I’m amazed at the number of postings and advice articles, let alone pieces of software, that are spawned by the GTD phenomenon. To me, it’s yet another symptom of today’s short-term mentality and our obsession with activity. Getting Things Done is useful, of course. I’m not without sympathy for people with bulging schedules and huge to-do lists, who seek a better way to organize themselves. But I think they would be better advised to turn their attention first to WNTGD: What Needs To Get Done.

It’s so easy to be overwhelmed with long, detailed lists of actions to be dealt with and so have your attention fixed remorselessly on the short-term. Business leaders succumb to this all the time. They obsess about next quarter’s results and targets. It seems that a majority of managers are willing to give up on important, value-creating projects to “make the numbers” for the quarter instead. Some even compromise the long-term health of the business in favor of short-term achievements, as I noted this week in Short-termism, over at Slow Leadership.

By and large, shareholders get the managers they deserve, and vice versa. Of course, leaders also get the subordinates they deserve. As JKB said in a comment on that same posting:

If the organization promotes and advances those employees who cut corners and don’t spend the time needed to develop long term skills and relationships, then employees, managers and shareholders will feed on the carcass of the company and suck it dry.

But back to Getting Things Done. I’d be prepared to take a sizable bet that most people spend their time doing a whole lot of activities that mean virtually nothing in the longer-term and wider scheme of things. They do them because they’ve always done them—or someone has, and now it’s their turn—or because its assumed those things are needed. And they are so busy doing them that they never manage to take the time to question whether such actions are truly necessary—or even useful.

Most procrastination and anxiety about your task list has the same, simple cause: you don’t want to do whatever it is that you keep putting off. It’s boring, difficult, unpleasant, or just doesn’t seem to have much point. If it were something you were eager to do—something interesting and plainly useful to you—people would have to drag you back from getting started right now. To-do lists and all the rest are mostly a way to help people force themselves to do what they don’t want to do, especially things that don’t seem as if they need to be done anyway.

Why not slow down and take a little time to see what can be dropped off the list altogether? After all, if you keep putting off those important, long-term projects to spend your time on short-term activities of dubious value to anyone, when will you ever get around to the things that really matter?

There’s the danger. When people feel rushed off their feet, it seems obvious to put off anything that doesn’t have to be done right away. There will always be time to get to those other things later, won’t there? Maybe. But important, long-term matters usually cannot be done in the blink of an eye. They take time to complete: maybe years of it. Suppose that you know you need to improve your qualifications. You’re probably looking at 3 or more years of effort. If you put off starting for a year while you concentrate on less important, short-term activities, it will now be 4 years at least before you can start to get the benefit of a better job or a new career. And so it goes. People put off their dreams and aspirations in favor of . . . what? Minor bits and pieces of administration; organizational tidying and throat clearing; attending pointless meetings; impressing the latest boss; meeting some crazy budget figure dreamed up by someone who simply took last quarter’s results and added 5%; filling in forms that are then filed and forgotten.

If you truly want to spend your time getting the important things done in your life, remember WNTGD, and ask yourself What Needs To Get Done? Take a long-term view and concentrate first (and exclusively, if you can) on what will bring you, your customers, or your organization real and lasting value. Then focus on that and drop as much as you can of all the short-term, itsy-bitsy, meaningless stuff. You won’t miss it . . . and nor will anyone else, once they’ve got over their horror that form FR678/3/45 hasn’t been completed (if they can remember why it’s there anyway). A good 50% or more meetings have no good reason for taking place, and probably 90% of PowerPoint presentations would be best filed in the wastebasket instead of being shown. Statistical returns have a habit of multiplying faster than rabbits . . . and they are much less cute.

Turn your eyes firmly away from what is short-term and supposedly urgent, though not important, and fix them instead of whatever is really important, even if it doesn’t seem urgent. Only then will whatever you get done actually be worth doing.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership.

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