Systematic Undertaking

July 23, 2013

Part 3 of a 3 part series on time management.

Do you know that sensation of having a food craving? Probably - I’m sure you can remember a time when you would have killed to get your hands on a juicy steak, a piece of chocolate, or a plate of french fries. Food cravings, while having nothing to do with time management, do offer a valuable insight into the reasons we do things. When you start salivating over the idea of a big slab of red meat, it’s not because you or your body wants red meat in and of itself - more probably you are experiencing a temporary iron deficiency and that craving is your body’s means of rectifying the situation. This concept of wanting things by proxy is a powerful idea when we take the analytical view of our lives.

I’m sure the metaphor is clear - when you experience the need to watch television, peruse reddit, or put off that important homework for another day, it’s likely that you aren’t doing these activities for their own sake. What instead you are doing is attempting to cultivate some lower-level desire which is manifest in your want to procrastinate. When you want to watch TV, more likely you are experiencing a need for novelty, relaxation, and entertainment. It’s not the television that’s important to you; it’s what you get out of it.

While wanting things by proxy is an easy evolutionary hack, it’s not an optimal way to go about things. Instead of desiring red meat, it would be more effective to want iron suppliments. Instead of wanting to watch TV, it would be better to desire activities which provide more novelty, relaxation and entertainment per unit time.

If you’ve read the [other] value of information [articles] polyphasing in this series, you probably know where I’m going from here. If we can correctly analyze the reasons that we do things, we can come up with more efficient ways of accomplishing the same things, which leads to both more time and being more satisfied with our lives.

Just to clarify, the techniques introduced in this post are effective everywhere in life, not simply for things you procrastinate.

Fair warning: this process in entirety will probably take about five hours before you notice any significant changes on your life. If that seems like too long a time to spend to you, you might want to consider performing a value of information calculation on it. This is left as an exercise to the reader, but I guarantee you that it will be worth it.

Building the Infrastructure

Before getting to the technique itself, we need to come up with some fodder for the cannon. Dedicate five or ten minutes to constructing a list of things which take you more than one hour a week. Make sure you are as specific as possible; instead of “wasting time on the internet”, write “ambling about on facebook”, “watching youtube videos”, and any other things that you spend time online doing. Ensure that the things you write down are actions that you actually do.

Write up your list before continuing to the next paragraph.

Now that you have a list of things that you spend lots of time doing, pick one that seems the most egregious to you. For our purposes, the more complicated the activity, the better. Unfortunately, the first five to ten activities that we factor into constituent parts are going to be the hardest, since we’ll be performing a [depth-first search] dfs through our minds. What this means is that the first activities will be setting the groundwork for the rest of the activities - ie. the infrastructure.

The next step is to set up a workflowy document. This is a fantastic service that allows you to create arbitrarily deep lists and sublists - something exceptionally useful for dumping out the contents of your brain which likely has some sort of hierarchical structure. You’ll need to sign up for an account, and if you use the referal link above workflowy will give you and me more space on the website. It’s a win/win scenario!

At the top of your workflowy document, create an item titled “Systematic Undertaking”, and as a child item of that create one with the name of the activity you have chosen. As a bullet point of that, list any subgoals that you achieve by doing this activity. Attempt to make all of your subgoals nouns, as this will simplify the process later on.

Once you have these subgoals listed, attempt to break each of them into sub-subgoals. Rinse and repeat. From here it’s turtles all the way down until you reach terminal goals, which we will discuss in a second. In the mean time, as an example, here is (an excerpt of) what the first three tiers of one of my activities looks like:

