The holy grail of productivity usually involves getting to the bottom of things; your inbox should be empty. All your tasks completed. No more paperwork to file. All red badge alerts on your mobile gone.
From Inbox Zero to most task management applications, the ultimate goal is to get to empty and done:
But who ever reaches that state?
Most productivity experts seem to be mythical superheroes who live in a perpetual state of everything done and empty. Always on top of things, never behind, no backlog of emails.
I’m not sure about you, but this is not exactly what my life looks like:
- My inbox hasn’t been completely empty for at least several months.
- I rarely manage to finish all the tasks I schedule in the morning for that day.
- There are quite a bunch of unfinished projects and tasks lingering around, which I’m not sure I’ll ever get to.
Human after all
Since I’m building a productivity company and writing a lot about the topic, you might be surprised by the above list. But I doubt even most productivity experts are perfect, we’re all human after all.
So why would we want to strive to have everything emptied out and done in the first place? I believe the answer is a combination of having “peace of mind” and “being in control.”
Open loops and loose ends
When you have too many things piling up and lose the overview, your mind starts to worry. About forgetting things. About how to manage it all. About doom scenarios in the future. Worst of all, things will happen to you as opposed to you being in charge of your day.
“You can fool everyone else, but you can’t fool your own mind. It knows whether or not you’ve come to the conclusions you need to, and whether you’ve put the resulting outcomes and action reminders in a place that can be trusted to resurface appropriately within your conscious mind.”
– David Allen in Getting Things Done
Without a process in place to keep track of your tasks, communication, projects and all their progress, you can never find “peace of mind,” nor “be in control.” But even with a good work system setup, aiming to finish everything you’ve ever dreamed of will still not lead to that desired peace of mind state; having every item done and complete is simply not possible anymore.
The flood gates are permanently open
The sheer volume of possibilities we face today on a daily basis is incredible. You can choose from hundreds of productivity apps. You can join more social networks than you have friends. You can listen to most music ever created, practically for free. The list goes on.
We’re faced with infinite choice, literally at our fingertips. Even when you actively work to focus and limit the decisions you have to make, the possibilities will still be endless.
- There will always be more work to do.
- There will always be more emails you can write.
- There will always be more apps you can use.
While to some this might sound depressing, I’ve started to view this as a fact of life to accept gracefully; let go of the idea that everything you ever wanted to do can be finished.
Just let it be
Learning to deal with the magnitude of possibilities we face — a mindset of letting go — is a key ingredient to feeling happy and satisfied. You will still need a system to make sure things don’t accidentally slip through the cracks. But the goal of getting to zero every day should be replaced with a focus on the 80 / 20 principle: 20% of activities leads to 80% of the results.
Let go of the idea that everything you ever wanted to do can be finished. Instead, find peace of mind by reminding yourself of the valuable 20% things you accomplish each day. Let go off frustrations over the other things you let slip through the cracks deliberately and didn’t get to; c’est la vie in the 21st century!