This post is a follow-up to a couple of older previous ones; Mental Whack-a-Mole, and Filling the Buckets. They were part of a planned series on my experiences with implementing David Allen’s Getting Things Done or GTD system. If you missed those ones, it might make sense to take a few minutes to read them now, because they set the stage for this post.
To re-cap: Let’s assume you’ve come to realize that your to-do lists and life/business commitments have hi-jacked your time and peace of mind. They’ve compromised your personal and business life, and are causing you stress throughout each day, and often at night, maybe at around 3:00am or so. You feel like you have no space to think, or even breathe. I think that’s a pretty good assumption for many people, and one that I explore at much greater depth here. Let’s further assume that you’ve taken the time to take an inventory of what all these “open loop” stressors are. You’ve collected all this “stuff” in one place – all the things you’ve committed to, that others expect of you, that you want to do, and probably a bunch that you don’t want to do, but must.
Now comes the reckoning. Time to sort through all these things that were on your mind and on your lists and decide what you’re going to do about them, or even if you’re going to do anything with them. Some of these things could be tiny, niggling things. If you can deal with them in a few minutes, do it now, and say goodbye to them forever. Quite a few of them might be more complex tasks or even projects that have been sitting on a to-do list for a while. If you’re pretty sure you’re never going to get around to them either because you can’t afford to, don’t want to, or the reasons for doing them have changed, then ditch them. If they’re longer term things that you may want to return to, but you realistically won’t have the time for in the immediate future, consider shunting them to a “someday/maybe” status.
Once the list has been pared down to what you actually want/need to deal with, it’s time to break it down. A lot of things on your list will be large enough to prevent you from tackling them all at once. They need to be broken down into actionable steps to be useful as to-do items. This concept in David Allen’s GTD system was a revelation to me, though I don’t know why – I deal with project management every day, where breaking things down into steps is essential. Somehow I never connected those principles to managing my personal resources. I guess I was viewing project management as being applicable to large undertakings with a lot of people involved and many moving parts and interdependencies, not to everyday things. I don’t mean to say that you need to view your life as some kind of project to be managed. Not at all – that’s a whole other topic, and please don’t get me started.
The Next Step
The idea of identifying the next actionable step for any “thing” you need to do is a powerful one. It can help nudge you forward into getting something done that you might otherwise spin your wheels on. This works even for small, fairly trivial things. An example: I might have on my list “cut grass”. This seems simple enough, right? But maybe my mower is gas powered, and maybe the tank is empty, and my gas can is too. Maybe my mower has a 2 stroke engine, which means I need to add oil to the gas. These complications are just enough to prevent me from doing this simple task, and to occupy valuable brain cycles throughout the day and night as I periodically think “oh, I should get gas for the lawnmower” in contexts where I can’t possibly do anything about it. Even if I think about it on the way home from work, the gas can probably isn’t in the car, and I likely don’t have the oil I need. The simple task of mowing the lawn would break down something like this:
– put gas can in car (Context: Home)
– buy 2-stroke oil (Context: errand > home depot)
– buy gas (Context: errand > gas station)
– fill lawnmower tank (Context: Home)
– mow lawn (Context: Home)
You’ll notice that I’ve tagged each step with a context in which it can be accomplished. It’s fairly important to use software ( I use Omnifocus) that will accommodate this kind of tagging, because the idea of capturing the context is key to being able to forget about the things you need to remember. This kind of reminds me of an old Johnny Cash song. I Forgot to Remember to Forget You. It’s a powerful thing to be able to forget about these things that need doing until we’re in the position to be able to take a step toward doing them. If we aren’t in the right context — in the right physical place or in possession of the right tools, there’s no point in remembering the task that needs doing.
Now I’ll admit that the lawnmower example above is fairly trivial, and the steps perhaps a bit contrived, but I hope you get the idea. You might notice that none of the contexts involved being at work. If you can get to the place where this becomes your “trusted system” you will not have thoughts of mowing lawns or buying gas intruding into your mind space at work, because it’s not a relevant context for this task.
To me, the payoff to using the GTD system is twofold: allowing me to keep the commitments I’ve made and do the things I said I would, and to give me the mental space to think and be present to others without the intrusion of superfluous “stuff” in my mind. As David Allen says, it helps you to use “…your mental energies to think about things rather than think of them.” I’m pretty sure it helps me be a better husband, father and consultant. My own implementation of GTD isn’t textbook perfect, I’ve tailored it to what I can deal with. I’d encourage you to consider whether it could help you, in whatever your personal version of it might be.
I’m very interested in hearing your experiences with GTD or any other productivity system — please reach out on Twitter (@intudes) to discuss further.