Episode #22 – GTD and Balancing Family Life

How do you balance a daunting project list representing multiple roles and outcomes? David Allen chats with Meghan Wilker, a tech expert, mother of two, and GTD enthusiast. Listen as Meghan shares how she uses GTD in her work and family life.


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ANDREW MASON: You’re listening to Getting Things Done, the official podcast of the David Allen Company, with our featured conversation between David Allen and Meghan Wilker.

Welcome everyone to Getting Things Done, GTD for shorthand. My name is Andrew James Mason, and this podcast is all about helping you on your journey, practicing the art of stress-free productivity.

Today David chats with Meghan Wilker, a tech wiz, mother of two and GTD enthusiast. Listen in, as Meghan shares with David how she uses GTD in her work and family life.

This conversation did show up first on GTD Connect, which is a phenomenal online community surrounding all things GTD, as well as a rich archival of hundreds of conversations, including this one and we’d love for you to join us over there at GettingThingsDone.com/podcast and clicking on GTD Connect and keep listening to the end of this podcast for a coupon code to receive a significant discount when you decide to join.

Without further ado, here’s David Allen talking with Meghan Wilker.

MEGHAN WILKER: Women tend to have additional roles in their lives outside of their professional role, whether we like it or not and want to admit that that’s the case or not there’s plenty of enlightened males and couples who do a lot of sharing in terms of parenting and household, but the truth is that there’s a much higher percentage of women doing a full time job plus household tasks, plus the majority of the parenting and I think as a result the time that they’re willing to invest in kind of sharing their own knowledge is reduced and really unfortunate. You have to make a big effort I think to put yourself out there and share knowledge with other people whether it be through a blog or speaking or whatever it is and I think that it’s sometimes harder for women to carve out the time to do that.

DAVID ALLEN: Maybe there’s already an assumption that they already do that so well, that it’s the guys that are really out of control and therefore so hungry for organization systems and time management and all that other things and a lot of women that I’ve actually come across at least anecdotally say, “You know, look my act is together because I have had to get it together given all the – that I raise kids and I have a career and you know had relationships and whatever, and sort of in a way have had to be there.”

Interestingly in terms of GTD, of course as in your case, it’s the most organized and productive people that already tend to take to GTD because it’s not about fixing you, it’s really about fine tuning and sort of eliminating residue, as you say, about being able to be as productive as you are, but not stress yourself out nearly so much and get it done better; but any additional thoughts about that and whether you think that’s a phenomena that’s worth mentioning or highlighting anyway?

MEGHAN WILKER: No, I do think you might be on to something there and if you think about it, especially I think in regards to the calendar. You know, anyone who has kids as pretty much been forced to figure out how to manage a family calendar and how am I gonna keep track of who’s soccer game is when and who’s doctor appointment is when and what meetings do I have at work? So I do think that there’s maybe other lessons to adopt into being like, “Well I pretty much already have that figured out.”

I think too sometimes I think it’s possible to perceive some of the GTD methodologies as being a bit cold, just in terms of you know, if you think about, you know – if you think about your relationship with your kids as a project, I think at first glance that can seem cold and for me, I think as I started to dig into GTD more and more over the years, the way that I think about it is, that if I don’t manage my personal relationships and my personal projects with the same diligence that I managed my work projects, then I’m essentially saying one is more important than the other. And so, while it may seem weird to have a project called you know Be A Good Mom or Spend Time With My Kids or however I phrase that, in truth what I’m doing is putting a stake in the ground and ensuring that that’s something I don’t lose sight of, so that when I’m looking at what are all the things that I have to do, that I don’t lose sight of the ones that are really important to me, which may not be Launch a Website, it may Go Outside and Play in the Dirt With My Son.

And so I think that may be part of the reluctance on women’s part as well, is to not want to manage everything with the same business feeling technique.

DAVID ALLEN: I think that’s a great point and at the same time too, I’ve also noticed particularly mothers with very, very young children. It’s like ‘I don’t have time to think and organize because my work is already organized for me’. In other words, I’ve now made the commitment and I am basically interrupt driven and you know, kids will be served. So there’s no need to track anything outside of they just spilled the milk, I need to fix it. I need to take them here, I’ve got to go here and essentially the sense that there are not certainly nearly as much of the kinds of things one would even think about as a project I need to keep track of over a period of time. It’s all kind of right there. So it’s almost like when you have a crank widget job, and a crank widget job could be an artist, it could be somebody doing financial trade, so cranking widgets doesn’t necessarily have to be an unsophisticated event, and certainly parenting can be like well it will be served when it shows up.

