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  • GTD Paradox ??

    I have been using GTD for ~3 years and have reached a point where a paradox is clear. I hope you will comment on it and share your observations / solutions.

    When processing, I take each piece at a time as GTD outlines. "What is it?" implies I read the item (e.g. an email) a first time. It can take a few minutes to understand the item well enough to define its correct next action(s) or project(s).

    When doing, I must re-read the item to understand it well enough to do the action well. When reviewing, I re-read each again for project planning etc. Sure, I could write paragraphs to specify the next action in enough detail, but that would be worse still!

    Given hundreds of emails each week, can the typical knowledge worker afford duplicating that couple minutes on each item once for processing, then again while doing? i.e. we're touching the item twice, not once.

    I have measured that overhead for myself aggregates to an additional 6-8 hours per week, which I have been absorbing on weekends. Productivity methods & tools should enrich our lives, not drain one's personal time.

    Further, when I have made the first investment of time to understand an item, my mind wants to pursue it. I force myself to abandon progress as a reinforcer of the GTD workflow in the hope it's a net-gain. After ~3 years, it still seems broken.

    That is the essence of the paradox I face with GTD. My workload is not abnormal. How have you overcome this double-hit or lightened the overhead of GTD?

    Thanks,
    Bob

  • #2
    Why are you getting hundreds of *actionable* emails in a week? It seems to me that, not GTD, is the problem here.

    (Non-actionable emails don't count, as you read them once and throw them away. Actions that take only two minutes also don't count, as you should do them immediately.)

    If you get a hundred actionable emails, each of which takes 2 minutes to process and 5 minutes to act on later, that's 700 minutes or 11.67 hours per week. That's more than a quarter of a standard 40 hour week. Either you need to modify your other job duties to accomodate that load, or you need to cut down the amount of email requiring action. Either way, again, the problem is with the amount of email you receive, not GTD itself.

    Also, your post sort of implies that these emails are unrelated to each other. I suspect that is not actually the case. Most people get big piles of email related to whatever projects they are working on, much of which is redundant -- stuff like Joe saying "you're right" in response to Mike's comment on Jane's suggestion. Grouping email by project substantially reduces the overhead, as you can review everything that's going on with the project before deciding what actions, if any, you should take. The best way to do this might be before the mail ever hits your inbox, using filters.

    Katherine
    Last edited by kewms; 12-30-2005, 09:19 AM.

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    • #3
      Originally posted by boblevy
      Given hundreds of emails each week, can the typical knowledge worker afford duplicating that couple minutes on each item once for processing, then again while doing? i.e. we're touching the item twice, not once.
      I'm not sure there are typical knowledge workers, really. It seems to me most of my email falls into broad categories, such as FYI, project-related, single-action required, junk. Each category will constitute some percentage of your time. One must get through FYI stuff as rapidly as one can. Junk gets deleted. Project-related material should often be associated with the project in some way, e.g., note next action, print email. throw into project folder. Single-action stuff can be tough, especially if you have a lot of it. You don't mention the two-minute rule, which really means "if it would take longer to process it into the system (this is where 2 minutes comes in) than to do it, go ahead and do it now." I would try stretching the rule out to perhaps five minutes, and see what happens. Some jobs have a lot of workflow built into them: something comes in for processing, something goes out. You might want to try setting aside some time for "batch processing."

      Comment


      • #4
        Thanks Katherine, you have helped clarify an ambiguity in my original post.

        correction - typically, I have received hundreds (~200 avg.) emails/wk meriting either action or reference filing, that is with a larger inbox count (max. week so far was 1600 new emails, that was a few years back, today it's more like 500 prior to filters and the delete key).

        Talking with >20 others in my profession, I have validated that my actionable email volume is to be expected.

        My email workload usually adds up to ~30hrs/wk between processing & doing. That is why I am eager to learn ways to reduce the time I spend getting up to speed to process (aggregate 5-7 hrs/wk) and again to do (another aggregate 5-7 hrs/wk), or any other tips to reduce that overhead / double-hit.

        All insights or experiences are valued, no doubt I'm not the only person facing this.

        Thanks,
        Bob

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        • #5
          To clarify, I find it strange that DA's book suggests not touching the same thing more than once, yet I find myself spending so much time re-re-rereading stuff at each stage of the GTD workflow.

          That is a problem, either with GTD or how I have implemented it. I also think it's fair in today's market to assume my job scope is reasonable.

          Note, many of my next actions and projects tend to be complex. I've expanded the 2-minute rule out to 5 minutes to dispatch the relatively "small stuff" quickly.

          Thanks,
          Bob

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          • #6
            Hmmm.... your earlier post talked about needing paragraphs to describe a next action, and here you talk about your next actions being very complex. It occurs to me that maybe these are not *true* next actions, but rather small projects in disguise. At least for me, next actions are much smaller chunks than that. It might help if you could give an example?

