Monday, 21 April 2008

Getting things done... sometimes

As you can see, this is David Allen (not to be confused with Dave Allen, who's funnier but dead), father of Getting Things Done (GTD), the time management and personal productivity system I mentioned last week. As you can also see, he's done some podcasts, with Merlin Mann, productivity geek-wizard behind 43 Folders. In the interests of at least attempting to give GTD a fair hearing, and since I couldn't be bothered to buy the book, I decided I'd better get downloading and give them a listen.

But before I go any further, I should probably explain a few things. Like why my ears, I suspected, might prove to be a little deaf to his theories.

The short answer is this:

"If you have to choose between something that has form and something that doesn't, go for the one without form" - The Chance Traveller, in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Haruki Murakami.

Now, I only happened to read that story last week, but it instantly struck me as the kind of rule I go by. You see, pretty much anything good that has happened to me has happened in large part by chance, and I kind of like it that way.

The long answer:

OK, nothing happens wholly by chance, I admit, but certainly calculation and rigorous planning weren't involved either - the kind of things that I seem to associate with GTD, in other words. My approach to life is more that of just doing things that seem like they might open up possibilities and seeing what happens; to leave plenty of room in anything I do for the odd surprise to happen.

Take blogging, for instance. Initially, I just left comments on a few blogs that interested or amused me. I can't say I especially anticipated this leading anywhere, but it at least seemed like it might cause something more interesting to happen than if I just sat in front of a TV all night. And to my surprise it actually did.

A little over two years later, and blogging (writing my own and reading other people's) has directly and indirectly led me to jobs, an MA, some very good friends (on and off-line), a new town, new interests, and a much freer, more fulfilling life. Which was a little more than I bargained for when I left my first comment, quite frankly, but hey, I'm not going to complain.

There was over that time - it would be disingenuous not to admit - some overall intention guiding my actions: I wanted my life to change, and I had some vague notion that I'd quite like to earn a living from writing. But none of my actions were taken with any more definite outcome in mind than those, and usually without even very much idea of how they might bring those goals about. If I'd gone into my MA, for instance, looking for some more fixed outcome I certainly wouldn't have ended up doing copywriting; that was the avenue that I, by far, least expected to go down (erm, I'm quite happy to be here, though, I should point out).

But enough of all that. Suffice it to say that trying to put myself in the way of happy accidents has served me quite well. And as you can probably imagine, that's something to which a system of baroque complexity and rigorous order, it's always struck me, would be utterly inimical: I mean, where's the room for chance and surprise? And aren't they the things that keep life interesting and exciting?

Let's open up the chance that I'm wrong about GTD, though. For one thing, after writing all that stuff above, it seems like it might be both unwise and hypocritical of me not to. And in fact that's just what I did yesterday:

Like any other lazy writer, my investigations began on Wikipedia. The short version of the entry: GTD is a system of organised forgetting.

Anything that's on your mind is taking your attention from what you're trying to do, Allen says, and probably causing you stress; whether that be your life goals, that bit of work you need to get done by next week, or just the annoying squeaking of your chair. Somewhere in your head, you're always worried that these aren't getting done and that you're liable to forget about them. GTD, then, gives you a way of getting all that "stuff" out of your head and into a system that can manage it efficiently and reliably, breaking each of your projects right down to the level of next physical actions necessary to keep them moving forward. With a now clear mind, these actions can then be accomplished even more quickly and effectively.

Sounds kind of nice, actually, doesn't it? Sort of reassuring... if desperately dull and worthy.

Nice or not, though, I was still a little on my guard when it came to the podcasts, Wired having informed me that David Allen is a minister of the somewhat nutty sounding Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. In fairness, the article did also point out that despite this no real cultishness seems evident in GTD itself, just in the enthusiastic devotion of its converts. Which was a little disappointing, frankly. That was my last decent excuse...

So, to the podcasts themselves:

Number 1 covered procrastination. Since I'd actually got around to listening to it, I thought I might skip that one. The blurb about Number 2 just scared me - "ubiquitous capture" and "scrupulous review" sounded like the next military scandal set to emerge from Iraq. Three was talking about a "someday/maybe" list, which pretty much sums up the lists I make already (headed by the words "To Do", but "Someday/Maybe" is probably closer to the truth). And Eight purported to be something or other about paying "attention to your higher altitudes", which actually did sound like something a bit culty...

Still, I listened to all eight of them anyway. And actually they didn't really sound too culty at all.

A bit confusing to the uninitiated, perhaps, and they didn't do much to make the process of first implementing the grand GTD scheme sound any less time-consuming or intimidating, but no, those were the only real objections I could find. They were even pretty short, for goodness sake.

So have I been converted, then? Erm, no. Not really.

To be honest, GTD may not even be all that inimical to chance, the more I think about it - you could probably adapt it so that all your goals were still quite open-ended - but realistically, there's still one huge barrier (well, for me at least): I'll just never get around to it. I mean, honestly, all that tedious faffing at the implementation stage? I haven't got a hope. Too many more interesting things to do. Always, too many more interesting things.

That said, I will actually be taking some things away from GTD. For instance, I really like the idea of just doing anything, right then and there, that will take you less than 2 minutes, rather than simply sticking it on a list. It's a stupidly simple idea, obviously, but it's still one I never normally put into practice.

(Actually, last night I did put it into practice. Time to set up a standing order to my credit card and stop worrying about late payment charges, I decided. Equally decisively, the bank's website was down. [Sigh] You try not to believe in omens...)

As well, the tickler file thing (from which 43 Folders takes its otherwise slightly mystifying name, by the way) sounds like something I actually might one day get around to: one folder for each month, and 31 more (to represent each day) which get transferred from month to month. I think you're supposed to put anything that will be relevant to you on a particular day into the matching folder; which, erm, does sound a better way of keeping track of things than my ever growing pile of paper on the floor.

And here's my favourite, from Podcast 1, David Allen's rather liberating definition of procrastination:

"It's not about 'not doing', it's about 'not doing' and feeling crappy."

Now that's the kind of thinking I can really get behind. Procrastinate to your heart's content, but just stop feeling guilty about it.* Brilliant.

Problem solved.

And in that spirit, then, I think I'll just skip Tim 'Four-hour workweek' Ferriss for this week.

Next week's questions: How does a man working only four hours a week write a book? I mean, seriously, is it really short? Or did it just take him forever?

N.B. This post was written using ScribeFire, a browser-based blog editor that was my real time saver of the week. I write on Root of the Matter using a different Google account from my usual one, which normally means either signing in and out all the time, or running slow and crashy Internet Explorer alongside Firefox, so ScribeFire has been a godsend :) If the post looks a bit wonky, though, forget I spoke.

*Other interpretations are available.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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