MEGHAN WILKER: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

DAVID ALLEN: And you know, so I wouldn’t call that unsophisticated but it is something that almost the work defines itself automatically when it does show up there. I think that’s probably, as you can – just attested to, I think that’s probably an error in approach assuming that then you do not have things that actually take more than one step that you’re actually committed to finish and do relative to kids and parenting and relative to all that game.

MEGHAN WILKER: Yeah, and I do think that if you’re only approach is kind of do it as it shows up, certainly if you’re a full time parent, that can be the majority of your day, but I also think, as you said, if you don’t have some other way to capture the other responsibilities that you have either outside of your family and your child, or even your own personal things. There’s a danger that then everything else falls by the wayside and that you fall out of balance in that way as well. So I do think that there’s real value in the system whether you’re working full time or whether you’re staying at home, just in getting your arms around: What are all the things that I have responsibility for and what are things that I want to achieve outside of just raising a really good person in the world? And so I do think that there’s value there, but you know, certainly last week is a great example, Monday morning we’re all on our way out to start our week and my oldest gets sick and everything changes, so you have to really quickly adjust and so you know, quickly figure out who’s saying home, who’s going, how our meetings getting rescheduled, what are we gonna do and again I think, for me, the value of my system is I can really quickly figure out like okay, I can stay home today, or no I can’t. My daughter ended sick for four days and so we had a lot of – my husband and I had a lot of shuffling we had to do in those four days and those are the times when I’m really thankful for having a pretty solid system in place, because I can really quickly react and not get completely thrown off.

You know, it’s five years ago, you know I would have then come back after four days and probably had hundreds of e-mails in my in-box and just felt totally out of control and as it was, you know, my kid was sick and I felt like we gave her really good care and at the same time, my work didn’t suffer either.

DAVID ALLEN: You know, not only that and I – by the way I would like to get back into like specifically what your systems are, because I know there’s a lot of people listening who might go, “Okay how specially you know, does that work for you?”

But I think also that one of the things I’ve noticed is that these days, particularly parents, no matter how interrupt driven and how in-your-face sort of your kids, you can’t help but think: What do I need to do to be a better parent? And, by the way, they just got their kids into that class, I need to look into that kind of class, or I need to … In other words, we – it’d be hard to find somebody in our culture who would not have some sort of expanded expectations about how good a parent they needed to be, and that they don’t have all the answers and that needs to be something they need to manage, you know, in addition to whatever the extraneous things are that you’re talking about too.

MEGHAN WILKER: Yeah, absolutely.

DAVID ALLEN: So back to your systems, uh – maybe if you can remember back, you know, sometimes people once they’ve really gotten onto GTD it’s kind of hard to remember that there wasn’t life before that in terms of how you did things. But if you could sort of rewind the tape and come back and say, “Okay, here’s …” this was the first thing you did or the major thing that happened and maybe just kind of walk people into how does your system work? You get an idea in the kitchen when you’re making dinner, how do you deal with that? All the way – any and all of that would be grist for the mill here.

MEGHAN WILKER: Okay, in my pre-GTD life I was very much an in-box manager, meaning anything I had to pay attention to, stayed in my in-box and it moved out of my in-box when I was done with it. So my in-box was this amalgamation of directions to meetings and uh – you know, e-mails that I had to follow-up on from clients and reference material that was active at the moment. So while I thought I was really pretty organized ‘cause I went through that in-box and cleaned it out all the time, it was this – it was a lot of re-processing because it was, you know, not everything in there was of equal weight or of equal importance or needed to be dealt with at the same time.

So the first thing that I remember adopting with regard to GTD was not using my in-box as my to-do list anymore and making that shift, just because of the volume of e-mail that I received, made a massive difference in how much I was reprocessing things that were coming in to me.

So now um, I you know, process my in-box down, um at least once a day, my e-mail in-box and then I have some supporting uh boxes for things I need to read and review or action support items, um and uh – someday/maybe things that I want to kind of percolate on.

DAVID ALLEN: By the way, are you working only from your home? Do you have a home office or do you have an office/office you go to?

MEGHAN WILKER: I have a home/office and an office/office and the set-up in both physiCal spaces is pretty similar so I have a laptop stand in both. At my regular office, I also have an extra monitor so I can kind of do things on two screens, which is great for just keeping my e-mail open and doing other things in another window. I have a file holder on both desks, so I’ve got my tickler file at my home office and then my reference – some reference materials in the front.

At my work office, I mostly use it for project support materials, because one of my other roles at my job is managing the project managers and managing a few of my own projects as well and then in both spaces, I also have a physical in-box that I process down, usually daily.

