Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy

The Challenge

“Man has a limited biological capacity for change, when this capacity is Overwhelmed, the capacity is in future shock. “writes Futurist Alvin Toeffler
in his 1970 Landmark book Future Shock, where he coined the phrase information overload. Toeffler poignantly argues that man’s ability to deal with his reality — his “sanity itself thus hinges on man’s ability to predict his immediate personal future on the basis of information fed him by the environment.”

When he can not keep up, man loses himself to the fray of the moment, experiencing information overload. Information itself has been defined
technically and measured in terms of units called bits, he further writes, which exists in the form of actions based on decisions — a bit is the amount of information needed to make a decision between two equally likely alternatives.

“Bits are heavy. Though they have no physical weight,” opens Mark Hurst’s ground breaking book Bit Literacy.” a weight on anyone who uses
them” Each piece of information that enters our life – be it digital or physical requires us to make some form of front-end decision about how we
should engage with them or suffer some dire consequences of greater confusion and frustration in the moment or in the future.

Hurst’s solution to the quagmire of information overload is to introduce a brand new set up skills and habits that stresses simplicity — a series of best practices he terms “Bit Literacy.”

In an interview with Productivity Consultant Matthew Cornell, Hurst points out that many current productivity systems are based on previous
systems that were built for managing the flow of paper, and to apply systems for paper productivity to our new digital world is not appropriate.

Complete disengagement from these new inputs also is not the solution, Hurst further recommends, nor is engaging them with the whole gauntlet of existing paper organizers now on the market or highly complex digital planning systems and softwares.

“Today’s information overload is caused by bits,” Hurst writes in his Bit Literacy book,”and so the tool to manage overload must work with bits, Using paper to manage todos simply does not make it’s slow and unnecessarily painful and more then a little ridiculous.” (see his blog for further information

The Bit Literacy Difference

The Bit Literacy paradigm challenges the conventional wisdom of even many popular productivity systems today. In his Good Experience blog,
Mark Hurst quotes Khoi Vinh, who heads up design at as an example of how many productivity systems are just too unnecessarily complex for people to actually properly implement. These paradigms often offer highly complex methodologies that cost their users copious amounts of time to learn, practice and implement only to quickly discover that they don’t yield the gains they promised.

Hurst holds a similar disdain for Getting Things Done, “David Allen’s approach is a bit of a throwback to a pre-internet age when having complex flowcharts, filing papers and creating tickler items was relevant,” Hurst said in a recent interview with “The more flowcharts and frameworks in the method,” Mark writes in Bit Literacy, “the more time it takes to learn and practice and the less productive the user becomes.”

Most ordinary digital todo lists just add even more problems to the equation, so they either suffer from being too simple or too complex. More often then not Hurst argues they try to pack everything into the application — example Microsoft Outlook — to please everyone which in the process ends up pleasing no one because they overload users with too much information. The problem with list categorization (example your GTD action lists), Hurst argues is that they add more bits than the user needs to manage causing them to spend more time playing around with the system then actually getting any work done.

The Bit Literacy Paradigm

Mark Hurst briefly sketched out for me the Bit Literacy productivity paradigm. Although it’s not groundbreaking in its structure, its profound in its simplicity, some critics may find it too simple. It can be, however, found as a refreshing change from some of other overly complex systems with their proprietary planning methodologies and tools.

1. VALUES. At the top most level of the Bit Literacy system rests your values. For example:

Simplicity, Charity, Fortitude and Integrity.

Hurst offered “simplicity” as a value; I’ve added the others above. One might also expand them into affirmations like: :

Fortitude. I pursue daily with great strength and courage what is most important and what is right.

The interesting thing about just listing values is — you have to be clear and you have to write them out using simple and easily understandable language. The word Fortitude as a value may actually in of itself not be as clear as just writing out the word courage. The complexity of the word fortitude then may necessitate a person having to write out an affirmation with it to push their subconscious into accepting it. Mark writes a brief blog post on the need for brevity in clear writing

2. MISSION. The next item Hurst lists beneath values is a Mission statement. Here is the mission statement Hurst offered:

Allow people to solve information overload, easily and permanently

Again this is more carefully summarized and written then a typical mission statement in many traditional planning systems like:

My purpose for being on this earth is to help others recognize, develop, and use their God-given intuitive abilities to ease suffering and grow in goodness, love, compassion, and wisdom. My mission is to help take away fear–the fear of death, by proving that we don’t die and will see our loved ones again, and the fear of living, by showing how we can tap in to our wisest selves and make our lives much happier and easier. My desire is to help each of us connect to the love that is eternal, that is the reason for our existence.

3. GOALS. The third level Hurst mentioned was goals. You set a goal which is defined by your mission that you follow through on while adhering to your Values. In essence then each goal then has a mission and governing principles (values attached to it). Making life planning as simple as one, two and three.

Most time management systems have elaborate place holders or reminders for the most important areas of a person’s life. These are often called roles or Key Focus Areas — I asked Mark – When you set goals do you use any form of roles or “Key Areas of Focus”

Mark Hurst: Not really. But Bit Literacy and Gootodo are flexible to however people want to work. (Gootodo is Mark’s on line todo list) The method doesn’t *obligate* you to set up a complex framework of goals and contexts, but the tool supports it if you want. Mainly the tool is really simple to encourage you to stop spending time setting up a complex system and GET TO WORK. That’s *real* productivity – not noodling with every little detail in your system, but accomplishing the tasks themselves. That’s why I think it’s important to have the simplest system possible – take the focus away from the system itself and enable people to get on with their todo list.

4. PROJECTS. I asked Mark about the fourth level of his planning paradigm — how do you plan projects in gootodo – do you track them as a single larger to do?

Mark Hurst: Generally I break things into discrete tasks and track them singly. This works nicely for my project load – I run a 400-person conference and a private social networking site, not to mention all my other duties between the two companies – all with Gootodo. These are big projects that I simply track and redate todos for, all using Gootodo’s few simple functions.

However, if people prefer to track projects with a single todo, they can accomplish that as well – simply by noting the progress of sub-tasks in the detail field within the todo. I’ve done that occasionally, and it’s worked well.

5. TASKS. Mark’s Gootodo (short for Good Experience todo list) task management system works without having multiple lists and must reside outside of an email application and not be paper based. The perfect todo list has four major components:

1. Each todo is associated with a particular day.
2. Users can create new todos via email either for today or a specific day in the future.
3. Each todo has priority ranking within its day.
4. Each todo must contain a detail and summary information like an email.

You then only have one daily todo list which is day specific and your actions become active based upon your calendar.

Hurst’s philosophy of simplicity mirrors the sentiments of Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden first published in 1854. In “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Thoreau urges, “Simplicity,
simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen … Our life is frittered away by detail.”

Thoreau ironically foresaw it best the millions of details — the sea of potentially infinite bits flowing into our life through emails, through the Internet, Voice mails, PDAs and hundreds of other new and emerging digital tools. The very bits that Mark Hurst coaxes us to let go of.

UPDATE 5/06/2013 — Mark Hurt’s Book Bit Literacy is now free for Amazon Kindle subscribers


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply