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Priorities and Goals... The GTD Achilles Heel?

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  • Priorities and Goals... The GTD Achilles Heel?

    After using GTD since 2007, I have found priorities and goals to be the system's achilles heal.

    I think there's a fair chance I'm doing something wrong, so I want to give the community a chance to correct me and defend GTD.

    Time in life is short and finite. I have reached a conclusion that if you want to achieve big career and life goals, you have to cut out all of the unnecessary projects/tasks and focus exclusively on the absolutely best project that will advance you to that goal. There are lots of tasks and projects we could do, but 80% of our energy should be put into the 20% most important projects.

    So I ran a little GTD experiment recently. At my weekly review, I started setting top priority projects for a 3-10 day span and timeboxing it. The idea is to find the project that is holding me back from the next level of success in life, and get it completed in a set number of days. So for example: until March 10th I am working on our fundraising documents for people to invest in our company, and after March 10th it's being marked DONE.

    During my experiment, I replied to as few emails that don't deal with this project as possible, put off meetings on other projects, and anything that isn't directly achieving the goal I set. I went in my office and closed the door, metaphorically and literally. Because, really, I can do all of the medium-priority tasks I want... and they're not bad things to be working on... but if I really want to advance my career and my company to the next level as quickly as possible, this top-priority project is all I should be focusing on. It's a harsh reality. I guess an analogy would be, as Warren Buffet says, "Putting all of your eggs in 1 basket and watching it carefully." Instead of watering a thousand roses with my finite water bucket of time, I am watering 1 flower with a lot of water until it's bloomed big and strong.

    I was a little upset at how well this experiment went, since I have trusted David Allen and GTD to tell me the best thing to do for 6+ years. The results? I got what would have taken 20 days done in about 4. I achieved my goal, and it moved the company and my life forward in a really big way.

    GTD's answer to this, as I understand it, is pretty simple: set 50,000ft, 30,000ft, and 20,000ft altitudes (areas of responsibility and major goals) and review them at your weekly review. Then, as you go through your day, pick out next actions based on context, time, energy, and priority.

    The problem with this GTD goal and priority system is: you're never picking out 1 30,000ft goal that should be done next, and systematizing it into your daily routine. There's context lists and project lists... but there's no "Do This Project and Nothing Else if You Want to Advance your Life And Career" list. There's no part of GTD that focuses you on that next most important goal. Instead, you're assessing goals and priorities every 5 minutes, and that creates a mental fatigue of sorts. That 3-10 day goal is never written down, making it easy to lose sight of what you really should be doing, even though you may identify this important project during those precious moments of weekly review zen.

    Out of practicality, I've started doing a new activity during my weekly review: "What is the next most important project to complete that will advance my life and career more than anything else?" I write it down, open up Omnifocus, and hide all other projects except that one.

    Therefore, I've started to see GTD as a sort of hamster on a wheel, a way to spend time on a lot of stuff that doesn't matter and avoid the harsh reality that I should be focused on the one project that actually matters, and saying "f*** everything else."

    My question is: why aren't priorities and goals a part of GTD? Is GTD just that? Getting THINGS done. Don't we really want GTMITD? Getting THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS done? Okay, okay, the acronym isn't as sexy. But life is short, time is finite, and priorities (as defined by your larger goals) need to be systematized. I need something where I can go on autopilot during the work day. That's the whole point of mind like water, is I don't need to be thinking about my task system all day long. I need a better answer than, "Set up your 20,000ft review, and then reanalyze your priorities every time you complete a task." It's not working for me.

    I hope this explains the problem clearly. It's a complex situation, therefore I may not have explained everything you need to know to render a reply. Please feel free to ask followup questions and I'll respond to them promptly. Thank you.

  • #2
    I don't really see the contradiction

    hi,

    honestly, I don't really see the contradiction with GTD in what you describe . Picking a project (THE project) you want to focus on more than any other during the week (3-10 days as you say it) can perfectly be part of the weekly review. It's really up to you whether you pick a project that makes you really move forward or just any project that seems interetsing.

    By the way:
    You say ""Set up your 20,000ft review, and then reanalyze your priorities every time you complete a task." It's not working for me."
    But... that's in fact exactly what you did... You mention "I replied to as few emails that don't deal with this project as possible"... that means you reanalyzed your priorities with every mail you read asking yourself if it was important enough to deal with or not.

    So, I would say that your approach is completely in line with GTD...

    Comment


    • #3
      As I understand it, you did not actually set any priorities, in the usual sense of 1,2,3. Instead you blocked off a fixed amount of time to focus on one important project. Almost everyone does that to some extent, but you have to do it responsibly. There is no universal formula that will tell you what to do when. I have been involved for the last 24 hours in selling a house on behalf of my parents, which was unscheduled but not unexpected, was important, and required focus and clarity. At the same time, I had other responsibilities as well during the same period, like picking up groceries for both my wife and I and for my parents. Should I have ignored the possible sale of the house because I had a work project that was more important to me, or that I felt more committed to? Let my parents go without lunches because I was doing something "more important" for them? The rock falls in the water, and the water responds appropriately: the house gets sold, the groceries are bought, the weekly review and an appointment get postponed to tomorrow. I'm going to see the Book of Mormon tonight, with no regrets.

