Notes and Thoughts

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Satisfaction and progress in open Ended work

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Author Andy MatuschakAndy Matuschak

Source Satisfaction and Progress in Open-Ended Work


Execution mode and open-ended work mode are two different contexts. In execution mode there tend to be clear indicators of progress. Did I complete a particular task on a given day? Have I cleared my inbox? Most productivityproductivity
Ratio of work to effort.
advice is geared to execution mode. It's easy to feel satisfied at the end of the day when you've been executing, but - according to the author - if you spend all your time in this mode you won't be doing groundbreaking work.

That's because impactful, meaningful work almost always requires figuring out what to do next. This intuitively makes sense - if work is purely execution oriented, you can make a checklist and have anyone do it.

For open-ended work, the challenge and satisfaction lies in figuring out what is next. However it's difficult to get immediate feedback and to measure progress.

So the author wants to figure out what kinds of structures we can build and implement to help us in open-ended work.

Many people suggest "butt in chair" as an actionable piece of advice for open-ended work. e.g. If I were to sit down in my chair and write everyday, I'll move closer to my goal. It's a heuristicheuristic

that tends to work.

However, when the author did this, he felt uneasy, as his deep stretches of work didn't necessarily correlate with progress towards his true goals. And it didn't answer "evaluative" questions like should he have written on that topic or should he write on the same topic tomorrow. - It's similar to deontological imperatives - in certain deontological worldviews a lie is never justified, telling the truth is always correct. Similarly a creative focused session is always good, in and of itself. I wonder what the virtue ethics version of this would be? Practice the virtues of the creatives?

Instead of only using a "butt in chair" heuristic, we can combine this with other signals to build a more accurate error-correction mechanism. Medium term achievement goals can provide feedback to the daily execution style tasks.

For instance, if I have a goal of publishing a novel by the end of the year, and I've been putting my butt in the chair repeatedly, I can reflect on the progress I've made towards getting my book published. If the daily execution tasks aren't coalescing into a chapter, I might shift my focus to writing a different chapter, doing more background research, or something else.

From this philosophy the author has created an approach where:

  • He begins each day by selecting some action-oriented goals that are in service of broader achievement-oriented goals. This is the time for brief deliberation on what is important to do today.
  • Once the day has begun, he suppresses additional planning. He gives himself permission to be satisfied with the day if he spends several hours of focused work on the action oriented goals.
  • He conducts Weekly Reviews to assess his progress towards the broader goal. In this practice he reflects on what went well and what should be adjusted for next week.
  • Monthly, and at the conclusion of an achievement oriented goal, he reflects on the bigger picture, and his longterm plan and roadmap.
  • He might use others roadmaps as references, such as the IDEO product design roadmap.

The mindsetmindset

of open ended work is gentler, more enigmatic than execution mode, and occasionally provides amazing moments of clarity and insight.


  • I have created a Personal Strategy but I haven't operationalized it at a weekly, monthly, yearly level. Having that kind of roadmap would be exciting and help me orient my decisions.

  • My impression is that my work is more "chaotic" than his at the day to day level. I expect I would need to leverage more GTD style triaging to manage the action oriented goals. I don't want to engage in cargo culting this plan.

  • How does forward chaining and back chaining fit into this worldview? I think the missing piece is a method to also evolve the roadmap and high level goals based on the day to day actions. That could come in with Weekly and Monthly Reviews.