Automatic vs Deliberate productivity what's best for you

  • Post by Maxime Cote
  • Jun 05, 2021

Is your productivity system automatic or deliberate? Did you ever stop to think about it or the difference between those types of systems? The first reflex we have is to try and make as many parts of the system as possible automatic. Having been on that road many times over in the past, I wanted explicitly to be more deliberate this time around. Now having switch from a highly automated and automatic to a high manual and conscious system, I can see the appeal of this type. Before diving into those differences, it’s worth taking a step back and define what I mean by “deliberate” and “automatic” in this context.

Let’s start with what’s deliberate here: a system where you do things yourself deliberately and partly manually based on workflows and processes. It can still happen digitally in apps or analog if you’re more inclined; that’s not a factor here. The opposite is an automatic system: a system where things are done for you by scripts, queries, and applications based on parameters. This one is impossible to do without one or more applications just because of its nature and functioning. For example, a system based on a similar setup as a bullet journal where you cross tasks after their done, mark some with a marker to move them (usually “>” ), and “block” them in a time block fashion would be deliberate. A system where you crafted a series of queries so that when you sit down to work, your todo list is auto-generated for the day by your application based on previous leftovers, and the query for the week, etc., would be automatic.

At first glance, it might seem weird to want to do things manually and deliberately instead of having them done for us. Still, unless you have numerous tasks, like multiple tens of them, added to your plate daily, the automation might not be worth the tradeoff. Both have pros and cons, often opposite because of their natures, and it’s what we’ll explore here.

Trust your system

The ultimate goal of any productivity system is to have a place where you put tasks and reminders safely so they won’t be forgotten and done in time. The core reason is that that’s the best way to close off “open loops,” which are the nagging sense you forgot something or the random tasks that will pop up at night before bed. Those loops will constantly suck mental energy until you address them, and your brain will spend energy trying to remind you, often at the wrong time and space. On top of that, it will get hard to do focus work or complex tasks if you have multiple open loops since your brain will constantly be distracting you with those tasks. The way to truly close them off is to put them down in a trusted place where your brain is sure that you will take care of them. That’s why trust in a system is so fundamental to a working system. You can gain this type of trust from both kinds of systems; the main difference between both will be the length of time required.

A deliberate system will often gain trust faster, often because of your numerous interaction with it but also memory and actions. In a conscious approach, you would take tasks due today one at a time and either give them a place in the day or send them to another day. That means there are no surprise tasks and no nagging from your brain about something you could have forgotten. You can clearly remember going thru your tasks one at a time and acting on them. Going through all the todo and acting on them is a significant way to build trust and close open loops. In the end, your brain now knows it can rest because you looked at everything for the day. On the other hand, if you’re not careful and stuff starts to surprise you or slips, then so will the trust in the system. That sort of situation is where an automatic system can run into trouble with confidence.

An automatic system will, by its nature, rely on software, queries, and features to function and generate todo, reminders, and other results. To make it worthwhile, that sort of automation will work with queries, parameters, and settings that you need to define. On top of that, the more complex the query, the easier it is to forget some cases or functions and end up with a bad result. That means, in general, you will have a lot more chance that something doesn’t work quite right because of a missing piece or simply a bug. When that happens, your trust will slowly erode, and your brain will start to default back into keeping open loops. Because of those bugs, the general length of time you require to build an automatic system where trust can grow is often a lot longer. You will need to run into all of the problems and solve them before reaching a point where your brain starts to trust the system. On top of that, if there are new bugs or changes, the trust will begin to slip again. That is also where control comes into play; the more you have over the system, the easier it will be to rectify issues.

Control over your system

How much control you have over the system is another significant difference between the two systems. Control is important because it allows you more flexibility when changes happen, big and small. Rarely, if ever, does our life stays the same over medium to long term; sometimes things can drastically change week to week even. That means you need to adapt and morph your system as you go, so it doesn’t break when change happens. We also saw earlier how brittle trust could be with a system, so the faster you can fix the issue and transform a system to match new needs, the quicker you can start to grow trust in it again. Usually, when changes happen, you go into a transition period where things are a bit shakier, and confidence will degrade until you established a new working system, so the faster, the better here.

