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Book Review: Bit Literacy Can Make You Much Happier

I'm back in LA after attending the Gel (Good Experience Live) Conference in NYC and moderating a Council of 25 managers and director-level folks. More on Gel soon--it continues to be the most engaging conference I attend. In this post, I want to talk about Gel organizer Mark Hurst's new book, Bit Literacy (disclosure: I consider Mark a friend).

I started and finished this book in the two hours I spent on the runway at JFK while waiting for the United co-pilot to arrive (he was, in the words of the captain "stuck in traffic." Talk about the opposite of a Good Experience, United!)

Anyways, Hurst has thought deeply about managing bits. In an era when we're all overwhelmed with massive amounts of data from many different sources (TiVo, email, RSS, voice mail, newspapers, magazines, photos, videos... exhausted yet?) Hurst points out that it's only going to get worse. In a few years, he says, mobile-phone video cameras will have the capacity to record your every waking moment. Being the "busy man" who's always on his Blackberry managing his bits barely scales now, and it won't scale when your Nokia is gathering data on every second of your life.

So what's the solution?

Bit Literacy is a set of principles Hurst has developed to manage incoming data. It's not more complicated technology, but a strategy for dealing with data.

In the book, Hurst talks about managing to-dos, email, and photos, naming files, using appropriate file types, how to store files, how to structure an email, current bit-literate tools, and the future of bit literacy.

Let me preface this by saying that I've played with, but never gotten into Getting Things Done. David Allen's system never seemed to mesh with how I work, perhaps because it seemed more complicated than it needed to be with its contexts, projects, and other task metadata. That, and there never seemed to be an easy way to get a task into my GTD system from email, which is the nerve center of most peoples' work life.

The core of Hurst's current task management system is his web tool, GooTodo. I beta tested GooTodo back in the day, but it was never clear how the system would make my life easier. I had the benefit of attending his ETech talk last year, though, and it made a lot more sense afterwards. The core of Hurst's philosophy is to let the bits go. What he means by this is to keep your inbox clean, and to defer tasks until they're due, using a simple and effective tool. He designed GooTodo to be that tool.

The Bit Literacy system breaks a task into four phases:

  1. Creation occurs when a user creates a task (duh)
  2. Inactivity is the period between when a task is created and when it needs to be acted on (example: email Sarah next week about increasing whoopee cushion order)
  3. Activation occurs when the todo is available to be completed, and
  4. Completion is when the todo has been completed and checked off as such

Most todo lists miss the Inactivity stage--they'll show all todos on one list, regardless of when they're due, and thus prevent you from letting the bits go. A bit literate tool like GooTodo, on the other hand, allows you to focus on what's important by showing you today's tasks only, and hiding tasks with future due dates. The psychological benefit of knowing that you can focus on what's due today, and let tomorrow's deferred tasks pop up tomorrow, is huge. Out of sight means out of mind. The value of a tool that organizes itself around this principle shoudn't be underestimated when you're dealing with hundreds of todos (as most of us are).

I really love that getting emails out of my inbox and into GooTodo is super simple. You just forward the email to a gootodo email address depending on when you want the task to appear. Any of,, and t90 (90 days from now) work, along with the variations that you'd expect (monday@gootodo..., tuesday, mar24, oct31, t4, t283, etc).

After a determined effort to answer the 100+ Important emails waiting for me when I got back from NYC, I can truly say that using GooTodo has made me more productive, and more importantly, happier. I am able to focus on the Important instead of the Urgent, can comfortably close GMail for a couple of hours to focus on getting stuff done, and have had a zero inbox at least once a day since I cleared out my emails on Monday. The painful part is going through the emails sitting in your inbox, but once you're through that, using GooTodo has made me much happier managing incoming email than anything else I've tried.

And while I've briefly romped in the hay with GooTodo before, I'm more confident this flirtation will turn into a full-blown relationship. There's nothing like entrepreneurship to instill a little more discipline.

Without reading the book or seeing Hurst talk, it's difficult to grasp how to use GooTodo to be more productive. could benefit from a "how-to" screencast and a more informative marketing page if they want to reach the consumer market. The GooTodo interface could use a little ajaxification to make the system more snappy (particularly when re-ordering and re-dating tasks), but the principles and execution are sound. And I can already picture how a bit literate email client or contact management system could work (anybody who's developing productivity software, read this book!)

Task management aside, Bit Literacy provides some good ideas on managing other bitstreams. If you're a geek, some of the book is skimmable, but there are some real gems. I found the chapter on organizing the filesystem to be particularly useful.

I highly recommend Bit Literacy. It's a quick, insightful read on a topic that has the potential to make you significantly happier the day you finish reading it. How many books have you read recently can deliver on that promise?

You can buy Bit Literacy from Amazon here.

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Comments (Post | Latest)

1. AdamD said on Apr 27 2007:

I could never get GTD to completely work for me, but my major take-away from it was the "out of site, out of mind" principle you mention. GooTodo never really worked the way I felt I wanted it to, but I've found HiveMinder to be great.

As for emails, I use this system inspired by your notes from Mark's talk:

Bit Literacy has been on my list, but your review has moved it to the top.

United has also been on my list, but that's a different sort of list.

2. kareem said on Apr 27 2007:

Thanks, Adam. I think I saw HiveMinder back in the day, but don't believe I've given it a spin. I'll check it out, but right now I'm lovin GooTodo.



Hi, I'm Kareem Mayan. I co-founded eduFire, an online video tutoring company.

I've done time at ESPN and FIM.

I advise WorldBlu, helping them build democratic companies.

I moderated a council for Creative Good.

And, I helped bring Barcamp, a technology un-conference, to LA, which is where I live. I am now living and working in cool cities around the world.

More about me.

Opinions stated here are mine alone.

Contact: blog -at- reemer


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