      Comment


      • #4
        If I was going to put what you did in GTD terms I would say that, having done some 20/30/50,000 foot thinking you pushed a bunch of projects onto someday/maybe and started considering more input as not actionable -'delete' or 'defer' than you usually do.
        I've heard David Allen say that one of the most important things GTD does is allow you to feel OK about the things you are not doing. My take is that you need to give yourself permission to move next actions and even projects off your current lists in the course of your weekly review.
        Last edited by sonyavdg; 03-02-2013, 10:16 PM.

        Comment


        • #5
          There's context lists and project lists... but there's no "Do This Project and Nothing Else if You Want to Advance your Life And Career" list.
          IMHO you've missed a point... YOU decide what goes on your context and project lists.

          If you sit down at your weekly review, and decide that "this top priority project" is the one thing you want to move forwards between now and the next weekly review, then the actions related to that project go on your context lists.

          Everything else can move to someday maybe, because you've decided that you don't want to spend any time on it at the moment.

          You shouldn't have to be reviewing your life's purpose and goals every 5 minutes - that's a job for the weekly review.

          In reality, there are probably multiple things that still need to be on your action lists, in addition to your top priority project. The world still turns around you, however focused you are.

          Like you, I focus on one main project at a time. I keep my lists short and don't hesitate to move stuff to/from someday maybe constantly. If it's a short project, actions for that project may be the only thing on my context lists. More often, however, projects cover a longer time frame and there are still other small projects I need to keep moving forwards at the same time. I still need to buy dog food and pay the bills, however important the main project is. GTD handles all that 'stuff', freeing me up to focus on 'the project'.

          Comment


          • #6
            I want to make three points.

            First of all, I generally agree with others who have replied on this thread.
            GTD doesn't tell you how many projects to select to work on in a given
            week: you have to decide that at your weekly review.

            Secondly: it may be the best thing for you to focus on one project at a
            time as you've been doing during your experiment, but it's certainly not
            always the best thing for everyone, and may not even be the best thing
            for you. It seems to have gone very well for 4 days, but if you keep it
            up for many weeks, you might discover that your plants have died,
            you're suffering from tooth decay and malnutrition, your family, friends
            and co-workers have given up waiting for replies from you and gone
            ahead and set up new routines that don't include you, and after you
            finish the one most important project in your life and go to start on the
            next most important project in your life, you discover that you hadn't taken
            a few minutes two weeks earlier to pre-order the materials you would
            need in order to be able to work on that project.

            Thirdly: I agree with you, commmmodo -- I think GTD as described by David Allen
            is sub-optimal because it requires a lot of moment-to-moment re-evaluation
            of priorities that (for many people) could have been pre-decided at the weekly review to save time and mental effort during the week.
            See my blog post http://woodgold.wordpress.com/2011/0...-required-etc/ "Sorting actions by energy level required, etc."

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by commmmodo View Post
              My question is: why aren't priorities and goals a part of GTD?
              Because YOU decide what your goals and priorities are, not GTD.

              Originally posted by commmmodo View Post
              Is GTD just that? Getting THINGS done.
              Yes, exactly. You decide what you want to do and you can use GTD to help facilitate the doing, while dealing with the day-to-day stuff that inevitably gets in the way with the busy lives we lead these days.

              Originally posted by commmmodo View Post
              Don't we really want GTMITD? Getting THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS done?
              NO. We don't want a "system" to decide what our goals and priorities should be, that would just get in the way of the truth. GTD turns down the volume of the stuff that doesn't really matter in our life (but still needs dealt with) and leaves our minds clear to figure out our true goals.

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by commmmodo View Post
                My question is: why aren't priorities and goals a part of GTD?
                Priorities and goals are a part of GTD. Goals are considered at the 30,000 foot level and are used as a guide in deciding what projects and actions to do. Priorities are considered moment-to-moment in GTD. I agree with you that this isn't a very good way to do it. Maybe for some people sometimes it is, e.g. emergency-room physicians: re-evaluate the priorities after completing each action.

                I suspect that most users of GTD do not usually re-evaluate the priorities of everything on a context/time/energy list whenever they complete an action. People on this forum have talked about using methods such as setting up a list of actions at the beginning of the day, to be done that day without having to re-consider priorities. I like to select actions at the end of the previous workday.