In a deliberate system, you’re the core of your system, and you execute the workflows and processes, which reduce the number of changes that will impact the system. For example, changing when you start the day or which days you work won’t have any effects, since you’re the one who sits down and plans the day, do it on the new time/days. In those cases, there’s nothing new added, removed, or changed in the system. You can still do the same workflow and process to build your day as before, do it at a different time, which is a change you’re already handling anyway. Some changes will still require adjustment, like changing jobs, new positions, new teams, etc. You will need to change the process and workflows to match the new requirements in those cases, either create a new one or change the previous one. That transition period will usually be pretty quick because, in a deliberate system, you have total control over how you handle the new changes.

In an automatic system, you will typically have less control over how things work unless you built the whole system yourself. The limitation often comes from the app, queries, search, connection, etc., available to you. If we take the same example of changing the start of the day with an automated system, you can see the differences. A change of time might require you to do some research and adjustment to re-configure the settings correctly, if possible. You will then need to make the change and make sure it doesn’t produce unintended consequences. Whether it does or not, you now have a small window of uncertainty and transition in the system. If you tack on top of that something like a change in the days you work, you just expanded that window a lot because now you have multiple changes to track. There’s also the same case of significant changes like a new job, wherein in that scenario, the system might be completely broken. Since it relies on a set of features and interactions, if you massively change those, you quickly reach a point where the system needs to be rebuilt, or even worst, you run into a deal-breaker. There’s always a chance a change you’re trying to make is not possible in your app, at which point you’re stuck. Do you transition to a new app? Do you change the way things work? Are you even allowed to change how those works? There will be a long and painful transition in any of those scenarios since none of the solutions are quick fixes.

Connection to your system

How “connected” to your system are you? That connection comes from “being on top of things,” from awareness of what’s going on. Are you aware of what’s coming in and out of the system? That awareness and connection are essential on multiple levels; it helps spot bottlenecks, issues, missing pieces, momentum, progress, and adaptation. The more aware you are, the faster you’ll spot those issues, and the more you’ll see your progress and momentum. When your awareness is good, you’ll often know what’s coming short and medium-term and your project health status. It makes it easier to see if something “falls off” or if you need to re-adjust a project. You can also know when you have too much on your plate and need to delegate some things off. That sort of connection is compelling in keeping things smooth and prevent burnout and overload.

In a deliberate system where you sit down daily to plan your day, you will quickly see things that need some work. You will be reminded daily about problems or things coming soon. For example, if you see yourself moving the same task to tomorrow 4-5 times, you know something is off. That, in turn, allows you to start to work on figuring out what’s happening and how to fix it. This same awareness works on the project level too, do you have a project deadline coming and you keep pushing back the tasks related because of other emergencies, then you know it won’t make it and will need to be adjusted. You can also spot problems more quickly in the system because of the recurring pain that comes from them. Because of the deliberate and manual nature of the system, it can get painful to have to redo things all the time, but in itself, that’s the sign of an issue. Do you find yourself often changing tasks around in the same time block, then change your process and don’t put tasks in that time. It might seem weird, but that sort of pain is very often a sign of issues that you need to fix, and being reminded daily of them is a great way to get motivated to resolve the issue and make everything better.

In an automatic system where the system generates lists and todo for the day on the fly, it can be difficult to see issues. By design, you’re not as connected to the system because you let it work automatically. That also means a lot less awareness in general of where things are and what might create problems. You can always see for yourself and reconnect with the system, but doing so is now an optional action, not a requirement. In general, that often means taking a lot longer to spot problems in the system and the planning. Since there’s no daily pain associated with rescheduling or planning, it’s a lot less motivating to fix possible issues; just let the app push the tasks tomorrow. Over time though, it will get worst and can easily create overload because, in the end, not fixing an issue will make it worst. Often you’ll realize something is off only when things start to fall apart, or you take the time to reconnect with the system. Usually, at that point, fixing issues will be a lot harder. There’s also the momentum side of things that can be more tricky in an automated system since it’s easy to create a never-ending list of tasks. Those lists of hundreds of tasks are the best way to get motivated and burnt out because they sap all your momentum and progress. “What’s the point of doing 3 to 5 tasks in a list of 100? I won’t see the end any time soon anyway” While this can also happen in a deliberate system, chances are having to write down and look at that list daily, you will very quickly realize something is not working here.