posttitle = Complice: Beyond Getting Things Done titleClass =title-long len =36

Complice: Beyond Getting Things Done

Some years ago, I invented a new productivity system, called Complice. Complice is a productivity app, and it’s also a productivity philosophy, or even an entire paradigm.

What is Complice?

Complice is a new approach to goal achievement, in the form of both a philosophy and a software system. Its aim is to create consistent, coherent, processes, for people to realize their goals, in two senses:

  • realize what their goals are
  • make their goals a reality

Virtually all to-do list software on the internet, whether it knows it or not, is based on the workflow and philosophy called GTD (David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”). Complice is different. It wasn’t created as a critique of GTD, but it’s easiest to describe it by contrasting it with this implicit default so many people are used to.

First, a one-sentence primer on the basic workflow in Complice:

  1. Clarify your goals: what matters to you on the timescale of months/years?
  2. Set intentions for today: how can your day be in service of your big-picture vision?
  3. Take action: work on what feels meaningful, whether the intentions you set or other emergent opportunities or challenges.
  4. Review, reflect, reorient: did you do what you set out to do? Is it actually moving the needle? Go to 2.

There’s a lot more to it, but this is the basic structure. Perhaps less obvious is what’s not part of the workflow. We’ll talk about some of that below, but that’s still all on the level of behavior though—the focus of this post is the paradigmatic differences of Complice, compared to GTD-based systems. These are:

  • choosing & doing, over organizing
  • goals as fundamental, rather than tasks
  • aliveness, instead of exhaustiveness
  • proactive, rather than reactive

Keep reading and we’ll explore each of them…

Main actions: choosing & doing (vs organizing)

Here are some of the primary marketing materials from the homepages of other todo-list sites:

  • rememberthemilk.com: “The best way to manage your tasks”
  • todoist.com: “…the world’s most powerful to-do list. Access tasks anywhere”
  • any.do: “The World’s Favorite Task Management App”
  • “Toodledo is an incredibly powerful tool to increase your productivity and organize your life.”
  • “If you like making to-do lists, you will love TeuxDeux.”
  • Evernote: “Your notes. Organized. Effortless.”

All of these either talk about managing tasks or “to-do lists”.

Complice is, by many appearances, a “to-do list app”, in the sense that it is an app (✓) where you make lists (✓) of things you intend to do (✓). But with Complice, the focus is on doing those things, not on making and organizing lists.

The main way that the app currently embodies this philosophy is by not offering any place in the app to write down a bunch of stuff that you’re not planning to work on yet and may never work on yet. It’s not that we think such lists are not valuable—they are. But they have costs, and one of those costs is that people get too focused on keeping the list organized, at the expense of focusing on what they’re actually trying to achieve and taking actions towards achieving those things.

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

Currently Complice essentially encourages you to plan elsewhere, so you still do the indispensable act of planning, but when you come back to Complice to decide what to do each day, you aren’t faced with a bunch of old plans that are now in your way (worse than useless).

More on this in the next section…

Emotional draw: aliveness (vs exhaustiveness)

I sometimes characterize the opposite of aliveness as staleness, as in “is your productivity system full of stale tasks?” but I’ll be charitable here and talk about the positive framing of GTD in this respect, which I’m going to call exhaustiveness. The first Step of GTD is Capture. Capturing things is important for getting them out of your working memory so you can focus on your work. But in my experience (and based on talking with people) it has issues as well:

  • the to-do list has more inflow than outflow, meaning it gets longer and longer
  • lots of low-value tasks get added and never removed, although they may still create guilt — even though it is not actually worth ever doing them!
  • when the person gains a new understanding of how it makes sense to approach that project/goal, old obsolete tasks don’t get cleared
    • (they may not even realize there’s a contradiction between their new understanding and their old tasks)

The result of these issues tends to lead to the person keeping a separate list for newly emerged tasks that are of clearly higher-value than the original list, either within the same context or perhaps by starting to use a new app. The old “trusted system” is no longer trusted, because it’s full of stuff the person knows (at least implicitly) they don’t want to do, so they (reasonably) don’t want to use it.

In principle, most of these failure modes can be combated with an effective weekly review that pares down the lists. In practice, almost nobody I’ve met actually consistently does the GTD weekly review (which means they aren’t actually following the GTD system, but a hollow shell of GTD that nobody ever claimed would work).

One of RememberTheMilk’s taglines, as of this writing, is “Never forget the milk (or anything else) again.” The idea here is that nothing escapes the system—you put things in, and you can keep track of them, and not forget them. This is great, but some things actually are worth forgetting. Or worth ignoring. (Not to mention that if your list gets too long you’ll end up forgetting about things anyway)

Complice currently has two main ways of prioritizing aliveness over exhaustiveness.

  1. You can’t put in tasks for the future.
    The only futurey thing you can do is to state a single top priority for each goal, with an optional check-in date. Having a single top priority makes it more likely that this priority will be something the person is excited to work on, or that they at least feel is high-value.
  2. Complice doesn’t assume that a task left undone today is something you want to do tomorrow.
    With most apps, if you don’t do something one day, it just sticks around. Sometimes this is vital, but often it mostly just increases the sense of guilt and burden around the task, undermining the unconscious intelligence that often keeps us from busywork. Complice does have a system for grabbing yesterday’s notdones for today, which prompts you to reflect on whether they’re still important and how things will go differently.

