during my most recent reporting trip to the Bay Area, and for sharing their insights.

Thanks also to Nick Robalik, aka PixelMetal, maker of the "Spaghetti Western mayhem" platform game Sombrero, for agreeing to be interviewed for this episode. Unfortunately all of that material ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, after I trimmed this episode from its original 43 minutes down to about 33 minutes.

Thank you to Scott Meaney for setting up my interview with Nick Robali, to Shelby Busen for setting up my interview with Andrew Malcolm, and to Melina Costi for setting up my interview with Chris Griffiths. 

Our Sponsor

Support for the first two seasons of Soonish came from Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com.

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