Beehives, Anthills, and Your To-Do List: How Small Things Get Big Things Done

19 January, 2015

Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson


David Allen, the creator of the ‘Getting Things Done’ method of time management, is famous for saying that the very phrase “time management” is a lie. “You don’t manage time,” he says. “You don’t mismanage five minutes and wind up with six.” Barring some revolutionary breakthroughs in quantum physics, time will continue to be utterly unmanageable. But what you can manage, in the shadow of the constantly-ticking clock, is another limited resource: yourself.

So how are we doing when it comes to managing ourselves — our activity and commitments? How can we get things done?

There are infinite opportunities for distraction.

A report by McKinsey Global Institute has found that interaction workers — those who communicate and collaborate frequently with co-workers and clients — spend around 28% of their workweek managing email. Face-to-face internal communication takes another 14% of the workweek, while another 20% of their time was chewed up by “searching for and gathering information” — which includes tracking down colleagues who know something valuable or can be helpful with specific tasks.

All of these interactions might be very important. Or they might not. Without the space to evaluate what we’re doing, our brains will continue to return to the email inbox, addicted to micromanaging the latest micro-crisis to come our way. Unfortunately, that also means more time under the constant pressure of stress at being unable to do it all, stretched thin by decision fatigue, and lacking a sense of purpose or thrill of accomplishment.

The reason David Allen’s GTD method has become so popular, according to some psychological researchers, is because it addresses these issues — in a way that is surprisingly compatible with the fundamental nature of our brains.

2 Keys to Hacking our Brains

We’re not intending to specifically endorse the GTD method, since there may be other systems that function along the same lines. What interests us is thatsome basic tools and a method can help people achieve the mental state of ‘flow.’ ‘Flow’ is the inherently-pleasurable mental state that can take place when we’re fully focused on a problem or task that stretches our mental capacities but doesn’t overtax them. Whereas most of us spend our days bombarded by interruptions — including the self-inflicted interruption of ‘multitasking’ — flow happens when we’re allowed to ‘single-task,’ and truly use our brains for the kind of creative problem-solving they were built for.

Actionable Items

According to Francis Heylighen and Clément Vidal at the University of Brussels, science supports Allen’s suggestion of breaking projects down into actionable work items, and focusing on one at a time. They explain “switching (mental or physical) context costs time and energy, so it is better to minimize it. . . . Frequent interruptions, e.g. by incoming email messages or phone calls, significantly reduce a worker’s productivity.”

External Memory

But for them, the greatest feature in Allen’s method is its use of external memory. Allen’s first suggestion is that we write down all of the tasks and preoccupations going on in our brain, in a list that we frequently return to. Heylighen and Vidal write: “The main principle is to get everything that is nagging you out of your mind and into a trusted external memory (file system), so that you can stay focused on what you actually have to do now, rather than on various ideas, plans and commitments for later.”

As Allen himself puts it: what we lack most isn’t time, but the “psychic bandwidth” to effectively deal with our problems. When the whole world is allowed into our psyche, we are overwhelmed. We experience confusion and conflict, and respond “either by numbing out, or getting crazy-busy.” We then blame our stress on the lack of time, when the truth is that if we had more time, we’d only have more time to be stressed over. Allen diagnoses the problem as a mismanagement of our creative energy, which is why he gives surprising advice: “don’t keep anything in your head the rest of your life.”

“The main principle is to get everything that is nagging you out of your mind and into a trusted external memory (file system), so that you can stay focused on what you actually have to do now, rather than on various ideas, plans and commitments for later.”

Psychologists back Allen’s bold statements. Heylighen and Vidal point to how our brain is remarkable at reading complex patterns and figuring out nuanced solutions, but quickly becomes overworked by trying to retain reliable, unchanging copies of a set of information. “The brain is an intrinsically active medium where patterns are always in flux. As such,” they write, “it is poor at keeping track of unchanging details.”  When we use our brain primarily for reminding us about things, we’re using a tool for something it wasn’t exactly built to do — a little like pounding down a nail with a pair of pliers. If you’ve tried it, you know it only brings frustration.

