GTD Retrospective: What’s Going Wrong, What Might Work

It’s time to see at how Getting Things Done is working for me!

I can confidently report that my first attempt at GTD has shuddered to a halt, kicked its left hind leg once, and crumpled to the ground with a heavy sigh. It’s not completely dead: it’s just tired, and maybe a little bewildered. Some things have worked, actually; I can say I have been a tad more productive.

Among my small-but-significant advances are:

  • Applying The Two Minute Rule. It rocks! I can actually apply the two-minute rule to more than just work. It’s an easy-to-remember principle that is my favorite take-away from GTD. I also apply it in reverse, looking for actions that can take about 2 minutes worth of effort.

  • Implementing a General Filing System. This rocks! I am at least 50% more organized in terms of having a specific place to put things, thanks to the alphabetical filing system. It is immensely reassuring to know that the random documents on my desk (currently, one from Psychology Today about Flirting, and another on using SOAP with PHP) will go into their new home folders (respectively “Dating” and “Web Development: PHP”). I also created an area on my computer called General Reference, and am applying the same organizing principles. I had previously had “categories” of folders, but it frankly was quite cumbersome and only worked well for my numbered project folders.

  • The Weekly Review. Although GTD isn’t working for me quite in the way I imagined, the system I had set up to track projects (which in GTD are just lists of tasks) has been useful for maintaining “what’s next” state. Before, I just used a ToDo.TXT file on my computer and kept notes in it, but setting up the multiple text files under one TextPad “workspace” has made it easier to keep track of multiple projects and jobs.

These advances aside, I can’t say that I’ve become super productive. On the other hand, I’m realizing that I never had a clear vision of what that meant. I’m not even sure what it is supposed to feel like. Is that where I went astray?

On Being Not Super Productive

I’m always trying to be more productive, mostly because I never feel that productive. The major factors that prevent this, as far as I can figure out, are the following:
  • Disorganization: In other words, not knowing where my stuff is so I can find it easily, and constantly having to re-synthesize what it is I should be doing next. Some disorganization is inevitable; new projects come and go, interests wax and wane, and entropy is the natural byproduct. GTD counters this by providing a system for creating and maintaining situational clarity, and even before implementing that I wasn’t doing that badly. Before GTD, I had a pretty effective project filing system, and the move to Basecamp for project management with clients helped a great deal. So disorganization isn’t as much of a factor as it had been, say, 3 years ago.

  • Lack of Focus: I’m not being great at maintaining continuity of thought and action on a single task at a time, especially for the past week. After monitoring myself for a few days, I’ve come to realize that a greater pattern behind my distraction is the desire to hang out more; I’ve been pretty isolated, socially speaking, for the past few months, and I’m realizing it’s starting to weigh on me. The July 4th holiday was great because my sis and her entourage came to visit. The weekend prior, buddy Brad was here for a short creative retreat. In the aftermath these pleasant events, I found myself constantly looking online for interesting news of people doing interesting things, waiting for emails, etc. So I think I am craving more social interaction; that’s the theory, anyway. Does it really have an effect on focus? I think it might.

  • Inertia: The lack of focus is also related to a lack of motivation. Discipline pushes me through the work I need to get done (gotta eat, right?), but this has not carried over to my own projects. The projects on my mind aren’t “for fun” projects either: they’re projects that could bring in more business opportunities or actual revenue, so I’m stealing from future self.

GTD doesn’t help with these latter two points directly, but I recognize that following the system DOES end up making me more productive because the basic tenet is not to think so damn much about what you’re doing; just focus on the next easiest and immediate thing and do it. When I have “followed the steps” of a system—really, any system at all, not just GTD—I have felt better. However, it’s getting over the doldrums of distraction and inertia that’s the real problem. I don’t think GTD quite addresses that; the allure of the system, and perhaps its very geekiness, is a strong draw, but it wasn’t enough to really hook me on the first go.

Making Corrections

My current lack of focus, if it is induced by a lack of social activity, is also predicated on a lack of things to look forward to, which has negative ramifications for my energy level. My inertia is also a form of procrastination, rooted in the knowledge that many of these personal projects will take many days to complete. In both cases, I don’t really have a clear picture of anything that is immediately rewarding. And we know from Dan Gilbert that our brains just aren’t that motivated when gratification is not immediate. But I’m still stuck even with this realization. I am having a real tough time coming up with something to look forward to. For one thing, I’m saving money, so buying things is sort of out of the question. I suppose I could go down to Boston, if I knew anyone there. Since I’m fairly introverted, I tend not to relish the idea of going to a random bar and meeting people…the thought kind of freaks me out, actually. Plus gas is over three bucks a gallon; a trip to Boston will run me about $20 bucks in transportation costs alone, factoring in parking and public transit after getting there, not to mention refreshments and so forth. I suppose there’s online dating (hence, the article on flirting I was reading), but that carries its own set of stresses with it. Actually, that might be the key…dating is supposed to be fun, not some horrible experience to fret about. You meet someone, ask a few questions and try to laugh a bit, and if it doesn’t work out you move on because you’ve both found out what you needed to know. That shouldn’t be stressful, unless you’re fixated (as I tend to be) on “not screwing up” and “reaching goals”. These are two things I tend to be a little anxious about, though I really should know better. Intellectually, I know that screwing up is, in most cases, not life-threatening. Therefore, it is a learning experience, and the more opportunities you get to screw up, the more learned you will be. With dating it’s a little different because there’s that element of personal acceptance/rejection, and therefore has a heavy emotional toll unless you’ve decided to just roll with it and keep moving. That’s an attitude worth carrying through your entire life; I sometimes forget this, but it’s good to remember. There is no reason not to be confident about screwing up…what’s the worst thing that can happen, really, compared to what one could gain? Intellectually, I also know that “reaching goals” is something that doesn’t just magically happen; reaching a goal is just the culmination of a series of steps. The GTD “what’s the next action” mantra is a handy reminder of that; if you focus on taking steps, you will have moved forward. Tools like the Emergent Task Timer and Concrete Goals Tracker help make those tiny steps visible, but you still need the motivation to even start. I’m perfectly OK with screwing up most of the time, so I’m not worried about that anymore. My real challenge is the inertia, and getting over that motivational hump. Even with the CGT to give me guidance and GTD providing the operating system, it’s tough for me to get started on those longer-term, deferred-gratification projects. They just will take so long… Here’s a glimmer of hope: the Emergent Task Timer and related tools are organized around the concept of spending 15 minutes of time on a task; that is often enough to get moving, which leads to productivity. However, you’ve still got to commit to that 15 minutes, knowing it’s just one of a long string of bubbles that will go on and on. Talk about demotivating. Perhaps if I broke that long string of bubbles into an arbitrary number of them…hm, that just might work.

