by James Somers, November 3, 2010

I could be a lot more productive. I could waste less time between tasks; focus more during tasks; keep better track of time; set more concrete goals and subgoals; have higher standards; give up less easily; and work even when I really don’t want to. It comes down to being more disciplined, basically, and more conscientious.

One way to get there is to “self-improve”: to attend to my flaws, the unhealthy habits of my work and mind, and try to change them.

Another way is to invent and build a magic desk robot. This might require more effort up front, but after I describe it to you, you’ll see why it’s probably worth it.

The device I have in mind would be an extremely sophisticated hybrid of a to-do list, filing cabinet, coach, and workspace. I’ll call him deskotron.

The first thing that deskotron would do is catalog everything I want or ought to do. By this I mean he would keep track of every book, blog post, paper, essay, and article I should read; every errand I have to run; every work to-do; every side project I’ve got going or have said I’d start; every puzzle or problem I would like to solve; every game I enjoy playing; all of my appointments; every essay I should write; all of my e-mails and calls; every movie, TED talk, and stupid video I plan to watch; etc. In short, deskotron would create a massive database of activity-units-I-could-fill-my-day-with, or tasklets.

Already I’m asking for something that even the world’s best secretary couldn’t provide, because I’m asking deskotron to find and suggest tasklets for me, to dredge up my forgotten project ideas, to record every time someone recommends a book, and so forth. I’m asking him to pay attention to, and write down, everything actionable in my life.

And that’s just the first step. Once deskotron has built this impressively complete tasklet database, I would want him to do whatever he could to put each item “at the ready,” that is, to lower its activation energy.

Example: if my next tasklet is to read twenty pages of Montaigne’s essay, “An apology for Raymond Sebond,” he would hand me the book opened to the right page. If it’s to answer an e-mail, he would fetch it for me and put it on my screen. And so on.

Next, deskotron would classify these tasklets. He’d rank them by cognitive exertion: reading some books is less taxing than reading others, and deskotron would know this. He’d know which taskslets will take longer (estimates based on prior experience, which he would track), which tasklets I’ll prefer, and which tasklets are related semantically, knowing, for instance, that a neurology paper and a TED talk on strokes are related.

He would know how each tasklet relates to larger goals of mine, and how much each contributes to those goals. For instance, he would know that I want to become a versatile writer, so he’d feed me a variety of writing tasklets, tracking my progress in different areas, say, by measuring the number of fiction-words I’ve written against the number of nonfiction-words. If I wanted to “gain a better understanding of recursion in Lisp,” he would know that reading The Little Schemer would help. Etc.

He would have something like Gmail’s “priority inbox” built in, knowing which e-mails warrant quick responses and which can wait.

More generally, he would be able to prioritize tasklets based on their importance. Tasklets related to “must-have” goals would have a higher priority than tasklets related to “nice-to-haves.”

He would understand strategic relationships between tasklets. By that I mean that he would understand which tasklets feed well into one another. For instance, I might write better after perusing my Google Reader queue, or I might write worse; deskotron would know which. He would know how many programming tasklets I can do before getting exhausted, and how to stagger hard and easy tasklets to squeeze the most effort out of me. He would know that I don’t like to read too many serious magazine articles in a row, and that I have to be primed in a certain way before I want to solve a Project Euler problem.

deskotron would be like a good personal trainer, demanding nearly too much of me, holding me to my commitments, pushing me when I falter, and knowing when to give me a break. He would monitor my mood and gauge my engagement. He would be like the logical extension of that Mercedes feature that wakes you up when you doze off.

With all this, deskotron would be able to dynamically pack my days. He would turn me into one of those high-powered guys who’s scheduled down to the minute, except that I wouldn’t feel constrained by him. Instead, I’d feel like he had the perfect answer every time I asked, “What’s next?”