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Confessions of a GTD failure

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  • Confessions of a GTD failure

    Over the past several weeks my GTD implementation has completely fallen apart. Since “better time management” is hardly an acceptable answer in my book I spent the better part of the weekend trying to figure out how things went wrong. The following is a post-mortem on how the wheels of productivity came of my GTD jalopy.

    Disclaimer: I am not and do not claim to be a productivity expert, guru or sage. I like GTD because of the flexibility the framework allows. I don't follow it to the letter and never will. I'm ok with that.

    Capturing – Inbox Processing

    It seems like this one is always the first to go. As my schedule got more and more full I stopped processing my inboxes on a regular basis. This rapidly led to inbox overwhelm and quickly turned into full-fledged triage mode with the gnawing feeling that I was functioning directly out of my inbox.

    The key to fixing this one is in the simplicity and trust in my capture systems. Prior to my meltdown I had been questioning my email organization and my to-do list system. I had started experimenting with new techniques, but never finished (or committed) to a new system. Subconsciously, I think this reduced my level of trust in the system, causing me to “hang on” to things and delay the decision making process. Simple fix. Keep it simple and don’t screw with it too much.

    Tasks – Batching – Daily/Weekly Review

    I’m not a big fan of the traditional GTD “batching” approach to tasks. Because I work from a home office and am around the house 80% of the time it often doesn’t make sense to separate my day with the granularity of “contexts”. However, in my whirlwind of chaos I realized that I wasn’t even batching tasks that made sense. Rather than checking email three times a day I was checking it every 15 minutes. Instead of separating my day into tasks that require specific levels of brainpower I was haphazardly jumping from task to task the way a hamster might look after a long night on crack cocaine.

    My slapdash approach to the day’s tasks, however, was a symptom and not a cause. The real root of the problem stemmed from my failure to keep up with daily and weekly reviews so I could plan the upcoming day’s tasks. Rather than having a good 10,000’ view of everything going on I was trying to prioritize from a runway level. Not good. As small as it may seem, a five-minute review at the end of the day really does make a huge difference.

    Lists - Progress

    Whether you call it project planning, list making, or prioritizing, the process of making lists is integral to a solid time management system. Not only does it force you to think through a project to resolution, but it also creates a crude progress meter. When everything went to hell in a hand basket I realized that I wasn’t making thorough lists anymore. This leads to trying to make/re-order lists in the brain which leads to panic/task avoidance and so begins the GTD spin cycle of death.

    Without a well thought out list it makes it difficult to gauge the progress of a project and/or prioritize tasks based on the time available. Because GTD is such a flexible approach it’s critical to have at least a rough handle on the amount of time available vs. the amount of time a task will take. Running out of time happens and we should plan for it. For me, the quick fix goes back to the damn daily review. Without the daily review things like “try 3 new background images in design x” becomes “finish design x” which is much less measurable for me and makes a pile of poo out of my ability to prioritize and sort the day’s work.

    Denial

    This is a hard one to pin down. At some point during an epic GTD fail we go into denial mode. We tell ourselves things like “it’s just one day” or “I’ll catch up in the morning”. Eventually a day turns into a week and a week turns into a month. If you work in a once person research lab, that’s probably not a big deal. But if you’re like most of us and maintain a list of commitments to others this can be a real deal killer. Denial takes a huge bite out of communication with our commitments. We put off sending the project update because we can’t honestly assess where the project stands. We try and bend our calendar like that freaky little boy in The Matrix who bends spoons. Denial actually works for a while (go to an AA meeting if you don’t believe me), but the real damage sets in when it spreads to our commitments.

    When we stop communicating realistic updates to our commitments our credibility comes into question. When we live in denial about our commitments we lose touch with our "busy meter" and start feeling that wonderful friend stress.

    Why Any Of This Crap Matters

    If I could live my life without a time management system I would. If I was living in Malaga and making shrimp pil-pil so I could earn enough money to drink wine and dance with Spanish women none of this would matter one bit.

    But that’s not the world I live in (yet) and figuring this stuff out has both an immediate and long lasting impact on my performance and quality of life. At the end of the day getting good at this stuff helps me do good work, really enjoy free time, and maintain great relationships with the people I work with, for and care about.

  • #2
    thoughts on your trouble areas...

    I can relate to each of the trouble areas you mentioned. I've used GTD to varying degrees over the last several years. I still have not found a better system that gives you a place for everything.

    I have recently done a reset of my GTD system. This was not the first time, and will not be the last. Your post suggests that you may be doing the same.

    I tried out some key changes and the results have been exhilarating, so I will pass them along:

    1) When trying to figure out what to do, I didn't turn to my lists first. Instead, I paused. I could have closed my eyes for dramatic effect, but didn't. I asked myself "if something came up that I could only do one or two of my next actions tomorrow, which will get me furthest along/best bang for the buck/most valuable/most important/etc"?

    Usually, my mental radar sweep, despite (at that time) 600+ Next Actions, I could pick out "Oh, well I definitely need to write this letter, and I definitely need to pay this bill." If I did nothing but those two things, the day will have made serious progress.

    2) I reread The Four Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss and The 80-20 Principle by Richard Koch. (Actually, I listened to them while driving). The key parts, for me, were about Elimination.

    It is not only possible to accomplish more by doing less... it is essential.

    I identified the few projects that would "change it all" for me and gave them disproportionate attention.

    I wound up with a surplus of time instead of "time famine".

    I then found out that I loved having plenty of time and disliked having a deficit of time, so I am very careful about not committing to outcomes unless they matter. How many times will I reorganize my music collection? It's like alphabetizing the papers in the recycle bin.

    I'll stop here. I found that elimination and top priority tasks made a huge change. Now I feel better about what is not getting done, knowing that the most important stuff is covered. (Properly done, GTD will get you to this point eventually, anyway, but it is very easy to get lost in the... ahem... shuffle).

    JohnV474

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    • #3
      Making It All Work?

      From my experience with GTD and hearing David Allen several times your post sounds exactly like some of the reasons he explored and created GTD.

      Remember this process is not supposed to be "hard" but it's not easy at first.

      Here's a crazy idea - get the audio of Making It All Work and go through it a couple of times without trying to build a system.

      It might give you a "picture" of what an implementation would look like for you.

      During a recent business trip through Texas I spent several hours in a rental car re-listening to Making It All Work and it connected and reconnected many of the dots that I still hadn't made.

      It might give you a different perspective.

      Mark

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      • #4
        Mark,
        I'm not sure if you were replying to one or both of us. I've been implementing GTD in some form for about 4 years now. I've tried a variety of implementations and feel like I'm close to finding something that works while still fitting into the flow of my natural thought processes, work patterns and creative energy.

        What I struggle with sometimes is maintaining my implementation when things get hectic. I suppose that could be a sign that I need to completely reevaluate and look for a system the works in both hectic and normal situations.

        I'll take a listen to "Making It All Work" and see if I can glean some new insight.

        Thanks for the input. It's always helpful to have this kind of discussion/reflection with people who "get it".

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