Intend Philosophy

Intend is an intentionality app, and it's also a philosophy/paradigm.
This page, by founder Malcolm Ocean, outlines that paradigm.

Intend helps people realize what their goals are, and 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") or some similar underlying assumptions.

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

  • choosing & doing, over organizing
  • aliveness, instead of exhaustiveness
  • goals as fundamental, rather than tasks
  • proactive, rather than reactive

Keep reading and we'll explore each of them...

Main actions: choosing & doing (vs organizing)

Here are some taglines from various to-do list sites:

  • "The best way to manage your tasks"
  • “...the world’s most powerful to-do list. Access tasks anywhere”
  • “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: "Tame your work, organize your life"

All of these either talk about organizing tasks or “to-do lists”.

Intend 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 Intend, 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. 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 Intend essentially encourages you to plan elsewhere, so you still do the act of planning, but when you come back to Intend, you aren't faced with a bunch of old plans that are now in your way (worse than useless). You can also do some strategic thinking in your weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly reviews, but it doesn't turn into a giant list of tasks.

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)

Intend 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. Intend 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. Intend 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 Intend 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 set aside, 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 an organizer+Intend combo, even if the organizer goes stale, Intend 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”.

It seems to me that an aliveness-based system works better than an exhaustiveness-based system for people who are pursuing purposeful goals (personal or professional) where they get to discern what their priorities are and where most small tasks are not critical. Where small tasks are critical, other systems (including email inboxes) can supplement Intend for ensuring those are taken care of. An administrative or personal assistant would not want to use Intend to keep track of the tasks assigned by their employer. Many Intend 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 do not tend not to track their work-related tasks in Intend.

Main nouns: goals (vs tasks)

Many other to-do list apps feature, in their product demos, people buying groceries, and listing out each grocery they need. While this is a legitimate thing to want to build an app for, it's a completely different use-case from Intend.

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 Intend, goals come first. You literally can't access the rest of the app before first setting at least two goals that you’re working towards. Most users have 3-6. You get up to 10, each with its own digit, so you have a goal 1, goal 2, etc).

Then, when you go to enter your intentions for the day, you have to explicitly indicate which goal it is for using the goal's number, or you use an ampersand to indicate that it's a miscellaneous intention that isn't associated with one of your goals. This means that it is always 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 after watching 3 seasons of a cooking show you're still ordering takeout and don't own a frying pan

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 is mostly implied by the above sections, but it's worth pointing at directly. Essentially the distinction here is:

  • GTD-based systems say “here is all of this stuff I could do… what shall I do?”
  • Intend asks “what do I want to achieve… how can I achieve it?”

This represents a difference between reactively prioritizing incoming demands or proposals (from coworkers or email newsletters) or random impulses, and proactively seeking ways to reach a goal. If you're doing anything self-directed or creative, you want your energy coming from within, scaffolded by a context that reminds you what you care about.

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 is another way to point at proactive vs reactive approaches.

Proactively pursuing a goal doesn't automatically imply strategically pursuing a goal, but for most people the bottleneck isn’t unstrategicness but lack of intentional momentum towards goals at all. So Intend is mostly focused on momentum. You can't be strategic without something to be strategic towards! And to the extent that you're genuinely trying to achieve something and regularly assessing how that's going, you'll tend to develop or seek out better strategies.

There's some science on this—if you're curious, you can check out the Mechanisms section of Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey, a paper that summarizes decades of research into how goals affect performance.

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