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.
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.