GTD: collecting and processing my stuff

As I mentioned before, I’m looking to Stephen Covey to help guide me through the process of clarifying my wide-scale vision for where exactly my life is going and how I can get there more effectively. While I’m doing this, I’m also looking to David Allen to help me get on top of my workload.

Disclaimer before I go any further: I don’t want to turn this blog into yet another productivity and self-help blog. There are many, many people who know more about it than I do and it’s not my niche. I’m writing about my process here for two reasons: First, this blog is about my experiences, and what I’m experiencing right now is a lot of career-related uncertainty, so those who know me personally can look here and see how I’m coping. Second, as I sharpen my own abilities I find that many others around me (RSAA and elsewhere) seem to be going through similar things, and they seem to find these techniques and tips more relevant for my having mentioned them, even though I didn’t make them up. I am not a paid shill for any particular self-help guru; I just mention them in case people other than myself find the resources useful. If you are already fearsomely effective, as many of my friends are, well then, I salute you and welcome any feedback you may have for me!

Also, specifically for the astronomers following at home: there are astronomy-specific productivity blogs. AstroBetter has a well-populated “productivity” tag, much of which is devoted to technology, like new software applications to edit papers collaboratively or compile bibliographies. But at least some of the AstroBetter productivity posts talk about behavioral changes. What I’m posting about here isn’t necessarily specific to astronomy, and it will focus less on technology and almost entirely on character-building and best practices, in the context of my personal journey towards becoming a generally more effective human being.

About GTD

I’ve owned David Allen’s book Getting Things Done (“GTD”; not just a book anymore, apparently) since my days at Yale. It was recommended by a friend at LBL as “a way of turning yourself into a computer”, which maybe wasn’t the most glowing recommendation, but is accurate in a sense. I started using The Omni Group‘s software to implement something like the GTD methodology — first using OmniOutliner for general to-do lists and outlines, then using the new OmniFocus application which is a more thorough implementation of GTD. While I’m not a shill for them either, I absolutely swear by the Omni Group’s software — it’s pretty and functional, and it’s not their fault I haven’t really been using it as intended so far, but more about that as you scroll down.

GTD works on the premise that if there is “stuff” in your head that you’re worrying about, it creates an ongoing mental load that saps your energy and momentum because you can’t possibly remember everything. To-do lists are a first step towards fixing this, but they’re not enough: they don’t capture all the detail about tasks that are needed to move forward. What you want is a good personal project management system: something that mainly tracks progress towards outcomes and not just tasks; something that can be updated with new work on the fly without losing its effectiveness; something to which you can refer to help ease your decision about what to do right now with your limited time and energy. Most importantly, something which helps you get “stuff” out of your head and turn it into the outcomes you want. GTD can certainly be implemented by low-tech solutions like pencil and paper, but it is more an intellectual approach to to-do lists and project plans than the lists or plans themselves.

In GTD (the book), Allen not only outlines the system but provides a comprehensive, almost exhaustive, breakdown of ways in which it breaks down when people actually try to use it. A few common sources of resistance I’ve experienced myself:

  • Lack of clarity about what the physical next action is (e.g., “get oil changed” vs. “call Braddon Service Center to schedule minor service for Toyota Starlet”, or “do taxes” vs. “research FBAR requirements on IRS website to see what’s new for 2013 returns”). “Stuff” is anything that isn’t the way you want it, but isn’t an action you can do. A “project” is an outcome that requires more than one action to finish, so you can’t do a project either.

  • Lack of discipline in reviewing the system, or in capturing everything to be done into the system. If you don’t use the system, you don’t trust it and you default back to keeping everything in your head.

  • A reactive outlook towards work, where the next task is always well-defined because something is in the process of burning down right now. I got through undergrad and a large chunk of my Ph.D. this way, but it hasn’t served me very well in my postdocs. This is perhaps why I find I perform better in some tasks under time pressure — not because I enjoy time pressure, but because it forces me to put in the effort to think about the next action. But what if nothing had to be burning down to get things done effectively? How much better would life be?

The reactive outlook is something Stephen Covey also mentions, within a wider context than project management: if all you’re doing is solving the next crisis, you’re letting your environment control you, instead of controlling your environment to ensure the outcomes you want. Covey’s “Quadrants” categorize actions as “urgent/not urgent” and “important/not important”, where the goal is to spend as much of your time as possible doing things that are important but not urgent. People who spend most of their time reacting to urgent but important things are crisis managers who quickly become exhausted and don’t have the opportunity to advance professionally; this is a problem I’ve experienced often in my career. People who spend most of their time doing unimportant things, whether urgent or not urgent, are “basically leading irresponsible lives”.

