Bending the stiffest arrow

The Second Law of Thermodynamics can be a real ass. It coldly says that entropy, a measure of disorder in nature, will increase. At best, entropy might slightly decrease or halt momentarily, but it always resumes its ascent. Always.

Even when we, the order-chasing beings that dwell on particle Earth, create the illusion of new order, we do so at the expense of past order. Try as we might, our net contribution to the universe is the same every time: chaos.

Probably the most satirical, if very macroscopic, frustration of our existence is that we’re hardwired to seek order in a universe that’s destined to undo all of it in the end.

The arrow of time runs one way and one way only.

The good news: we’re a very long way from the end—of time, that is. Even better: we’re not terribly far from the end of this post, which, at this point, could go many directions. I’ll nudge it toward GTD.

You take GTD seriously; the universe laughs at it

Like any other highly ordered, well-organized toy of nature, complex GTD systems are more vulnerable to failure than their simpler counterparts.

One of the easiest-to-digest proofs of the Second Law is the simple fact that, at any moment in time, there are more opportunities for disorder than order. Like WAY more. It’s true for wine glasses sitting next to white sofas; it’s true for your just-raked yard; it’s true for your workday.

On any given day you will encounter far more roads to nowhere than somewhere. Every email, tweet, phone call, unannounced office visit, spinning beach ball, coffee spill, and paper cut is the universe’s attempt at sending you down a different path than you planned.

It’s up to you to consciously slow the slip toward disorder by contextualizing and prioritizing the faint signals hidden in the noise of knowledge work.

Hopefully you’re successful at maintaining order most days. But some days, life doesn’t allow you the luxury of writing things down first, or deciding which of your multiple de facto bosses to listen to, or not working out of email. Some days, the universe decides what’s next for you, right that moment, and you have no choice but to say “… OK.”

After a few hours to days of being the universe’s bitch, you might give up on your highly structured system altogether. In fact, I bet it’s during these rough patches when most people bail and become one with chaos.

All or nothing attitudes almost always result in nothing, and it's all because of the Second Law. Nature simply doesn't permit perfection because there will always be exponentially more possibilities for imperfection than perfection in any circumstance.

The statistical mechanics of the universe can beaten occasionally, however. You can increase your odds of winning—sometimes—in your local region of the universe by learning to play by different rules.

Tip your hat to chaos, and switch regimes

Statistical models of unpredictable things often work well—until they don’t. “Until” is usually unannounced, too.

Economic variables are a classic example. During calm periods, things like stock price returns follow fairly simple distributions, but as we all know, calm doesn’t last forever. Things change, sometimes in seconds, and stock markets begin following completely different sets of rules.

So econometricians came up with the idea of “regime-switching” models, which as their name implies, are designed to adapt to new environments with new sets of rules.

I think the regime-switching mindset is easily extended to personal productivity. Your highly structured GTD system works well in calm regimes, but not so well in chaotic ones. However, unlike statistical models, which seem to only get more complex and less elegant, I think you’re better off making your system simpler the more complicated the outside world gets.

As I’ve said before, something as a simple as a sticky note often performs better in regimes of extreme volatility than a system that requires multiple cerebral inputs per action.

Turning chaos on its head

There are probably a lot of folks that write about productivity—me included—that have given you the false impression that we’re perfect GTD canon-abiding machines that always process life by the book.

Real life doesn’t allow that—certainly not for me. Real life is messy and unpredictable. Moreover, the odds will forever be against order in the universe we were dealt.

But, I’ve found that I’m most successful at postponing disorder when I have a humble attitude about my well-oiled GTD machine, which happens to be OmniFocus. Some days it breaks down totally, and I have no choice but to leave it on the side of the road until I have time to get it going again.

I always come back for it, though, and that’s what matters. Over time, my productivity reverts to an orderly state. That’s the best that I can hope for anyway:

To get up smiling when the universe hits me in the mouth. To make something out of nothing, even if that something exists in a reality known only to me. To defy the Second Law as many times as I can before it beats me for good.

To be an anomalous crook on the arrow of time.