Executable strategy

In creative work and in life, many goals seem unpredictable and unwieldy, reliant on hope and luck: starting a habit, getting in shape, writing a book, doing a research project, etc. (see Core practices in knowledge work are often ad-hoc)

Cleaning the kitchen isn’t like that. Even clearing out one’s inbox isn’t like that (Triage strategies for maintaining inboxes (e.g. Inbox Zero) are often too brittle). For many prosaic goals, you have executable strategies, which reliably achieve the goal with a predictable, manageable amount of effort. They’re a kind of metacognitive support (Metacognitive supports as cognitive scaffolding).

To construct an executable strategy, we must factor the task into activities such that:

  • completing more of those activities will reliably bring you closer to the goal
  • each activity consumes a predictable amount of effort
  • each activity feels doable
  • little effort is required to select and plan an activity

One common choice is to set daily goals for a certain number of hours at work. Success with this strategy requires a clear theory of how those hours will inexorably accumulate to the desired outcome. Simply spending some number of hours on a project is a fairly weak constraint: it’s easy to work with focus many hours unproductively.

Another common choice is to discretize the creative output. If you’re trying to write an essay, you might aim to write a certain number of words per day; if you’re designing an interface, you might aim to design one element of the UI per day. But these steps don’t consume a predictable amount of effort, and they often don’t feel doable. If you’re stuck in your writing because you’ve become confused about one of your ideas, you won’t be able to write 500 words for your manuscript. Instead, you need to spend more time thinking about the idea. A manuscript is a challenging place to do that. By contrast, see Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work.

List of executable strategies