Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

On Convoluted Workflows

Sticky notes on an agile board

A few years ago, when I was struggling to find a productivity system that suited me, a friend pointed me to a workflow diagram someone had created. I don’t remember whose diagram it was, or where my friend found it online. All I know is that my friend figured I’d be impressed and influenced by it.

I wasn’t. On either count.

The diagram was a mass of branches, boxes, and arrows. There were many colours, many routes, and many elements. All crammed on to an 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper. In landscape orientation.

It was a sight to behold. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

After my head stopped spinning and my eyes recovered, I wondered what the point of the diagram, and the underlying workflow, was. The workflow I’d just seen was so convoluted that I couldn’t believe someone could 1) actually follow it, and 2) be productive if they tried to follow it. There were just too many options, too many steps. It was just too much.

Some people, as I’ve learned over the years, equate complexity with quality. With being more thorough. With greater value. But, in most cases, do you need a multitool or just a can opener? Often, it’s the latter.

To be truly productive, to be truly effective your workflow should be simple. It needs to be straightforward.

You have a set of tasks or projects. Tackle the most important or highest priority ones first. Then, move on to the next items in your list. Put anything you can’t tackle immediately into a backlog. Then, revisit that backlog. If you know you can’t get to the tasks in your backlog, dump them. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Nothing complex there. It’s a formula that people have used to get things done for decades or more. You can easily apply that workflow to a majority of what you need or want to do. It’s simple, but it’s also effective.

Simplicity is the essence of productivity. Once you start adding layers of complexity to what you’re doing, you bog down your system. You make it more difficult to do what you need to do. Plus, you’ll wind up spending time and mental energy maintaining a complex and convoluted system. That’s time you can better spend doing other things.

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