So really in terms of kind of my own GTD work-flow and sort of a day in the life kind of thing, I really – for me, it really starts the night before, so every night before I kind of shut down and go to bed, I look at uh my calendar and with my calendar I’ve got a work calendar and a personal calendar, a calendar for each of my children and then I have view access to my husband’s calendar, so …

DAVID ALLEN: And by the way, what is – is that all digital and what application do you use that gives you all those four different things or five different things?

MEGHAN WILKER: Yeah, it’s all digital and we use Google calendar and then for work – we have a different calendar application. It’s web app called Webcal and in previous lives I’ve used Outlook as a calendar system as my external work system. So what I do though is I’m on a Mac and I use iCal and Google calendar allows you to subscribe to calendars. So in ICal, I’ve subscribed to all of our Google calendars and they synchronize. So if I add something in ICal, it’s added to the Google calendar as well.

DAVID ALLEN: By the way, that a fairly new function that they build in as I understand, right?

MEGHAN WILKER: It is, yeah. The Google sync is pretty new and there’s also – I also have an app that I bought called BusySync that I bought before Google introduced their own synchronizing tool. And so through BusySync, I can add things either directly from Google or from iCal and everything stays all in sync. And then I also – the calendar app we use at work as an RSS feed, so I subscribe to that RSS feed from iCal. So that gives me one calendar to look at every single possible thing that I need to know about. And then my husband, who also uses Google calendar, I subscribe to his calendar as well, so I can see what his schedule is and what my schedule is, both for work and personal stuff.


MEGHAN WILKER: So, and that’s immensely helpful, just understanding what everyone in the house is doing on any given day – is really valuable to me and as the kids get older and start having more activities, I think that’s gonna be more and more important for us, especially with shuffling them around and cars and stuff.

So the night before, I check my calendar just to see what I need to be prepared for the next day, you know, if there’s things like, you know, my son needs diapers at daycare, I put that stuff by the front door, so I don’t forget it or I put notes on the kitchen cabinets if I need to not forget to bring milk or something – whatever the supplies are that they need that are on the calendar.

And also, just knowing sort of what my work day is going to be like and how early I might need to get there and if I can work from home or if my husband is going to be working. He works often out of the home, but also works with a lot of photographers, so sometimes if he’s on a photo-shoot, he’ll need to be there at 7:00 a.m., which means our whole morning routine is different, so doing that kind of check the night before, seeing there’s anything in my tickler file that I’m gonna need to be aware of or deal with, and then uh – the next morning, once everyone’s sort of taken care of and I’m in work mode, I usually start just by processing through my e-mail in-box. And I actually, um as a geek I have nine different e-mail addresses that I’m checking and so using the mail application on the Mac, just plain old mail, I have everything come into one in-box, so I don’t have to go out and check nine different places, I just have my one in-box that all of those e-mail addresses filter into just to keep things simple and clean.

And so I process through those things and then in terms of kind of my lists in my to-do’s that might result from processing through all of this stuff, this is an area, it took me a little while to kind of get to a good place with. When I first encountered GTD, I was working at a different job where I was using a PC and I was on Outlook, so I got the Outlook PDF from the GTD site and I had configured Outlook that kind of handled all of my to-do’s and everything and when I left that job, I kind of found myself in a little bit of a tailspin for several month and what happened was what I think happens to a lot of GTD geeks is you get so caught up I what’s the tool that I want to use, that you delay making a decision because you’re looking for the perfect tool.

So I tried everything, every little app under the sun, web applications and downloads and Omnifocus and remember the milk and … you name it, I tried it. And what ended up happening is I had sort of half-baked systems in like six different places. It was bad news. So at some point I just said, this has to stop. I have to just figure something out. And what I realized was I spend a good chunk of my day using mail and iCal and there’s got to be a way I can rig up those two apps to do what I need them to do so that I don’t have to use some other thing, just in the interest of keeping things simple.

And so what I ended up doing is creating context lists inside of mail, using calendars and iCal, so when you create it to do in mail, the don’t have a concept of categories, but what you can do is put a to-do item on a calendar. So I have these fake calendars that I don’t actually use in iCal that I only use in mail called @computer, @work, @home, @calls, etc.

