Getting (back?) on the wagon with GTD

It all makes sense. You want to do it. And yet, you aren’t doing it. 

If this sounds familiar in relation to your GTD practice, know that you are not alone. The methodology is incredibly powerful, but only to the extent that one actually uses it. Perhaps because of this disparity, I sometimes see clients berate themselves, asking frustratedly why, if they know GTD works so well, they aren’t doing it more.

The good news is that a few simple steps can help you start to make the behaviour changes necessary to get back on the Path of GTD Mastery. Furthermore, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or take drastic measures to get going. Here are five steps I have seen work time and again.

1. Connect with the inspirational purpose
My colleague Ed Lamont speaks about this very well in his article “Goodbye Discipline, Hello Motivation“. Simply put, carrots work better than sticks (and are much more tasty).

So, why are you doing this GTD thing in the first place? For more time with the family? To impress the boss and get that promotion? So you can feel more relaxed and in control? Take the time you need to really connect with that inspirational purpose, and to reconnect with it as you go along. The real reason you’re doing GTD, by the way, stated as though it is already true, can make a great title for the project in your system about getting back on your GTD game. Be sure to get that written down on your project list straight away. It’s a way of telling yourself that you are serious.

2. Ask yourself: What’s worked before?
You are an adult. You have had to change your behaviour many times in the past to get what you want, and to get where you are now. How did you do it?

One client reflected on training for marathons, and how the new habit of morning runs initially felt awful, but by doing it anyway they soon became enjoyable, even irresistible to him. For me, the approach of making very small inroads works to gradually stretch out my comfort zone. For example, when the dentist told me I needed to start flossing, I started out by flossing just one tooth at night. Eventually the habit of getting out the floss became second nature, and I decided that while I was there and ready, I might as well do my whole mouth. (For more on the power of small steps, see “Why Tortoise Really Won“)

These same principles — starting small, acknowledging it will “feel wrong” at first, doing it anyway — are all transferrable to establishing (or re-establishing) your GTD practice. The more important question is: what has worked for you in the past? Now apply those same techniques to upping your GTD game.

3. Replace old rewards with new
Many habits get established as part of a reward cycle. For example, the habit of spending most of one’s day in the email inbox probably has something to do with the feeling of accomplishment when you complete everything there is to do about an email, and can get rid of it. However, it’s not the best way to get an overview of all your options to be nose-down in email all day.

Instead, see if you can replace the sense of accomplishment about “doing an email” with the sense of accomplishment that comes from clarifying and organising all of your emails into projects and actions, getting the inbox to zero. Likewise, see if you can replace feeling important because you are just so busy with feeling on top of everything because you have done your Weekly Review.

You aren’t giving up the rewards of accomplishment — you are upgrading them, and upgrading your definition of accomplishment in doing so.

4. Debrief the present from the future
This one may sound a little odd, but it can be profoundly useful when you are feeling stuck about how to proceed. First, get in touch with that inspirational purpose from step one. Then, embody it. Imagine yourself fully living within that new paradigm of stress-free success. Then ask yourself: how did I get here?

Just as identifying a clear outcome can often help with the next step, so this kind of “flash forward” exercise can often give you clues as to what has to happen — both in terms of what you are willing to do differently, and perhaps what you may need to be willing to give up — to get you to there from here.

In addition to creating a project in your system about getting back on your GTD game, be sure to add as much of this rich detail as possible as “project support” material to review and reflect upon as you go along.

Your imaginary internal GTD master may also have more practical tips for you along the way, so feel free to “flash forward” and ask questions as often as is useful. You may be surprised at how much you already know.

5. Commit to a new habit
Finally, commit to something new. All this connecting with purpose, rewiring definitions of accomplishment, and strategising with the end in mind still won’t get you back on your GTD game unless you actually do some things differently.
The two most common habits I see people take on that help them get going are the daily review and the Weekly Review. For so many people the siren’s call of email is a great temptation. One simple way to beat it is to review your action lists first before you ever open your email. This simple daily habit, like flossing a tooth, will at least remind you that your lists are there, waiting both to receive new clarified input from email and to be worked from as a better approach than just swimming through email all day.

The second habit that really works to both establish and reboot one’s practice is the Weekly Review. In some sense, in the early days, you are falling off the wagon a little bit each week. It’s the Weekly Review that puts you back on, by re-establishing familiarity and trust with your system, and getting you into a virtuous cycle of more relaxed focus leading to more motivation to keep practicing the GTD principles that create the relaxed focus in the first place. Whenever someone is off their game, we usually start with the Weekly Review.

So, there you have it. In a nutshell: get inspired, get practical, rewire what “winning” means, consult your future self a bit, and then take the plunge and commit to actually doing something different.

There is a much smarter way to work and live. You may not have been doing it yet, but you also may already have many of the answers about what needs to change, why, and how to get yourself back on track. Ask yourself a few good questions, listen to the answers, and then get going.

Good luck, and happy wagonning.

–Robert Peake, Certified GTD Coach & Trainer, Next Actions Associates

This article was originally published on the Next Action Associates blog.


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