They explore other psychological research into how “the brain can “offload” information and store it in an external memory that is more reliable and less energy consuming than its own working memory.” This doesn’t only release a burden from the brain — in psychological terms, it extends the mental environment, as “cognition is distributed across the brain and various material supports.”

It seems as magical as the wizard Dumbledore depositing mind-cramming memories in his ‘pensieve’: when you create a reliable task-reminder system, you’re in effect making your brain bigger by extending it into the environment.

Bees and External Memories

In fact, explain Heylighen and Vidal, this is how even creatures who have so few neurons they are effectively brainless can still do big things. Bees, ants, termites, and wasps, for example, have very simple neural pathways, no working memory, and no ability to plan. And yet, these animals not only feed, care for, and defend huge populations, but also can create massive and elaborate feats of engineering which appear to require intense planning and collaboration.

Scientists explain the bugs’ abilities to do these things through an unfortunately ugly word: stigmergy. Stigmergy is a psychological concept that combines the words “stigma” — meaning ‘mark’ — and “ergon” — meaning ‘work.’ An action is stigmergic if it creates a mark that inspires more work. Social insects usually do this by putting down pheromones and chemicals, which their hive-mates can read and respond to. Typically they make a mark which spurs an action, which leaves another mark, which creates more action — and the end result is a thirty-foot-high termite mound or a hive full of honey.

Whether or not you’re interested in entomology, these humble critters have a useful lesson for us. The psychologists suggest that Allen’s method isn’t been fully exploited until the concept of externalizing memory becomes collaborative. On the individual level, it might be a very good technique for maximizing one person’s productivity and minimizing stress, but the results are exponentially greater when a group of people are able to communicate through the marks they make about their work.

That’s one reason we’ve built a shared task manager in Filevine that is not only compatible with the principles of finding flow in your work — but also can expand your collaboration with others.

 Finding Flow in Filevine

If you’re using Filevine, here are some ways to incorporate the best ideas from time management gurus and cognitive scientists:

 Step 1: Collect

Allen’s first suggestion is that you collect all your tasks, notes, questions, and needs. The key thing is to get everything out of the brain and into a secure system. He explains in his book that “the reason to collect everything isn’t that everything is equally important, it’s that it’s not.” While our psyches will often exaggerate or underplay the importance of something, getting them out of the head and into a screen can clarify their relative importance.

Using Filevine to collect all of the information about cases and projects can extend your mental map. Some of this information won’t be actionable right now, but once it’s in the system, in its appropriate case file or project file, you’ll have freed up the brain space you need to think creatively through more pressing issues.

 Step 2: Do / Defer

Filevine’s task manager can house all the tasks and projects that are actionable. Once you’ve dumped all the things you were trying to remember into your task manager, your mind is free to focus on one thing at a time, without distraction, closer to that Zen state of concentration, or flow, we’re trying to reach. In this space, you’re now able to use your mind to think about things, rather than think of things. While you’re working on your to-do list, Filevine’s all-in-one storage of case information will mean you’ll spend less time tracking down the information you need from other sites or colleagues.

Filevine helps you handle both the quick tasks, which you rapidly tick off, and the more extensive projects, as you break them down into actionable bits. Use Filevine’s calendaring feature to schedule tasks in the future, so you don’t have to think about them until they’re relevant.

 Step 3: Delegate / Collaborate

But Filevine isn’t just a good day-planner for each person who uses it. It’s a foundationally collaborative tool. The most obvious way this is true is its task-assignment tool, which you can use for the “delegate” part of the GTD method. Whether you’re tagging a co-worker for a quick task or assigning them an entire document to work on, you’ll have a clear, shared record of the delegation and the task completion.

But beyond simple delegation, as you keep records of tasks, questions, needs and ideas on shared cases and projects, you move the GTD process from one of individual efficiency toward group productivity and creativity. If a family of termites can build fortresses taller than giraffes, imagine what clearer internal communication can do for your firm.

We don’t have any tools that can turn five minutes into six. But we are happy to help you manage your activity, track your commitments, and find your flow.