  • Going on Facebook
    • Building friendships
      • Creating social opportunities
        • Doing things
        • Meeting new people
      • Having friends
        • Companionship
        • Having people to do things with
    • Getting school class information
      • Getting important reminders about school
        • Not missing important dates
        • Not needing to worry about important reminders myself
      • Having a support group to ask about homework
        • Doing well in school
      • Staying in the loop
        • Ensure I am not missing opportunities
    • Mental relaxation
      • Having mental energy
        • Being able to focus
        • Being able to do things
        • Being coherent
    • Showing off my wit
      • Feeling smart
        • Ego
      • Impressing people
        • Feeling powerful
        • Increase people’s perception of me
        • Make people think about me
      • Making people laugh
        • Social acceptance
        • Making people think about me

My actual workflowy node for “Going on Facebook” is actually closer to 15 levels deep and at least ten times as large as this excerpt might indicate. The nodes I have bolded are what I call “terminal goals”, things that I desire for themselves. Sometimes terminal goals might have subgoals, but sometimes they won’t. You know you’re finished analyzing your activities when all of your sublists bottom out into unfactorable terminal goals.

If you find the same goal popping up in multiple places, don’t worry about it! Simply factor it out in one location, and don’t in the other places. There’s no sense in duplicating our work for no reason.

You might notice that the deeper into this tree you get, the more abstract the concepts become. Don’t be alarmed if they get really meta (things like “love”, “being happy”, “survival”) - even though it seems strange to wonder why these are things you want, there is value to it. Don’t get discouraged by how weird this can become.

As a heads-up, in the process of doing this you will probably learn some things about you that you do not like. It’s understandable that this can dissuade you from continuing the process (humans tend to avoid things that they find unpleasant), but try to remember the litany of Gendlin. If you are learning these things about yourself, it’s because they’re already true about you. Once you know things about yourself that you don’t like, you have the option to do something about it.

By now, you should have one activity fully mapped out, all the way down to terminal goals. Now it’s time to pick a new activity, and factor that too. You’ll notice that this one will go faster. Not only will you be better at breaking activities into subgoals, but also you’ll notice that a lot of the legwork has already been done. Naturally there will be a lot of carry-over between the more abstract goals. After five or ten activities, you’ll notice that factoring a new one will take no more than three minutes. This is the power of developing an infrastructure.

After you’re finished factoring the rest of the activites on your list, it’s time to reap the rewards of our hard work.

Systematic Undertaking

It’s time to reframe the way we look at our workflowy document. Instead of being a document of the reasons why we do certain things, it’s now a document of the things we actually, really care about. This is a big, fundamental shift, so take a moment to appreciate it.

Since we now know why we do the things we do, we can start to look for better ways of accomplishing the same things, and ways of better allocating our mental resources. While Facebook might be the best way for me to stay in touch with people, it’s certainly not the best way for me to relax. Take ten minutes to look over your list and identify which activities are effective at accomplishing the things you’re using them to accomplish, and which aren’t. Brainstorm to find activities which are good at attaining several goals simultaneously.

Stop doing the activities that aren’t very effective, start doing new ones which are. Having more efficient goal-oriented activities means you will be left with more spare time while staying true to all of the things that you care about. This will likely also give you more of a sense of satisfaction about life, and if that isn’t the greatest thing in the world, I don’t know what is.

This process of Systematic Undertaking is also good at avoiding cost sinks before experiencing them. Performing the goal factoring technique before starting a new activity can help you notice when something isn’t worth starting. Personally, I try to vet absolutely everything I do through this process. I’m regularly surprised at how often it tells me that something I feel like I want to do isn’t actually something I want to do. It’s certainly a strange experience, but my agenda book certainly appreciates it.


Systematic Undertaking is heavily based on Leverage Research’s powerful connection theory, which the Center for Applied Rationality calls “Goal Factoring”. Systematic Undertaking is a little more applied and (I think) more applicable to every day life. Significant differences from Goal Factoring include using workflowy as the medium, and the explicit infrastructure-building step.

Personally, it is my impression that Goal Factoring is unfortunately named as it implies a certain abstractness that isn’t as present as the name would imply. With that being said, this technique would not exist had I not been exposed to Leverage Research or CFAR, so all of the credit really goes to them.