And so as I’m in mail on the fly, I just hit a quick little to-do button and I can create to-dos and quickly say this is part of computer, this is part of someday/maybe – whatever. And then I have Smart mailboxes set up, which are essentially ways to create kind of dynamic lists of things based on certain criteria. So I had a Smart mailbox called @computer and it has a rule that says any to-do list that is on the calendar called @computer shows up on this list. So really quickly, I can jump into any one of those folders right from inside of mail and see what’s the list of things that I have to do in front of my computer, and I’m looking at it right now and there’s probably 22 things on that list and I can quickly shift it to different list if I need to or mark it as complete and move on.

DAVID ALLEN: Well that’s cool. And so you’ve actually set it up so that you have, and it also doesn’t over constrain you, so you don’t have to do priority codes or have to have due dates on there. Your filters just kind of give you that nice virtual list.

MEGHAN WILKER: Yeah, exactly and I choose to put a due date on it, I can, and it’ll – I can sort by that due date or I can give it a priority, but nine times out of ten, I don’t, because I just find for me personally the time that it takes for me to assign something a priority, the pay-off really isn’t there for me, it just needs to get done as soon as I can get it done. So if there’s not a hard due date on it, it just goes on that list and I get to it when I’m processing, you know, whenever that context list is.

DAVID ALLEN: Cool. You use an i-Phone or something, some equivalent thing, so you’ve got your lists with you otherwise, or print them out. How do you manage that, or is your computer just so ubiquitously available, you don’t bother?

MEGHAN WILKER: I do have an i-Phone. You know, right now the big failing of the i-Phone sync is that it does not right now take your to-do’s with you. So when I – for the most part my computer is with me so often that it’s not an issue and when it comes to things like errands, I tend to just use the old standby index card and I actually – on the errand side really like that because as I’m out and about, I tend to think of other things that I want to jot down anyway, so my index card is really if I’m running around on Saturday doing things, I sit down and think about where I’m gonna go, make my list of errands from my list at my computer and then I lock.

So I do sync to the i-Phone but there are some things now that don’t sync, but for me, the payoff of having something that is so accessible to me during the day while I’m working and so quick and easy and so low investment in terms of just getting things on my list and moving them off my list when they’re done, that to me is much more valuable than you know, is everything single thing I need to do on my phone or not?

DAVID ALLEN: Cool. So and your review/reflection process, do you – are you a weekly review person? Do you do versions of that and do you include your family with all that?

MEGHAN WILKER: I am a weekly review person. I think probably just like everyone else, it’s one of the hardest things to really adopt and really get a good habit around, and I think part of that is – because, I don’t know about everyone else, but it can be hard to set aside that time for yourself and especially when things get totally crazy. You know, ironically it’s most valuable to do it when things are crazy and it’s also the hardest time to just close the door and say, I’m holding off whatever craziness is happening outside this door and I’m gonna kind really just figure out where everything is at. So I’ve got it – I do have a weekly review on my calendar and I’ve taken the list that is provided, that you’ve provided as part of the different seminars and I’ve also added other things to it, so I’ve got kind of my personal version of what my weekly review is in terms of getting clear and current and then kind of setting aside some time to think creatively.

And then my husband and I, it’s not really an official weekly review, I guess, because he doesn’t necessarily practice GTD in the same way that I do, but we do make an effort to check in once a week, just in terms of how we are doing each of us and what’s going on with our family that we might need to talk about or want to discuss. So that might range from stuff with the kids, to financial stuff, whatever it is. And so he and I also do a separate thing that we try to do once a week, where we at least check in for a few minutes and kind of see what each other’s landscape is and kind of what’s coming up and then we also have made an effort to make sure that we each have time alone. So every other Wednesday night, we each get to just go off on our own, the other one stays with the kids and you know, that’s your time to just go off by yourself and be quiet or to go out with friends or to do whatever it is. So we kind of have made an effort to make sure that we’re checking in together and also letting the other person sort of drift off separately and do their own things, which I think is really important.

DAVID ALLEN: That’s healthy – absolutely. And you know, you mentioned something that I think is a great topic, it’s one of my topics du jour these days is that a lot of people fall off the GTD wagon when change and things get crazy and that’s exactly the point – that’s one of the hallmarks, as Kelly and I were just talking in a podcast the other day that that’s really one of the hallmarks about whether somebody really gets GTD or not, whether they really – that if they turn that corner that when things get crazy, you go back to GTD to get yourself back on, as opposed to fall off of it. So maybe you can speak to that too. Was that a transition point for you in terms of system and how you work it? And you know – speak around that topic.

MEGHAN WILKER: Yeah, you know that’s interesting and I think that I have a theory about that around, you know, you mentioned before that the types of people that tend to be really attracted to GTD at first anyway, are people who are already fairly organized or at least interested in being productive and organized. An interesting thing about those kinds of people and I am one of them, is that I think we have a tendency towards being perfectionists. And it’s really difficult to accept this idea that things get messy and that nothing is ever done.