                Don't we really want GTMITD? Getting THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS done?
                No, not really. One of the things that I and many others like about GTD is the way it de-emphasizes priority, allowing you for example to brush your teeth without having to think "Brushing my teeth is the most important thing I could be doing right now!"; and the way it helps you get lots of somewhat-important things done during bits of time when it wouldn't be practical to get the most important things done right then for one reason or another. With a bit of tweaking, GTD can also help us to spend less time bothering to think about relative priority levels of different actions, as compared to some other systems. (I think.) That is, you don't bother considering the relative priority of things you're not able to do right then anyway for one reason or another. I find it saves mental effort. But, if you take what David Allen says literally and actually re-evaluate the priorities after each action, it could take a lot more mental effort. For me, I found that using (modified) GTD has been very freeing.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by cwoodgold View Post
                  Thirdly: I agree with you, commmmodo -- I think GTD as described by David Allen
                  is sub-optimal because it requires a lot of moment-to-moment re-evaluation
                  of priorities that (for many people) could have been pre-decided at the weekly review to save time and mental effort during the week.
                  IMNSHO, it's precisely that "moment-to-moment re-evaluation of priorities" that is one of the major (positive) differentiators of GTD. Our work and life these days demands that kind of flexibility. Hence the model for choosing work according to context, time available, energy, and priority... Priority is the last (not necessarily the least important) thing to consider when deciding what to do in any given moment.

                  Rather than causing more stress and mental effort, with a streamlined system, the stress and mental effort should decrease using this model. While I agree that it's good to do some "pre-deciding" on a daily and even a weekly basis, it's unrealistic to expect life to accommodate our pre-decisions!

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Don't Agree

                    I think David outlines these two things well.

                    Goals are merely another horizon to define and priorities are a decision you make during the "Do" phase.

                    I've found the key to making Goals work within GTD is making sure I've defined what's actionable about the goal - i.e. what are next actions or even outcomes to define that help me move closer to the goal. Personally I organize mine in OmniFocus and they are in a separate folder called "Goals".

                    Priorities by themselves don't work because you really need to consider the other items in the Do phase - context, time available, energy level. In this context the personal payoff decision becomes easier. Not easy but easier.

                    Just my $0.02.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      I'm yet to read the replies but my initial thoughts are that I agree with you for the most part in that I think GTD is great at getting things done and getting A LOT of thing done with great clarity and ease but lacks in minimalisation, cutting back, eliminating the non-essential etc. i think i wrote a post about this before on here, once you actually edit your life as a whole you don't really need a productivity system or at least not a complicated one.
                      Last edited by NewbGTD; 03-10-2013, 03:46 PM.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        I'd add that pre-planning priorities does work so I disagree with David stating that they don't. To me, if something is important enough I will make sure I'm in the right context no matter what, I while make sure I have the time, and I wouldn't really care if my energy levels were low. Thats how success is done!

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Pre-planning works for some people some of the time

                          If your life is such that pre-planning works for you, then great! You can still pre-plan within the structure of GTD, no problem.

                          What David Allen was getting at though is that, for many people, no amount of pre-planning can predict what the actual priorities are going to be. In my situation I may have a very clear idea of my priorities the evening before and spend time deciding the most important thing to get done tomorrow. But I can guarantee that before nine am, something has happened that affects my priorities (a phone call, an email, a front page news story). At the very least, I will need to reassess what I had planned to work on against all the new work coming in and that is true GTD.

                          To be able to confidently say "not right now" to the new work or to say to the old work "this new thing is more important than you" is the benefit of having all of your committments out of your head and available for review at any moment.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by NewbGTD View Post
                            I'd add that pre-planning priorities does work so I disagree with David stating that they don't.
                            Well, David agrees with you then. In standard GTD we have the Someday / Maybe and Projects list, the Calendar to schedule the Hard Landscape and the Tickler file to manage urgency for various, ahem, things.

                            I personally do not like to call them priorities. This term is too vague or plainly wrong. As long as we are free to choose what to do, I believe it holds true to say: if it is a priority it is already done (or is in the process of getting dealt with).

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by SiobhanBR View Post
                              But I can guarantee that before nine am, something has happened that affects my priorities (a phone call, an email, a front page news story). At the very least, I will need to reassess what I had planned to work on against all the new work coming in and that is true GTD.
                              Usually, that type of thing would add some new, higher-priority work, or
                              else raise the priorities of some specific work you'd already planned.
                              It wouldn't usually change the relative priorities of other actions not connected
                              to it.

                              So, I think pre-prioritizing is still useful: I compare the new action to the
                              top few priorities I already had, and think "OK, it's more important than any
                              of these, so I'm confident it's more important than any of the other actions
                              in my list ... I don't need to read the whole list."

                              This could be a mistake. Er, here's a bad example. Suppose I had an
                              action in my list "Before the next time I go to that restaurant, set up a
                              reminder to myself to watch out for the extra step at the entrance so I
                              don't trip and fall." And suppose I've put this as a low priority because I
                              don't expect to go there again for months. But the new email results in
                              a meeting today at that very restaurant, and I forget all about the step,
                              trip and fall and have to visit the chiropractor.

                              On the other hand -- reading over your whole list (and perhaps all
                              your Someday/Maybe's too) could be a mistake too, because it takes time
                              at a time when you may need to react quickly to a situation.

                              Comment

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