Stupid Stoplights Help Explain GTD

The stoplights in my town are something to be desired. (That’s the nicest thing I could think of without using four and five letter words.)

Ok, ok… they suck. Bad. At night, they’re exponentially worse.

Here’s why: for some odd reason, the sensors don’t work right late at night. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled up to the light late at night, with a car across from me and one adjacent to me waiting for the light to change. And waited, and waited, and waited… I kid you not sometimes it takes 3 minutes.

And three minutes of stewing about stoplights is like a half an hour. (There’s an equation out there somewhere for it, I’m sure. It’s related to the human years to dog years equation.) And the best part: once a car going in the direction of the green finally gets to the laggy light, the light changes and makes the unsuspecting car stop. It never fails. I almost cry sometimes.

You see, the frustrating part isn’t the fact that I have to wait. I’m not typically an impatient driver and I don’t mind waiting in heavy traffic. It’s a fact of life, and it’s going to happen. No, the painful part is when waiting doesn’t have to happen. In theory the light could easily turn green for me, let me go on my merry way and return back to green in the other direction, without anyone waiting.

Unfortunately, it almost seems as though the stoplight is too focused on the car that will eventually come, as opposed to the cars already there. I find myself doing the same thing sometimes. As opposed to stepping back and looking at the big picture, I’ve got tunnel vision going on and I’m only focused on one thing, as opposed to what is right under my nose.

An efficient stoplight would always be changing to suit the immediate needs of the cars as they pull up. The same could be said about our own productivity. The gist of Getting Things Done is mainly that you always have something that you could be doing, and knowing what the next steps are to get it done. By separating the tasks into contexts (home, office, phone, car, flight to moon, etc.), you’ll always have something to do wherever you are. So take a lesson from a stupid stoplight and make the best of your surroundings.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
— Teddy Roosevelt

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • glen August 24, 2006, 10:55 pm

    The relative level of the patience of the driver? I think they need to re-evaluate the algorithms used to determine this level. Maybe people have gotten more irratable over the years, and traffic light makers haven’t taken this into account.

  • Doug August 24, 2006, 9:45 pm

    Not many people know this, but most modern electronic traffic control systems are equipped with IUDS* circuitry to regulate the flow of vehicular traffic. Ferric metal mass sensors embedded in the top layer of the road deck both detect the presence of a large ferro-metallic object, such as an automobile, and sense the relative level of the patience of the driver (and adjust traffic light timing inversely). Seriously. I read this somewhere.

    (*Inverse Urgency Detection System)

  • Rian August 24, 2006, 6:13 pm

    Hm. You actually wait for those lights to change? When there’s no one around in the middle of the night, I just go, when I am familiar with the intersection, and I know where the police might be lurking, or not, as the case is near my house.

  • Ian Clifton August 24, 2006, 3:02 pm

    Most of the stop lights are set to favor a particular direction (the main street of the intersection), but every light seems different. I see this especially since I walk to work and I have to stop at each intersection. I’ve found that on one of them, I can only go if I have hit the button before the people on the opposite side lose their green left arrow light. If I hit it after, then the people going the way I am going can go and the people on the other side can go. Then the people on the left road can go… which is an offramp, so people typically T from there, but I still can’t cross because there is a CHANCE someone might go from the offramp to the onramp and hit me… so I have to wait for their light to turn red and then for the people across from me to use their left green arrow, and THEN I can go!

    There’s another light that, if no cars have gone by for ~20 seconds, the light starts to change as soon as I hit the button. I am not sure what the basis is for all of it.

    Some towns have their lights revert to blinking yellow or red at night because of the low traffic.

    One interesting note though is that I know someone who got a DUI at night because he was waiting at an intersection “forever” and finally got fed up and just went… and obviously an officer saw him. Maybe the plan is to catch that behavior?

  • glen August 24, 2006, 8:53 am


    Great point. I’m pretty sure this sadistic stoplight would figure out my plan though. It’s pretty mean like that.

    In all honesty though, you’re on to something. GTD is making the best of a situation, and turning right could easily be a better solution.

  • Jude August 24, 2006, 6:13 am

    This is why they invented right turns. We have a stoplight like this near my house and I’ve found it’s much quicker to make a right turn, then turn back to hit the light from the other direction than to wait for it to change so I can go directly across the street. If you want to turn this into a metaphor for Getting Things Done (which I confess that I am still wading through after owning the book for a couple of months), you could perhaps say something motivational about thinking outside of the box to get things done. But for me, personally, making a right turn at this light gives me back control over the stupid stoplight, thereby reducing my frustration and the amount of gasoline I use waiting for it to change to green.

  • Sean August 24, 2006, 12:54 am

    Good analogy. It really calls out the ‘time’ or ‘when’ component of GTD.