Complice Philosophy

Complice is a productivity app, and it's also a productivity philosophy/paradigm.
This page outlines that paradigm.

What is Complice?

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

  • 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 GTD philosophy (David Allen's "Getting Things Done")

The main paradigmatic differences of Complice, compared to GTD-based systems are as follows:

  • 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 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.

A famous quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower:

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

Currently Complice essentially encourages you to plan elsewhere, so you still do the act of planning, but when you come back to Complice, 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.

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”

I believe that this kind of system works better than GTD-like systems for people who are pursuing personal goals where they get to decide 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 are 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 can’t use the app without having at least one goal that you’re working towards. Most users have 3-6. At most 10 are permitted (each has its own digit, so you have a goal 1, goal 2, etc).

You also can’t enter an intention (aka task) without indicating which goal it is for (or that it is a miscellaneous task). 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 such that if all other days of this reference class went like this one did, you’d be on track to achieving your goal
  • 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-based 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.

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.

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