Noah Brier | February 14, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Maintainance Edition

On wheat, tasks, and maintenance as a feature

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A personal productivity tool notable for its age (12 years old) and its feature set including projects, tasks with due dates, and an inbox for random ideas and todos. It also offers a Weekly Review feature for setting a review cadence on projects.

Hocus Pocus
Hocus Pocus

A book by Kurt Vonnegut that touches on themes of building versus maintenance in human character.

Noah here. About six months ago I decided to give the task management tool Omnifocus a shot. One of the thousands of personal productivity tools, it’s notable for its age (12 years old) and terrible web interface (thankfully the iOS and Mac apps are fast and easy). Most of it works exactly the way every other task/project management tool works: You’ve got projects, those projects have tasks, and those tasks have due dates. There’s also an inbox (plus handy keyboard shortcut) for sending all your random ideas and todos as soon as you think of them. 

If all of this sounds pretty generic, that’s because it is. But there’s one part of Omnifocus that’s different than any other tool I’ve ever used and has intrigued me since I encountered it: the Weekly Review. Each project in Omnifocus has an option to set a review cadence. Whether it’s once a week or every two months, you can then go through all your projects that are up for review and check in on them. Mostly what I do is check whether a) it’s still something I’m working on/interested in and b) there any tasks that I can check off/get rid of. I find it to be a cathartic exercise and look forward to my review every Thursday at 4 pm (it’s in the calendar). (If you want to give this a try, here’s a much better list of questions to ask.)

Why is this interesting?

Like I said, I’ve been taken by this idea and curious why it doesn’t exist in other products. The concept of checking in on something in regular intervals with the purpose of pruning seems like a much better approach than letting something get so disorganized you eventually declare bankruptcy. As I was reading this excellent post about “maintenance by design” by Vaughn Tan (shared by WITI contributor Nick Parish), it struck me that this review feature is part of a much bigger story of designing systems to be maintained. “The most common way to think about maintenance,” the piece explains, “is as a process of finding and fixing broken stuff—maintenance as the routinized search for problems. [sic]in order to catch them when they are still small. This allows many small fixes (easier and usually cheaper) instead of a big one (harder, requiring more downtime, more expensive).”

While this seems obvious in its relation to code and projects, the piece uses the story of wheat fields to illustrate the power of building with maintenance in mind:

Over the last two years I’ve spent a surprising amount of time trying to understand agriculture in general and wheat in particular. One of the more exciting innovations here is an old approach to wheat cultivation in which a field is sown with a genetically diverse population of wheats instead of just one variety of genetically undiverse wheat. This latter monoculture approach is how nearly all modern wheat is grown. … A diverse wheat population embodies some qualities of maintenance by design. It is highly sensitive to the growing environment: soil and weather. The specifics of the soil in which it is grown and the weather during that growing season will determine which of the wheats in the population will do better and which will do less well. The same starting wheat population will look different and produce differently in each field in which it is planted, and each field will look different and produce differently each year.

Planting a diversity like this makes the field much more resilient to total failure. As one type of wheat thrives or another withers, adjustments can be made. And, in the end, even though it seems like an approach like this should create more work (just as the weekly review in Omnifocus first appears), it actually cuts down unneeded or ineffective work for a relatively small price. In other words, by making maintenance a feature instead of a byproduct you cross your fingers and hope for, you can actually create more efficient and resilient systems. 

Or, as Vonnegut put it in Hocus Pocus, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” (NRB)

Recommendation of the Day:

One of my very favorite emails every day isn’t a brilliantly written newsletter, but rather Spoonbill, a digest of bio updates for everyone I follow on Twitter. It’s free and fun. Also, some of you update your bios a lot. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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