Matthew Stibbe is the CEO of Articulate Marketing, a marketing copywriting agency, and founder of Turbine, an online application that helps businesses take care of administrative issues, to “take the paper out of paperwork.” In what he calls his spare time, he’s learning Dutch and blogging about flying and about writing and productivity. We talked about his faith in to-do lists, the shortcomings of productivity systems, and how we are all becoming robots.
Since you’re in charge of two companies that do different things, how do you divide and maximize your time?
I am a devotee, a worshipper in the temple of lists. I love to-do lists. I’ve had this same list running in various versions of Microsoft software back almost 20 years, and it’s a very strange thought to think that the items on the list have changed, change constantly, but the list is still here. I’ve still got it, and it’s still fundamentally the same electronic thing that I had when I was running my computer games company in the nineties. It’s an interesting philosophical point — one day we will all become lists, some computer memory somewhere.
We’re all becoming robots.
I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords.
I think what I’m trying to do is to capture all the things that I’m supposed to be doing. Sometimes it’s about saying what you’re not going to do. There’s a very great commonality between personal time management and being the boss of a company in a way. If anything’s possible, what’s important? That’s the question that you ask yourself every morning when you wake up. I could spend the day doing this or this or this, but what is the priority? So what I’m doing with my list all the time is I’m trying very hard not to carry around a lot of things in my head.
Do you ever get stressed out just knowing how much stuff is on the list?
I do. I think this is slightly the problem with these sort of time management bibles. The premise of those books is you keep a list and you do your time management really efficiently, you’ll have less stress.
I suppose what you get is a choice of stress, meaning without a list, you have the additional stress of actually not being sure you’ve remembered everything, not being able pick the most important thing to do today or when your deadline is. That’s quite hard work. It’s a pretty uncomfortable place to live, I will grant you that.
I think once you get used to the idea that the list goes on but the things on it change, that’s oddly a comforting thought. In other words, you’re never going to get everything done. So don’t worry about that. And then you treat it as a sort of menu of options for a given period of time.
It sounds like your list is a living, changing thing and you have to treat it as such.
You do have to do a bit of pruning from time to time. My experience is without doing that pruning and without shaping that list a little bit — I mean all this sounds terribly sort of clinical. It’s not. I’m very leery of turning this into a sort of Getting Things Done — it literally doesn’t happen like that. It seems more organic to me. But I’ve got this habit going back decades of using this list and obsessing about the list.
The List in capital letters.
Yeah, THE LIST. All my working life has been governed by deadlines. So it fits into that pattern very well too.
This is why iDoneThis is great for me. Because the bit that is missing is the record of accomplishment or the confirmation that you have actually done something, right? When I mark a task as complete, I do put it into a completed tasks archive, but it’s just a list of things with lines through it. There’s no sense of context to it.
Sometimes you get to the end of the day and you feel like you’ve been working really hard, but you cannot actually remember what it is you’ve done. It feels very frustrating doesn’t it? What I like about iDoneThis, it just encourages me to take really only about 30 seconds or a minute just to jot down I did this, I did that, I had that, I spoke to him, I landed that … and it’s quite satisfying. It turns that feeling of “Ugh, I’ve been working and I haven’t done anything” to a feeling of, “Huh, I did quite a lot today. That’s good! Pat on the back!”
You seem somewhat hesitant to wholeheartedly embrace what I might call the cult of productivity. Do you think it can get too clinical? Sometimes all these ”10 things to improve your life and be awesome” make me a little angry or frustrated. I’m like, I’m already awesome!
There was a zen master in San Francisco, Shunryu Suzuki, who said, “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” That’s probably the human condition. Self-improvement and self-help are very powerful motivators for people.
We’ve talked a little about Getting Things Done. It’s probably one of the more humane productivity guidelines or books out there because it’s not over-regimented and he’s got some pretty practical suggestions. I think part of my objection though is that style of book typically takes a couple of good ideas and spins them out. Goodness, I’ve written blog posts like 10 ways to do this or how I got up earlier in the morning, and I try and write it from a place of sincerity.
But at some point as an author, in order to make that kind of article work, you are sort of implying, “I know something you don’t.” You’re setting up rules and regulations which — and I’m pretty sure in these books and blog post authors’ lives, as in mine, you probably stick to most of the time — but in a sort of human and erring and occasionally lapsing way, instead of being a complete superhero robot of time management.
So I find that sort of author person a little bit hard. I know it’s gross hypocrisy because I write that stuff. Then the other part that I find very hard is that, yeah, I’m awesome already. My circumstances are not yours, and sometimes there isn’t a mechanical or a black and white or an A-B-C solution to what you have to do.
I guess that’s the gap. First, it’s the tone of “I know best”, but it’s really that the ultimate work is left to you to do to translate those suggestions and hints and make them work.
I suppose my ultimate advice or my ultimate feeling for myself is the only way you know if a particular approach is good for you is, do you do it, does it work, does it help? Try it for yourself. You’re responsible for your own life.
We live in a world where buying a book is quite a cheap exercise. If you go and read zenhabits, which is a great blog, I think it’s really nice, but it’s very much in that space. All those sorts of things, they’re quite cheap to get into, but we live in a world where we’re sold quite expensive things as the solutions to these problems, right?
This is why iDoneThis is kind of nice because it lets me use it how I want to use it. It’s not got a formula that I have to apply to it. It’s just you write down whatever it is you want to write down and we’ll just keep track of it against a calendar. It’s a pretty simple proposition and a lot of online sort of time management or time organizational tools are much more prescriptive. This is kind of what we’re trying to do with Turbine. What we really want to do is to give people the tools that will let them simplify the paperwork but kind of do it their way. Every company’s a bit different and every company has its own little style. I just admire the simplicity of what [the] guys at iDoneThis are doing and I kind of want to emulate it a bit.