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I love tools. I can (and often do!) spend lots of time fiddling with the settings of the tool (to-do list, project plan, whatever). I know I should stop tweaking the tool and start working on the listed tasks but I often go back and tweak a little more, knowing it's a nearly total waste of time.

It seems I'm keeping myself busy with "meta" stuff rather than diving into the actual tasks. It's a form of procrastination I guess, except that I do work on actual tasks as well; I just often interrupt myself to fiddle with the system, just for the sake of using the system because I like to use it.

How can I spend less time optimizing and more time executing?

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out of curiosity: which tool do you use for your todo-list? – MostlyHarmless Jan 19 '12 at 13:34
@Martin: Private stuff in Pocket Informant (a brilliant smartphone calendar&task app), work stuff in (online outliner), and hobby software- and web-development in They each provide plenty of slice-and-dice options as well as restructuring the content, and fiddling with settings :-) – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Jan 19 '12 at 13:52
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I run into this problem a lot. In fact, that's why I'm on PP.SE at work right now. But I know of a solution that has worked for me in the past, when I make the effort to implement it:

Set aside time for tinkering.

This is very compatible with the Pomodoro Technique as mentioned by jasedit. You may think of a tweak you want to try out while you're working, but instead of digging in and doing it, which is a textbook trigger for The Wikipedia Effect, jot it down or add it to the appropriate to-do. You may even want to create a to-do for tinkering.

Then, at some point that's suitable during the day, give yourself time to work through that list, and only that list. Time is still given to it, but that amount of time is managed. You still get to tinker, which in my experience always leads to increased usage. I'm more likely to use tools I'm invested in.

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At a high level, I would suggest trying to introduce incentives into your productivity system to encourage working on items, as opposed to tweaking with your setup. To be clear, I wouldn't aim to eliminate tinkering - if you're focusing on it now, it's probably either because you enjoy it or because you're realizing productivity gains. But it seems like a very Aikido-esque move - turn your tinkering towards solving the problem!

One possible solution would be to try integrating something like the Pomodoro Technique, which aims to give structure to your focus. Treat the work period as a blackout period for tinkering with your productivity tools. It's also a very lightweight technique to implement, so it doesn't require extensive modification (assuming you're using a GTD style system already, which doesn't have this sort of time-management technique in place.)

Another thought would be to use some elements of gamification, a la Epic Win. Set aside some portion of your review time to score the number of tasks you completed, as opposed to tweaking your system. The key would be to find something that would incentivize you without dragging you down the rat-hole of tweaking your system to reduce the tweaking.

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Epic win: oooh, another system to tinker with! ;-) I'd better stay away from that but the pomodoro idea is something I need to look into, that sounds useful, and also too simple to tinker with. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Jan 18 '12 at 16:37
I'm adding a +1 to this answer, but wanted to comment too -- I'd try Pomodoro first, and add incentives if that wasn't enough, but otherwise, great answer. Avoid getting yourself distracted looking for Pomodoro timers: works just fine. – Dennis S. Jan 19 '12 at 18:40

You have to find the right fit! For example, I tried several time tracking softwares time tracking softwares and found myself manipulating the systems trying to get it to "fit" just right. I was constantly tweaking and fiddling and pretending to be the software developer. Then I woke up and realized I needed to find my "perfect fit" because I was creating additional time simply to track my time! I found it and finally found myself spending less time tracking my time and actually tracking my productive time!

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I am keeping a small voice recorder nearby - every time I have an idea how to optimize the process I just record a little memo; once in a while I ab going through all these ideas and implement some of these

if you mind knows that that new cool idea wouldn't be lost, it will let you work on other things easier.

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I already have a simple system (no tweaks possible!) for capturing good ideas. The problem is playing with my to-do application rather than doing the to-do's... – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Jan 18 '12 at 16:14
inho, capturing good ideas is a bad idea ;) The point is to capture ALL ideas - good or bad, and process these later. BTW, how often do you process collected ideas? If your mind will be sure that you will process all new to-do-improvement ideas by the end of the day - would this make a difference? – Steve V Jan 19 '12 at 19:33
It's not at all about capturing ideas. I've got that nailed. It's about not doing my to'do's. I think you're on the wrong track here. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Jan 21 '12 at 7:27
**It's about not doing my to'do's ** That's right. and (imho) the reason why your brain wants to "go back and tweak a little more" is exactly that - it (possible) has some cool idea how to improve the process and it wants to try it right now (or this new cool idea will be lost). Most of the time that idea is quite simple, like "if I go and tweak some more it will increase my productivity!" - so, we deal with this idea just like with all others - record it, process it later and assure our brain that it won't be lost. But - it's your mind and your question; I won't bother you anymore ;) – Steve V Jan 21 '12 at 12:36
Please Steve, stop arguing what you think my mind thinks. I asked a straightforward question, and you're not addressing that. I'm not discussing capturing ideas. I'm discussing pointless pilfering. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Jan 21 '12 at 17:29

This feeling one of the negative by products of perfectionism (I am a victim too, creating tools and systems, but never continuing to use the created one long enough to justify the time spent :().

These days I try to put off this strong feeling of tweaking and creating (personally I add any such thoughts to to act on some day, your mileage may vary EDIT: realized the OP also uses workflowy). But there are cases when a tweak is what you absolutely need to make progress, in that case, I focus on the most minimal tweak that will unblock and add the rest to workflowy.

Also a constant mindfulness of the most important task at any moment helps kill this feeling.

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You're doing an activity which is potentially beneficial (your tools become slicker), yet are approaching it in a compulsive manner to the extent that it is no longer beneficial (you're wasting your time on it).

I'd be surprised if anyone on this forum doesn't suffer from that problem under one guise or another. It's an obsessive-compulsive behaviour which you justify because it does bring some benefit, and that's what makes it hard to crack.

I suggest the first thing you do is get clear about how much tweaking is beneficial, and how much of it is compulsive. I agree this is tricky, it's arbitrary, and you've got a compulsive craving there to warp your perception. Still, set a point, perhaps a time limit as suggested by @asfallows.

Now that you can identify what counts as compulsive and counter-productive behaviour, which in this case is following your craving for perfection/optimisation, you need to practice not indulging in it. The way to beat your craving for something is to be comfortable not having it. Practice denying yourself what your crave, and feeling amazing about yourself for having the strength to do it.

So, choose to deliberately work with a less than optimal system. Notice how uncomfortable you are with that, and choose to endure that discomfort without giving into the urge to tweak. Make that "accepting imperfection and not giving into tweaking" your target behaviour.

You can help yourself by keeping a score-sheet: every time you successfully overcome the temptation to tweak, draw a little smiley face or so, and count them after a while. You'll soon see how good it feels knowing that you have control over your behaviour and are succeeding at doing something difficult (to you, difficulty is always relative).

Of course, you might want to look into why you're avoiding your tasks too :-)

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Get a mate and change roles every now and then. Find someone who likes execution more than optimisation. Set a ratio of 80/20 for example, for each other's turns - you do optimisation 80% of the time and s/he would do execution 80% of the time.

Of course you would have to share your wage with that mate but think how much more efficient you would be.

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