The value of monotonous rituals

Scott Belsky penned a terrific article at The 99% on how the ritual of writing out a to-do list helps some people stay productive. Here’s how he describes the ritual of Bob Greenberg, the CEO of the digital agency R/GA:

Despite his digital interests, Greenberg’s productivity tools are entirely analog. He uses a paper agenda with a series of lists written at the top that he writes every single day. In the morning, Greenberg will manually bump uncompleted tasks from the previous day to the current day. He also re-writes the names of key clients and other areas of focus; often transcribing the same names again and again, daily, for weeks if not months or years. . . . By manually bumping a certain task every day, he feels that it is incomplete. He is faced with the reality and forced to either complete the task, delegate it, or bump it again.

I see a clear parallel between this ritual and the process of 5S in a manufacturing environment. You can’t engage in a thorough 5S program without looking at every physical item and determining its purpose and value. The same is true with the information you manage.

You need to sift through the accumulated flotsam and jetsam of your day — the scribbled notes, the emails, phone calls, and hallway conversations, the random thoughts that occur to you while getting your coffee — and identify what has value and what doesn’t. Applying 5S to the information you handle (or, in Greenberg’s world, re-writing his daily lists) means making decisions about what to do with it. Whether you choose to act upon it now, defer action for a later date, or finally give up on it, you’re actively assessing your work and analyzing your needs. It’s this analysis that will give you greater clarity about what’s required on a daily basis to move forward with your responsibilities.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of writing and re-writing the same tasks. I think it’s far better to put a stake in the ground and set a target date for action or completion. But I do respect Greenberg’s focus on creating visibility for his work and forcing himself to make mindful decisions about what he’s going to do. Too often we act unthinkingly, reacting in a Pavlovian fashion to the latest stimulus. And that’s a recipe for failure.

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5 Responses

  1. Kevin says:

    I used to be able to manage chaos and to-do lists in my head… but as I got older that was no longer effective. For the past couple years I’ve scribbled in a journal that goes with me everywhere. When an action item is created – be it in a meeting or conversation or a thought passing through my head – I write it down with a small box to the left of it. When I complete that task I put a check in the box. About once a week I’ll thumb through the journal and put an X at the top of pages where all actions have been completed. If it’s a longer-term action I transcribe it to the back of my journal where I keep a list of longer-term to-dos.

    For the past few months I’ve been incorporating a morning “what 3-4 things must I get done today” that is written into the journal with an evening commute “how did I do?” hansei reflection. The trends I’ve noticed have been stunning and have made me even more effective.

    As an avid iPad user I’ve tried, again, to make the process electronic. It just doesn’t work. There’s something, to me at least, to scribbling in a journal. Easier, more spontaneous, more aligned with my thoughts.

    Interestingly this nearly perfectly aligns with the concepts in Matt May’s The Shibumi Strategy, a book I highly recommend.

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  3. Dan says:


    There is something offputting about making some of these processes electronic. Even though the learning curve is nil, and there are obvious and meaningful benefits to using an electronic taskpad, many of us just do better with paper.

    In your factory work, I’m guessing that you saw plenty of visual management boards, all of which were low-tech. And I’m guessing, too, that any electronic versions (in Word or Excel documents) fell into disuse in no time.

  4. Joe Ely says:

    Great post Dan.

    Makes me feel better about my stack of colored note cards in my pocket. I also have a Blackberry. But it is so much faster and more effective, for me, to use paper.

    The discipline of re-writing a procrastanated item is a stern (and effective) task master.


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