System Building: Notion, OmniFocus, and the Cult of Tinkering to Feel Something

You only have so much time in day to do stuff, so how much of it are you wasting in systems?

What does it take to be your most productive? The right book? That one philosophy? Is it a state of mine, and is that state of focus or is it flow. Perhaps it’s the right headphones, playlist, or morning routine. Yes, the right pen, or notebook. It’s all about software, find the right one and bam you are a millionaire cashing checks while sipping down margaritas on your private yacht.

If you follow productivity schemes as long as I have, and you try enough of them — you find that every underlying way to do more work, to do that work fast, or to generally be more productive/creative/orwhathaveyou is simply boiled down to system building. The idea that all which is missing in our lives is a system by which we shove everything into and magic shall happen at the other end.

And make no mistake about this, a ‘system’ here has nothing to do with computers, software, or schedules. It’s all of the above. It is the frameworks which are espoused as our potential saviors in waiting, engineered by people whose only output is the system for creating outputs.

And this brings us to three prime candidates for ridicule: Notion, OmniFocus, and Morning Routines. I’ve fallen for 2 out of 3 of these traps. Here’s the thing: each of these systems requires more maintenance and setup work than any potential gain you could get out of it. Think of it like Hybrid cars when they came out.

When Hybrids came to market they cost more money than the equivalent gas models, which was typically around the $6,000 more mark. And, most people bought hybrids to try and save money on gas, not for environmental reasons, thus (on average) most people would have needed to keep these cars for about 6-10 years depending on how much they drove, to get back to a positive cash savings on buying a hybrid. In other words, to save more than $6,000 dollars in fuel, you had to drive that same car for more than 6 years, on average 7.5. Or: more years than most people keep cars here in the USA.

The same deficit comes into play with these tools made for being productive. Say a morning routine (planning out your most important things, cleaning, whatever) takes you on average 15 minutes each day, and maybe 30 minutes extra once per week (basing time here off the ones I have tried in the past). That means that you kind need to be getting something like 20 minutes of time savings per day for it to be worth it — not including the initial time studying/learning/setting up/implementing these systems which themselves can be hours of time. If you truly do the math, you’ll be hard pressed to see a positive time savings gain, especially when most of these things fall by the wayside family quickly. (Spoiler: if they didn’t fall by the wayside, the first person to talk about these systems would have been the only person to make money from it. Because why would anyone every need another system if the first one both worked, and stuck with them. Right?)

The same is true OmniFocus. It can take weeks of time to setup, learn, and properly start using (and remembering how to use). Tens of minutes of time per day to manage, and can all collapse the first time a project pivots, or you fail to keep the system maintained — which requires you to start the cycle fresh. I would guess that you need to be saving somewhere on order of 35 minutes per day to pay back the OmniFocus investment from just a time perspective. (Source: search this site for OmniFocus, I know that which I speak of here.)

Notion is worse. It’s a fragile system which must be tied together and seemingly has very little time advantage to all that work. Can you out in to dos and link stuff and then share it? Sure but what’s the value? What is your return on time invested? It’s likely negative if you actually look at it. The most telling way you can confirm this is to search the web for Notion tips. What you’ll find is all sorts of tips and getting started guides, but look at the screenshots and you’ll see almost no content. It’s like building a house with 40 rooms in it, but only furnishing with one bed and one couch — yes you have those rooms and theoretically that’s great, but practically you wasted a bunch of time and money building those rooms. That’s Notion in a nut shell. And you still need to clean, heat, cool, and what have you all those extra rooms.

The first way to tell that you have stumbled on to something too complex to be worth any potential time savings, is by searching for getting started tips. The more which exist, the more fucked you are. The more time you will waste. Because a truly productive tool, doesn’t need you to research and learn that much before you can use it to be productive. That’s a system.

Systems are important for nuclear launches and life and death stuff. But for remembering to take out the trash, they become stupid.

So What the Hell Do You Do

I’ve come to adopt this mindset: powerful tools are dangerous and should be treated as such, but simple tools are often highly productive to use.

I am a sucker for the newest, latest, and greatest tooling. Some new hot app everyone is using? I want it. So I often find myself staring down this barrel and trying to talk myself out of it. The easiest way I have found to stop is to simply ask “what the fuck do you need this for?”. And pretty much I move along at that point. I never actually need it. And if I do want, I ask what in the hell I am going to actually do with it.

You would be surprised at how many times I have installed Notion to get it set up and start to use it, only to stop myself in my tracks. Because as amazing as the idea of Notion is, I haven’t the slightest clue how it could remotely help me with anything I do. (Do not email me, I don’t want tips.)

The thing is, the silly concept of software/tools which do ‘one thing well’ struggles a lot, but it is born out of the very real fact that you walk a fine line: just enough power to be productive, but not so much power that you begin sapping productivity. A fast car is really freaking cool, but not if you have to stop twice to get more gas on your commute to work. A complex regiment is fantastic, but not if there’s no need or value to it.

Have you ever wondered what happens if you never think about or record what task is the most important one to get done that month/week/day? I can tell you, because I have tried it: turns out that the most important thing still gets done. Weird, right?

I think of this as a budget for productivity time. Because you only have so much productive time in a day, so how much of that is being spent just using your productivity tools? For me I am guessing I get about 4-6 hours of true productive time per day, which jives with most research as well. Let’s be rosy and call it 6 hours. If I spend 30 minutes just managing my systems, then I wasted roughly 8% of my productive time on that crap. Mind how much time you spend on your tools and systems, versus the time you spend on work.

The easiest way I do that is with screen time, and if I find my task managers consuming the top 5 most used slots, I know I built a stupid system where it is getting in the way of me doing actual work.

Optimize your productivity spending towards the things you want to get done, not the systems which manage the things you want to get done.

And have a great 2021.

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