Future implementations of Complice may also have a system for brainstorming potential future tasks, or breaking down big things into small tasks, but without the assumption that all of those necessarily will be completed eventually. Instead, the brainstormed list would act as inspiration for choosing one’s daily intentions, and tasks from it that are ignored would gradually be slid into a backlog, automating the process whereby the user makes a new list when the old stuff becomes stale.

There are systematic contexts where you actually know exactly what needs to be done in advance and can make a checklist—running another round of our Goal-Crafting Intensive workshops is close to that, since we’ve run them so many times. Even there, there are still lots of unknowns and a need to improvise. Such projects aren’t the norm. Creative & professional work is rarely like this.

However, since most people have at least a couple goals where there is some sense of “things I might do in the future,” they end up using other systems to keep track of those. Perhaps these users will use those apps totally effectively, but importantly… with a list+Complice combo, even if the list goes stale, Complice will still be there, asking you what’s most important to do today. That might be some object-level things that are obvious, or it might be the task “purge my old task list” or even “switch from using WorkFlowy to track future tasks to Todoist”. (Complice has a WorkFlowy integration, will soon have a Roam integration, and will also soon have a better platform/API for building integrations.)

It seems to me that an aliveness-based system works better than an exhaustiveness-based system for people who are pursuing purposeful goals (personal or professional) where they get to discern what their priorities are and where most small tasks are not critical. Where small tasks are critical, other systems (including email inboxes) can supplement Complice for ensuring those are taken care of. An administrative or personal assistant would not want to use Complice to keep track of the tasks assigned by their employer. Many Complice users are students, self-employed, and/or freelancers. Of those who are employed, many have substantial control over how they approach their work assignments, and those who do not tend not to track their work-related tasks in Complice.

Main nouns: goals (vs tasks)

Many other to-do list apps feature, in their product demos, people buying groceries. Seriously? Groceries? You built this app so people could buy groceries better? RememberTheMilk has it in their name.

Anyway, enough snark. While GTD-based systems have projects, the projects mostly are just buckets to put tasks into. Tasks exist as freefloating entities that might not be associated with a project at all, or might be in theory associated with a project but when you put the task in your inbox you didn’t assign it to a project, so you first need to process your inbox, etc.

With Complice, goals come first. You literally can’t access the rest of the app before first setting at least two goals that you’re working towards. Most users have 3-6. You get up to 10, each with its own digit, so you have a goal 1, goal 2, etc).

I want to caveat here that “goals” here doesn’t necessarily mean “SMART goals” or even necessarily legible, quantifiable objectives. It’s a way to point at a subjective sense of “why am I doing what I’m doing?” or to go really philosophical, what

Here’s one definition we use for goal:

A goal is a recognizable desired state in the future, that causes you to act differently in the present so as to realize it.

What happens if you remove key ingredients from a goal?

Then, when you go to enter your intentions for the day, you have to explicitly indicate which goal it is for using the goal’s number, or you use an ampersand to indicate that it’s a miscellaneous intention that isn’t associated with one of your goals. This means that it is really clear why you’re doing what you’re doing. That’s not to say that you will necessarily do the most strategic thing towards that goal, but it does make it more likely that you will do something rather than nothing, and also much more likely that you will notice that what you’re doing isn’t really strategic, because:

  • at the end of each day, in the outcomes, you indicate if you did enough towards each goal (we have some tips for how to think about this, this is a pretty subjective question, and that’s the point! you’re supposed to actually feel the impact of the actions you took on this big-picture thing you care about)
  • if you do weekly reviews, then you get another chance to notice that maybe you’re not actually on track—that no amount of watching Garfield cartoons will make you a skilled comedian

I think that having goals come first means that users are more likely to forget to do random small tasks and less likely to forget to make progress towards their high-level goals, which I see as being probably a good tradeoff, especially if the person has other systems in place to ensure small tasks don’t get forgotten if they’re indeed really important.

Approach: proactive (vs reactive)

This section has some overlap with both the pieces on Capture and also the section above on goal-orientedness. Essentially the distinction here is:

  • GTD systems say “here is all of this stuff I could do… what shall I do?”
  • Complice asks “what do I want to achieve… how can I achieve it?”

This represents a difference between reactively prioritizing incoming demands (from coworkers or email newsletters) or random impulses, and proactively seeking ways to reach a goal.

As described above, Complice currently doesn’t do that much to guide people towards strategic goal-approach, but for many people the bottleneck isn’t unstrategicness but lack of momentum towards goals at all. So Complice focuses on momentum. I have some ideas for how to increase strategicness too. But you can’t be strategic without something to be strategic towards! And to the extent that you’re genuinely trying to achieve something and regularly assessing how that’s going, you’ll tend to develop or seek out better strategies.

In our Goal-Crafting Intensive workshops, we encourage people, once they’ve set some new goals, to come up with a thing to do towards each goal immediately (today or tomorrow) that they wouldn’t have thought to do at all prior to having the goal. This also points at the distinction.

Speaking of the Goal-Crafting Intensives, we’ve got another round of them coming up for the New Year! There are 4 sessions still to come, with some selling out fast: January 2nd, 3rd, 9th and 10th. Learn more & sign up here.

If you found this thought-provoking, I invite you to subscribe:    
About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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