A Dim Sum Approach to Task Productivity

I was using the online version of the ETT today to get myself focused, and my list today was actually quite long: several clients to contact, a few proposals to write, some papers to review, and technologies to research. I am also way behind on my blog posting, with several related website improvements pending as well. I listed everything first in my Menu of the Day, knowing full well I would never get to all those things. I could maybe get 2 or 3 of them done. I wish I could do more, but it just didn’t seem possible with the way I work. Or was it? I had the following train of thought:
  1. I know that I can’t get everything done today.
  2. I know that it will take me a long time to get some of those projects done. My website redesign project, for example, is many hours of agonizing creative design.
  3. However, I also know that, thanks to the power of GTD “what’s the next action”, that I can get something done right away. It won’t get me to the finish line in one jump, but it’s one jump closer and it feels good.
  4. Why not do all of the projects, but limit time to each one to an hour? I could work on each project, using the “next action” and “doable in 2 minutes” criteria, and see what happens; that might be just as satisfying as getting one big thing done.
The key to this insight? Dim Sum. When I go to a Dim Sum restaurant, I like to order lots of tiny dishes, not filling up on any single one of them (though there have been some notable exceptions, like that white fried turnip cake…yum). I love the variety of dishes. So why don’t I apply that same love of variety to my daily routine?

But isn’t that Multitasking?

In the past, my belief has been that multitasking wasn’t great for productivity; this is supported somewhat by some observations that Joel Spolsky and Kathy Sierra have made in the past. Joel’s stance in 2001 is that you’ll get to results quicker on average if you do one thing after the other, while Kathy’s takeaway is that doing things mindfully is what leads to getting more things done. I must admit that I was thinking that this meant that I should shoot for fewer context switches during the day, which I implemented as trying to work on fewer projects at a time, reducing the number of clients, and working in larger blocks of time. I happen to know that my biggest block of continuous work time is about 4 hours; that means I can get in maybe 2 units a day, realistically, of “quality production work”. I also believed that switching tasks for me was very expensive in terms of ramping-up and changing my mental state to match the new task. Well, maybe this isn’t the case. Firstly, I should be able to work on more than one project during the day now because I’ve got something that I didn’t have before: GTD-inspired organization systems! I have the 2 minute rule, what’s the next action, reliable general reference and all the important lists in a single place to give me the situational awareness I need to relax. As a result, context switches between tasks cost a lot less, because all the context is now stored in these out-of-the-head systems and very easy to look up. And this is one way being mindful, which is a key to productivity. Maybe even more so than “focus” and “discipline”, which are not very fun words. Secondly, though Joel suggests that working on more than one task at a time will take longer, in my case they won’t get done at all unless I do spend a little time on them every day. This is perhaps an artifact of being a freelancer, but I think it would apply to any small company that has an internal project that they’d like to do, but keeps getting put off. You know what I’m talking about. Besides, the kind of multitasking I’m talking about is not switching back-and-forth between tasks; I’m talking about switching to different tasks one after the other, not repeating any of them during a single day. I think that’s a significant difference: you don’t have to “flush and restore” what you were doing before, which is tedious and leads to mental thrashing even with the GTD tools in place. Instead, when it’s time to switch, you flush and forget what you were doing, and load up something new. This is variety, not multitasking.

Conclusion

This is what I did on Tuesday, and I have to say…I felt pretty productive even though I didn’t finish a single project. Instead, I made measurable progress across several tasks. It’s possible that the novelty of the idea (and association with yummy food) is what made this approach palatable, but I thought it was worth writing about in case some of you out there found it useful. I’d summarize the idea as follows:
  1. GTD Ideas, even without full-blown GTD compliance, are useful tricks in their own right.

  2. GTD processes reduce the cost of your context switches, opening up a world of more efficient task execution with less stress.

  3. With those GTD processes, the cost of switching from task to task is drastically lowered, making multiple tasks much more feasible during the day. You can pick a variety of tasks you’ll enjoy, and assign a fixed block of time to them. Because you have the “what’s the next action” and “two-minute” principles in mind, you should be able to easily pick a few things to do that are self-contained and productive for even a 30-minute block of time.

  4. Just do one task at a time and don’t repeat it during the day. That will keep you from switching in old context (which is boring) and your mind will be fresher to face a NEW task.

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p>So that’s the theory. I’ll be trying it all this week. I think this may be one of the cornerstones of my fantasty productivity-inducing task tracking system!