Can’t Do Attitude Shows it Can Be Done

It’s a good thing I was reading sitting down.

I’d heard about Getting Things Done (GTD), the cult-classic productivity system by David Allen, here and there for years. Seven chapters and three weeks into Trent’s summary of it at The Simple Dollar, I finally felt compelled to get the book.

The basic premise is that you write down EVERYTHING you have to do, no matter how small, so that you can rely on the system and never have to clutter your brain’s limited space with remembering incomplete “stuff” – the highly technical term for “anything you would like to be different than the way it is, which you have any level of commitment to changing.” Don’t like that all your clothes are dirty and plan on using a washing machine sometime in the future? Counts as “stuff.”

It sounds easy enough and I do love organization, so I whipped out a notebook and started writing down everything I thought of that needed to be done. Problem was, it was finals week, so for every two things I could squeeze into the day, I added five more to the list. My to-do list was turning into a stack of to-do lists, and a 15-hour-long blitzkrieg of activity over a Sunday was insufficient to catch up.

I was obviously doing something wrong, and bi-weekly summaries of the system weren’t going to cut it – I needed answers faster than that. So I got the book.

And there, on page 19, I found this shocking statement:

In training and coaching thousands of professionals, I have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they themselves may think it is); the real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what the associated next-action steps required are.

Once I recovered from the fit of spluttering into which this threw me, I had to admit this isn’t entirely new. After all, the theory behind time management is that the problem is the management, not the time. But I was “managing” pretty well and I was not lacking in defined next action steps. In fact, I was crossing them off at a feverish pace. So, surely, I was the special exception, and for me, the problem was time.

The answer to this conundrum doesn’t come until page 41, when he acknowledges:

If you only have twenty or thirty [longer-than-two-minute, nondelegatable actions], it may be fine to keep them all on one list labeled “Next Actions,” which you’ll review whenever you have any free time. For most of us, however, the number is more likely to be fifty to 150.

On page 51 he adds:

You’d probably have three hundred to five hundred hours’ worth of these things to do if you stopped the world right now and got no more input from yourself or anyone else.

Whoa. Fifty to 150 items? 300 to 500 hours? Am I the only person who doesn’t find it depressing to have that kind of reminder of how much is not getting done in my life? Perhaps it is strange, although I found it perfectly natural, that given the rampant proliferation of things to be done, the last two weeks became defined by exponentially increasing jittery energy and stress. Which seems odd for a system subtitled “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”

And can I just say – if you have 150 things all given the rather urgent-sounding label “Next Actions,” how exactly is he defining free time, as in “review whenever you have any free time”?

Since it turns out that Allen actually does not disagree with the oft-repeated truth that we have more to do than anybody actually has time for, I’m willing to acknowledge that some people seem to get a lot more done with their time than others – like the man I met on my last trip to Chicago who is not only a lawyer (busy!) and a family man (three kids, I think – I don’t even want to think about the time demands of that), but also a noted blogger.

If anything, that makes it all even more depressing, because, as overwhelming as I find my to-do list, I don’t have that much going on. Sort of an “imagine how long my list would be if I were actually accomplishing anything.”

But in the end it’s about truth. Better to see the long list and be reminded to keep moving than to see only a fraction of it and pretend you’re in control of your life while forgetting half of what needs to be done and thinking about goals and priorities only on New Year’s. I liked this passage:

Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. I just suggest that you do this weekly instead of yearly.

All that said, I’m going to keep working at this system because I do see some progress being made. The overwhelming stacks of vague “things to do” covering my desk have been processed, filed, or slotted into an electronic memory (more commonly referred to as a “calendar”), with the result that there are now only a few individual papers, easily corralled, which relate to various “next actions.”

At work, I made some adjustments to my Outlook folder system so that all flagged emails can be filed appropriately, and I can still see them in my default view. It’s a bit frightening to look at right now because there was one project in particular that I habitually flagged, then shoved out of view, pretended to forget, and routinely pushed back the “deadline” for every month – and all of those emails/tasks are now exploding all over my pretty inbox. I’m realistically optimistic that, now that I can’t get away from them, I’ll be motivated to tackle their ugly randomness to make them go away for real. And since, of course, I never really forgot about that dreaded project and it nagged in the background, this really will get me closer to the relaxed, clear mind GTD strives for.

As Allen says, “You have more to do than you can possibly do. You just need to feel good about your choices.” Being sure of what those are is a good first step.

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2 thoughts on “Can’t Do Attitude Shows it Can Be Done

  1. very good post…especially since i just left for a vacation and it forced me to write lists and clarify my priorities. The final quote is very appropriate as an end statement.

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