            It also sounds like "decide what to do about Bob's email" might be a common next action for you. In many cases, you may be able to both reduce overhead and avoid the momentum killing you mentioned by simply skimming the email and creating a next action to answer it later. This might be the case, for instance, if your email often includes drafts of complex documents that you need to review or edit. A thread a little while ago dealt with a similar situation, where the original poster was a lawyer whose email filled up with briefs and depositions and so forth.

            Katherine

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            • #7
              Originally posted by boblevy
              correction - typically, I have received hundreds (~200 avg.) emails/wk meriting either action or reference filing, that is with a larger inbox count (max. week so far was 1600 new emails, that was a few years back, today it's more like 500 prior to filters and the delete key).
              But how many of those are actions and how many are reference? Certainly if you are reading reference emails more than once there is a problem with your system.

              Katherine

              Comment


              • #8
                It does sound like the duplication is adding up in your case. And of course the GTD system can and should be customized where it is helpful.

                What would happen if you opened up an email and did the processing and doing all at once until it could be either trashed or filed and never had to be touched again? Then opened the 2nd email and did the same thing? In other words: extend the 2 minute rule to infinite for email items only. Would this help or make matters worse? This would save you the 6-8 hours per week, but you could not organize your work as well.

                Alternatively you could try to do a very quick triage, lumping stuff into 3 categories of importance. Anything in category C is trashed. Anything in category B is set aside for action later. Anything in category A is processed and completely done as soon as it is touched (interrupting triage). Make sure the triage is just a few seconds per item (just read the subject line or a very quick scan of the body). This should also save much of the 6-8 hours but allow you to do some work organization.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Are your e-mails really so complex?

                  Originally posted by boblevy
                  When processing, I take each piece at a time as GTD outlines. "What is it?" implies I read the item (e.g. an email) a first time. It can take a few minutes to understand the item well enough to define its correct next action(s) or project(s).

                  When doing, I must re-read the item to understand it well enough to do the action well. When reviewing, I re-read each again for project planning etc. Sure, I could write paragraphs to specify the next action in enough detail, but that would be worse still!
                  Are your e-mails really so complex? Could you give at least one example?

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    When processing, I take each piece at a time as GTD outlines. "What is it?" implies I read the item (e.g. an email) a first time.

                    That's one inference you could draw. Another would be to simply scan long enough to identify what kind of email it is, which typically takes 10-20 seconds, not 2 minutes. Some emails, like spam, are instantly identifiable, and can be recognized and deleted in under 5 seconds. I would suggest that most nonactionable emails can be identified as such and appropriately dispatched (e.g. deleted or filed) in under 10 seconds.

                    If the email you're processing falls on the actionable side of the decision tree, the odds are that it will somehow relate to one of your current projects, in which case you'll already be familiar with much of the email's content. There are occasionally some emails that are complex enough to require up to 2 minutes to mentally categorize, but those are exceptions. Processing is reading for identification, not detail. Reading for detail, if even necessary, comes in the (deferred) doing phase.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      To Clarify...

                      Just a point of clarification.... David never says "touch something only once" except in reference to processing your inbox. While processing your inbox each item should be "stuck like glue" to your fingers until it is processed into your system. That means either the two-minute rule or listed and tracked. Beyond that, he says in fact that "touching something only once" is silly, and would result in you getting nothing done except that one thing on your plate, hence the two minute rule.

                      Your goal is to create a "Dashboard" with your lists, from which you are able to choose what is the best thing to do, perhaps the highest leverage item, based first on context and then on other factors like time, energy and urgency, etc.

                      FWIW,
                      Gordon

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                      • #12
                        Bob:

                        I am a newspaper arts writer and get about 100-150 emails a day after pretty effective spam filtering. About a third of them actually require some form of action.

                        Couple of things that help me:

                        * I set Outlook so it only checks email when I tell it to, as opposed to at some set time interval. That way I'm not interrupted by "you've got mail" a hundred times a day. I always have mail.

                        * Most of the email pertains to stories I'm working on, am about to work on, or will give someone else to work on. I have set up a calendar-based set of e-folders, named for the stories and the dates when they will run, in Outlook to file things in after a very quick scan. I can empty my inbox of dozens of emails in about five minutes that way. I only really read the emails when I sit down to work on the pertinent stories.

                        * Each time I download email, I file what I can, forward what I can, and delete what I can. I delete a lot.

                        * This quick scan leaves me with nothing in the inbox but a few emails that require immediate, more complicated action, like a response.

                        * I use the "deleted mail" folder as a back-up filing system and clean old mail about after it's aged abvout three months.

