"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
April 9, 2008

What Getting Things Done Has Taught Me

I’ve been living with Getting Things Done for close to 18 months now. At the risk of sounding overly enthusiastic or, heaven forbid, evangelistic, I would encourage everyone to read the book, especially anyone in ministry (why, why weren’t these topics covered in depth at theological college?), or anyone with a modular, creative, or information-based […]

I’ve been living with Getting Things Done for close to 18 months now. At the risk of sounding overly enthusiastic or, heaven forbid, evangelistic, I would encourage everyone to read the book, especially anyone in ministry (why, why weren’t these topics covered in depth at theological college?), or anyone with a modular, creative, or information-based career. Over these months, there are four clear things I’ve learnt that have changed the way I approach my days.

1. Our brain has a limited capacity to cope with incomplete projects

Previous comments on this topic here.

I can pinpoint two clear times in my life, during 1995 and again during 2003, when I was weighed down with so many incomplete projects and orphaned ideas that I literally ceased up, like an overworked computer hard-drive. On neither of those occasions was my workload excessive. In fact, I recall a number of occasions where I have coped with far higher demands and/or been fare more productive. Rather, it was the number of half-finished projects, the number of good ideas with no intellectual home and the guilt and frustration that created that was paralysing.

2. Procrastination is not always the result of laziness but often the result of not seeing the next step clearly.

My feeling about procrastination is that it reveals one of two ways of looking at ourselves. Either we see procrastination and incomplete projects as a sign of our inherent laziness and moral failure and thus get paralysed with guilt (that’s me), or we see it was a consequence of our unending business and lack of time and get paralysed with resignation. But the point Allen makes (and Merlin Mann expounds excellently), is that procrastination often has a simpler explanation — we just can’t the next step clearly enough.

A key element of the GTD approach is breaking down projects into small (very small tasks) and then taking on each task without getting obsessed with the enormity of the project. It’s easy to choke on the significance of a huge job, but much easier to handle a smaller and more routine task (note to self; think editing a page of text, not, writing my world-changing book!).

3. The power of two minutes.

One deceptively simple suggestion in GTD is to tackle any next task that takes two minutes right away! You see an email and if if you can read it and answer it (or action it) in less than two minutes, do it now. Honestly, this has revolutionised the way I approach tidying up my home. It’s also is a great way to break procrastination habits (what Merlin Mann calls the procrastination dash). Rather than try to tackle the project I’m putting off in huge Olympian chunks, I’m breaking things down into small (often microscopically small) tasks. I’m not breaking any speed records with my music or writing, but it is a lot more satisfying to be slowly and consistently moving towards my goals than to be lurching unreliably in their general (but not exact) direction.

4. Have one Inbox

A central part of the GTD approach is having one inbox, one place where you put all the stuff that comes into your life, which is an approach I am pathologically hopeless at following. My habit is to leave a steady stream of intellectual detritus strewn around any space I live in (books, papers, notes, scribbles, manuscripts, etc). It’s great for the Bohemian look and also great for ensuring periodic burnout.

The big benefit of having one collecting place for everything that comes into your life is not just tidiness – it’s the liberation of being able to forget, being able to trust that the important things you need to see and action will not be lost, that you won’t need to lie awake at night remembering where they are!. I have always been the kind of person who freaks out if someone tidies up my desk, in part because I visually remember where the things I need are dumped. I’ve always kidded myself that being able to do that was a sign of intelligence. But, it’s actually a waste of intelligence, since it takes so much effort to remember in that way and that is a system that has not stood the test of time.

Working with an inbox is part of starting a system that keeps, holds and reminds you of all the projects you have running. This is essential for those of us who work alone, or without supervision, or answer to multiple masters. We need to manage our own reminders and our set our own tasks. It’s just too easy to let our days run on the tasks that are most convenient and lose sight of the harder, more fraught, or more abstract ones.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve become some sort of productivity guru, because I haven’t. I was in a deep creative hole only a few years ago and it’s been a long hard dig back to the surface. But, GTD has been a big part of building a better system for managing the disparate projects I need to handle. I’m finally starting to remember what “completion” feels like and that’s something I haven’t felt in a long time.

[tags] GTD, Getting Things Done [/tags]

Tim Abbott 13 years ago

Thanks so much for posting on this, especially in the light of your actual experience.
There is much here that mirrors my own experience at the moment and I’ve been wondering how to break the logjam in my mind. I vaguely remember hearing a psychologist speaking about “flooding” – a state where there’s too many things to do resulting in a kind of motivational paralysis. In my experience what wins is the relatively meaningless, the trivial functional tasks that take no thought and little energy. Yet they compound the sense of dissatisfaction as so many worthwhile and important tasks and projects go unfinished. I particularly identify with your perception of procrastination as a symptom of moral failure!
Your post has given me hope. I shall give this a go.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Tim, I completely agree that when we’re swimming in choice, the loud trivial stuff often wins the fight for attention.

One thing I didn’t mention about GTD is that it is not really a time management tool. It’s more a “staying attuned to your vocation” tool. When I look back to theological college, it feels like I was given A LOT of tools for working out my calling (or vision or whatever) and a few for learning to feel guilty about my failure to fulfill that call. But, there were almost no tools for how to stay attuned to the call in the average working week, day, or hour.

Steve 13 years ago

Just ordered the book – thanks for the tip. Getting a handle on things that need to be done is a paramount concern for me both professionally and at home.

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