I read an interesting article in the New Yorker a few days ago about Merlin Mann, and the struggles he experienced with his accidental “Getting Things Done”, and “In-box Zero” crusades on the 43 Folders website back in the mid 2000s.

In the mid 2000s I was somehow surviving four hours on trains each day commuting into and out of London, doing freelance web development projects in the evenings, and wading through the adoption process. While hanging on to daily life by my fingernails, I explored all manner of productivity hacks — telling myself that they would not only make life more manageable — they would make room for more.

Over the course of a decade I played with all manner of online and offline “tools” — Things, Backpack, Basecamp, Todoist, Remember the Milk, Evernote, Wunderlist, Moleskine notebooks, Filofaxes, Bullet Journals — name a fashionable life hack, and I probably tried it.

Being fair to Bullet Journals, they are the only thing that has stuck for any period of time. For the last two or three years, I have studiously rapid logged, curated, and migrated tasks from day to day, and month to month. It’s worth noting that my bullet journal pages bear no resemblance to the art installations commonly photographed on Instagram.

Somewhere along the way I realised the idiocy of it all.

For years I had accepted that writing something down helps me remember it. This is where the madness lies — because you’re supposed to be writing something down so you don’t have to remember it — the whole “trusted store” idea espoused by David Allen. On top of that, I realised I had slowly transformed my use of the paper journal into a log, rather than a plan — recording what I was doing, instead of what needed to be done. This made the filling of time-sheets easy, but really missed the point about the whole creation of order from chaos thing.

It seems the relentless crusade to “solve” productivity, or to hack our way around getting more done in less time with less effort will never end. People become obsessed with finding a “grand unified theory” that fits everything into some tool, or method — twisting and contorting themselves in circles — watching presentations and reading books about how to manage lists, notes, thoughts, ideas, and so on. It’s madness. Utter madness.

When I read the New Yorker article, I found myself nodding, and smiling. Perhaps we all face the same struggles — of finding a way to occasionally stand atop the chaotic requirements of our time and energy, and feel like we are in control, if only for a short time. There is such temptation to try and solve things that don’t need a solution.

In recent times, my home life has been recorded in Google Calendar and Evernote, my work life in Outlook, Teams and To Do. Who would have predicted that after decades working in offices surrounded by computers and paper, it would take the 2020 lock-down and months of home-working to finally go paperless ?

Do I miss the paper journal? Of course. Not because it’s useful — more because it’s a nice thing to have.

Writing on paper with a nice pen scratches a somewhat eccentric, romantic itch. The designers of the Moleskine notebooks know this — and hide a card inside the back cover of each notebook — congratulating the purchaser on joining the band of famous authors who have pocketed similar journals over past generations. The influencers posting Bullet Journal pages to social media destinations know this too — constructing beautiful task lists, charts, graphs, and visualisations instead of — you know — getting anything done.