                        I charted my office time for about three weeks recently and discovered I was spending about an hour a day dealing with email. That's the good news and the bad news. It used to be I spent more time than that on the phone, much less efficiently.

                        One way I'm working to streamline the email crush is educating regular sources about how to use email efficiently: Make sure their sender name is descriptive, for example. (One dance company I deal with simply says "marketing" in the "from" field; that requires too much thought on my part and runs the risk of deletion without reading.) Use good subject lines -- "RE Jan. 5 interview for ballet story" rather than "dancer."

                        OK, enough meandering. I think GTD works well for this kind of thing; I've been using it going on a year and it's helped my work life a lot. Just don't read all the email twice.

                        Happy New Year

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          This thread is a good example since we are all sharing the experience. I saw your replies in my email inbox during "processing." Like many email threads, this merits reference filing and several next actions, e.g.
                          @computer - adjust Outlook to check mail at request (vs. ongoing)
                          @tickler 2 weeks - remind self about habit to "age" deleted emails to increase comfort w/ "delete" key

                          During processing, I spent:
                          - 4 minutes reading the several thread replies
                          - 7 minutes reflecting on how to apply your insights to my situation, and deciding the best next actions to take away
                          - 10 minutes writing/clarifying this reply (my bad. I could have made that a next action, however, the detail was "top of mind" so it felt like the right thing to do at the time

                          Had I taken GameBoy70's suggestion and "read for identification, not detail", I would have deferred processing the thread and entered the more abstract @computer "process GTD Forum replies" next action. Essentially, that would have deferred my real next action thinking, and implied re-reading the thread to do that. So I would have created a folder for the thread, or navigated back to the Forums site to do so at that later time. Feels awkward to me.

                          Is that sort of deferral aligned with the Zen of GTD?

                          Thoughts?

                          Thanks,
                          Bob

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            The "Zen of GTD" as I understand it is that the best system is the one that works for you. Clearly, you don't feel that your current method for handling email is working, so it doesn't matter whether it is "correct GTD" or not.

                            For what it's worth, I don't consider forum posts or mailing lists an "inbox," as I don't read any forums that are important enough to me to get that kind of priority handling. For that reason, I deliberately avoid routing forum posts to my main email inboxes. Rather, I block out time to visit the forums that interest me once or twice a day. When I've used up my allotted forum time, I move on to something else (or try to). Any ideas generated by forum posts get scribbled on notepaper (3x5 recycled newsprint in my case) and tossed in my paper inbox for later handling. Conversely, forum reading is (or should be) the first thing to go if I am crunched for time.

                            I handle email in a similar way. About twice a day, I work through my email inboxes. I answer anything that takes five minutes or less immediately. Reference materials for projects go into a project folder for careful reading the next time I'm working on that project. Emails that require some sort of larger action in response get entered on my NA list for later handling. In my case, this last category averages no more than one or two emails a day.

                            Which brings me back to my original post. A hundred *actionable* emails a day is a huge amount of email, capable of swamping just about any system. 10 minutes * 100 items is nearly 17 hours, which is obviously unmanageable. You can reduce the time involved by reducing the amount of email you consider "actionable," or by reducing the amount of time it takes to handle each item.

                            Reducing the amount of email seems likely to be more effective to me. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you blow through your email all in one chunk, eliminating the 2 minutes of GTD overhead for each item. Well, that's still 8 minutes * 100 items, or more than 13 hours a day, still an impossible amount of time.

                            Katherine

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Bob et al - I appreciate the challenges and the thinking here. One general response I have is that GTD "orthodoxy" (someone actually used that term somewhere!) is only this: what gets maximum results from the least effort? The reason for the two-minute thing is that's about the time that if takes less than two minutes to do it, it'll take longer to track and review it than to finish it right then (assuming you're going to do it at all... which begs quite a few other questions, of course). The objective of workflow mastery is to get to and stay at a place where you know everything you're not doing and feel OK about that. Obviously easier said than done, when you've allowed (as I have) implicit commitments with yourself to get and deal with all your e-mail. Amidst the speed and volume of new inputs like this, there are often times when you have to use "emergency measures" of various sorts - e.g. look through ALL your incoming for critical land-mines and easy stuff to dump. It's on one level efficient, because you're not taking forever to clean up IN (and you have other things more pressing to do); but on the other hand you're going to have to re-read and re-process stuff, duplicating mental effort. So, "most-efficient" is a tricky call. Relative to what?

                              If you've gotten "away from GTD" because something is working better, that's GTD! If nothing is working better, then it's just that GTD doesn't give you more bandwidth than you natively have, and your eyes are just bigger than your ability to digest what you're taking in. At some point it will have to come down to triage and feeling good about it.

                              David

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