Technically Covey’s Quadrants are associated with Habit 3, so I’ve skimmed ahead of myself a bit by mentioning them here. But the two approaches to managing projects don’t seem incompatible. My strategy will be to use Allen’s GTD as the methodology for managing my time and completing the next actions associated with my projects, while using Covey’s Quadrants to plan the projects — determining task order, deadlines, and ensuring that I maximize the value that comes out of my work.

My experience in reviving my GTD system

Last night I went through the process Allen calls “collecting”, where I grabbed all of my “stuff” and chucked it into the Inbox. This was liberating and I slept unusually well, then woke up to find a cold, sunny winter morning devoid of people but full of birds. I won’t claim it was a sign from the firmament, but it was nice.

The next step, which I have spent much of today doing and am still doing, is called “processing”, where you take each piece of “stuff” that isn’t the way it should be and figure out the next action associated with it. This turns out to be unexpectedly difficult at first, and demands that you start thinking about each piece of stuff differently as a matter of habit. You’ve already failed if you let anything that’s not a concrete, physical next action get onto your to-do list. You don’t have to have all the actions right now, but each thing that makes it into GTD as a task should be something you don’t have to think about any further in order to start doing it. If that thing is “sit down and plan project”, fine. Trashing “stuff” is okay. Deferring or delegating the resulting next actions is also great. But concrete next actions will come out of that planning process as you work. You have to hold yourself accountable at each stage.

One thing about starting GTD fresh is that you take any plans you had already made and chuck them into the Inbox with everything else. I was resistant to doing this, since quite a few of my projects have well-defined outcomes, but I did at least review each one of them carefully. This derailed me into project planning for some of my projects, which shouldn’t be the goal of processing, but at least the time wasn’t wasted.

When I reviewed my old project plans I was surprised to find out how many “tasks” were still un-doable “stuff”, not expressing next actions. More surprising, though something I might have known all along, is that not even everything listed as a “project” was even an outcome! Many “projects” I had listed were actually categories of work, such as “SkyMapper Supernova Search”, rather than concrete outcomes that had a beginning and an end, and could eventually be completed. SkyMapper can only be checked off when the funding runs out, and that will be well past the end of my fellowship. So I ended up turning many former “projects” into folders which are collections of projects, and many other “projects” into lists of single actions if their nature was sufficiently miscellaneous and/or recurring. Now every category is a collection of projects or tasks, all projects reflect outcomes which can be visualized, and every project has at least one next action which can be done and checked off.

There are also “contexts” in GTD, which are scopes in which certain kinds of work can be done while others can’t: “Phone”, “Laptop”, “Office”, “Online”, etc. OmniFocus has a Project view which shows you all your projects with items arranged sequentially, but it also has a parallel Context view which allows you to look at whatever items are around in the context in which you find yourself at that time. I haven’t really been using contexts so far. My typical modus operandimodus has been to devote all my attention to single projects at a time and rarely ever getting out of the OmniFocus “project” view. I used a lateral view of projects written out on a piece of paper to help decide which one to work on. However, this approach isn’t particularly flexible in the face of interruptions, new demands added each day, or things with hard deadlines that need to be taken care of. So training myself to use the Context view effectively could be a real booster for me, by allowing me to multiplex many interleaving or competing workflows; I still always have the option of focusing on just one project if I have a large, protected block of time to concentrate.

Before I sign off, one particularly amusing story in Allen’s book is about how some of the brightest, most creative people are the ones who often have a lot of trouble implementing GTD. Consider, for example, the thought process one might go through, and the resistance one might encounter, in figuring out what the next action is for the piece of stuff “do taxes”:

Do my taxes? Oh, no! It’s not going to be that easy. It’s going to be different this year, I’m sure. I saw the forms—they look different. There are probably new rules I’m going to have to figure out. I might need to read all that damn material. Long form, short form, medium form? File together, file separate? We’ll probably want to claim deductions, but if we do we’ll have to back them up, and that means we’ll need all the receipts. Oh, my God—I don’t know if we really have all the receipts we’d need, and what if we didn’t have all the receipts and claimed the deductions anyway and got audited? Audited? Oh, no—the IRS—JAIL!!

And so a lot of people put themselves in jail, just glancing at their 1040 tax forms. Because they are so smart, sensitive, and creative.

I’m glad I wasn’t drinking anything when I read this because it would have been all over my keyboard. This very thought process has actually been responsible for substantial delays in my own workflow, particularly on, yes, taxes. For the record, I got them in on time this year. As it turns out, I didn’t owe anything, mostly because the Australian dollar has fallen so much this year relative to last year!

So on this, and on other things: first things first, one foot in front of the other.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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