So as a perfectionist, one of the things that feels really good is to make a list and then get everything on that list done. And it doesn’t matter that that list is not even a complete list of everything you have to do but the act of getting everything done felt good or the act of getting everything to a state that feels like perfect, feels good. And I think that one of the things that I learned from GTD is that you have to get comfortable with the idea that nothing is ever done. And that’s true whether you admit or not. So you have to get comfortable with that idea and you know – I have to be comfortable with the fact that when I go bed at night with the fact that there’s probably 75 things on my to-do list. And at 5:00 o’clock tonight, there’s probably still gonna be 75 things on there. I’ll have gotten some done and some new ones will have come up and so I think that until you are comfortable with that idea, it’s hard to keep your arms around GTD when things get crazy, because your idea of what it means to be productive or what it means to be organized is that everything is perfect, that my desk is clean, that I’ve got a nice tidy little to-do list with little check boxes on it and if you think about it, obviously that’s sort of a silly way to look at it because when you are that organized, there’s no need for a system if everything’s perfect. The need for the system comes when things are crazy and you have to get control of things without losing sight of all of the different things that you have to do.

And so I think that one of the things that’s been really valuable for me to learn over the past four years in practicing GTD is the idea that you just are sort of doing the best you can with what you’ve got on that day and I actually, I think there’s a parallel between practicing GTD and practicing something like yoga where on any given day, what you bring to say a yoga pose is gonna be different. Your body is gonna be different, your muscles are gonna be in a different state, your mind is gonna be in a different state. The point is that you just do it to the best of your ability and that there is no done. You’re never done, you’re just continually practicing. And I think the same really holds true for GTD, but I think until you personally can get your head around the fact that there is no such thing as done, there is no such thing as perfect and even if I do achieve it, it’s gonna break within an hour because some new input is gonna come in that’s gonna blow it all out of the water.

Until you can get there, I think it can be hard to really adopt GTD and the weekly review with regularity, because as soon as things start to get messy, you just say, “Oh I’m not doing that anymore.” It’s sort of like when people go on a diet and then they screw up one day and you know, like go to McDonalds and then they just say, “You know what? The rest of this week it’s over – I’m just gonna start again on Monday.” I think people tend to kind of start to get that same attitude about GTD and things get messy and they go, “You know, I’m gonna come back to this when things are back to normal.”

DAVID ALLEN: That’s such a powerful point. It really is about you know, “Here Meghan, here’s a new friend I want you to get very comfortable with, it’s call ambiguity. Have a seat, you know, have a glass of wine together. Start to get real comfortable that this is gonna be – you know, they’re gonna be around for a while. ” I think you’re really onto it. That’s a big part of it.

In addition, I was just reading a book, I’ll get the title wrong because I don’t have it in front of me right now, but it’s like Why Kids Don’t Like School, something like that and a guy who came out of the same kind of research, that Frank Sopper, who’s a GTD Connect, In Conversation guy and someone we’re very close to came out of Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences. Anyway, long story short, his point is that thinking is hard work and it’s not something that we naturally do. We’re naturally curious, so we tend to learn when you can build in curiosity, but if you actually have to sit down and think, that’s not – that’s like an unnatural act. Your brain is actually wired to not think, as a matter of fact. Like learning to drive a car was really tough because you had to think about every single thing you needed to do, so the brain is actually wired with this huge processor to be able to set up all that stuff under cruise control, so that then you can get into a car and you don’t have to think.

So a lot of the natural process is actually designed for us not to have to think and GTD kind of flies in the face of it because the weekly review is nothing but two hours of thinking.


DAVID ALLEN: It’s like in your face with the ambiguity. So it’s – I think all of those factors add to something you appropriately highlighted there.

ANDREW MASON: One of the things I love about these conversations and maybe you’ve caught on as well, the promise of stress-free productivity. We’ve had some incredibly busy people show up on this podcast, including Meghan and they are so relaxed. It isn’t by accident. What you could be hearing is when someone creates the space and experiences the freedom of being able to be fully present because their head isn’t there system, that is what this is all about.

Now to hear the rest of the conversation, as well as to be the first to hear others, why not join us over at GTD Connect, plus you get to save some money when you sign up. You can redeem the coupon code Podcast over to GettingThingsDone.com/podcast and clicking on GTD Connect.

That’s it for this episode and until next time, I’m Andrew J. Mason, asking you, now that you’ve listened to this podcast, what’s your next action?

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