Do Computers Enable Blissful Ignorance?

By Deane Barker on May 29, 2005

I’m reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done.” I’m not a total convert yet, but I am planning to read it a second time. It’s got a lot of good information.

One of the things the book has forced me to realize is how stuff has a tendency to “collect” in places. Email inboxes are bad, as are computerized task lists. Stuff just settles here.

This a place where computers are bad, because there’s no sense of size with an inbox or task list on a computer. An Outlook task list can have 300 items in it, and it doesn’t get any “bigger.” Unless you switch to the Task view in Outlook, you never see it.

These things are so easy to just ignore, and, as I wrote in a post on my personal blog, the more stuff in your task list, the more stressful it becomes to look at the easier it becomes to ignore it.

[...] organizing your life is intimidating. It’s scary. It’s uncomfortable. It’s easier to stay ignorant, and – subconciously – you so very much want to stay blissfully ignorant.

[...] Ignorance, on the other hand, can be bliss. If not bliss, then still much more comfortable than having this monolithic list of stuff you gotta do. You very much want to get back to this state of bliss, and so you sabotage yourself. One missed task here, one there, and – before you know it – you’re back to your state of bliss.

Consequently, you never review your task list and another plan to get organized bites the dust.

Now, a physical inbox has a couple of good advantages here: (1) it’s always in view, so long as it’s on top of your desk, and (2) the more stuff goes it in, the bigger and more stuffed it gets. I’ve started using a physical inbox again (everything old is new again...), and they’re tough to ignore.

I got to wondering today how we could make computer “collection areas” more like their physical counterparts. There has to be some way to keep them in front of you all the time, and make them unpleasant to ignore.

My solution: let’s write a plugin for Outlook that makes your computing environment more and more unpleasant the bigger your task list gets. At different thresholds (i.e. – 10 tasks over 14 days overdue, then 20 tasks, etc.), annoying things would start to happen to your computer. Some ideas:


The contrast on your monitor would get steadily turned up at each threshold.


Your computer would require reboots at random intervals. You’d get to save all your stuff, but you’d have to restart the machine to continue working.


A dialog box would interrupt your work, display fifty or so words or test, and force you to type them into a text box to continue working.


Your Web browser would be continually resized to 640 x 480 pixels.

It sounds silly, and perhaps it is, but I just want to demonstrate the point that a computer is a great place to store information because it can hold a lot of information...and, in some ways, that makes it a bad place to store information.

There’s just no perspective on a computer – it can swallow tons and tons of information without even blinking. And mixed into that information is stuff that may need to be addressed. In that sense, a computer makes it really, really easy to ignore an amazing amount of stuff.

Comments (5)

Matt L says:

Your computer would require reboots at random intervals. Sounds like you want everyone to go back to Windows 98.

Joe says:

Instead of having it reboot your computer (actually making you less productive), what if it just always showed all your tasks on one screen? That is, instead of scrolling, things just got progressively smaller as more and more tasks showed up on the list. When you got too many, the prgram would be very annoying to work with, since you could hardly read your tasks.

There would need to be an extra doodad to help you dig yourself out of the hole when things got that small, like a pane that always shows the currently highlighted task in a normal font size, along with the one right before and right after.

Once your list got too full once or twice, you would think, “I really need to check a few of these off so the list doesn’t get so huge again”.

Greg says:

Just like a trash can for the physical inbox, delete will eliminate those “must-do” items even faster, plus no exhausting turns of the chair of movement of the arms in relocating the paper. My true analysis on a personal level is if it is over 10 biz days old, it is not really a “task” but rather a memo at most. That is unless it is work I want done and it is sitting on someone else’s desk waiting to be completed as a task :).

Jason Scott says:

Deane, you are actually speaking of an idea called “Calm Technology”.

Here’s some URLs:

Alex Kwok says:

Or just do it like how Windows Update does it. It will annoy you with the popup every 10 minutes asking you if you want to restart your computer.