Getting My Head Together

The last year was a hard one for me, in virtually every area of my life. Even my successes — and there have been several — have come at the cost of greater stress and a more and more difficult to balance schedule. 

While I have managed to adapt and develop ways of keeping everything on track and moving forward, each new pressure — whether on my time, my finances, or my emotional stability — has strained my ability to keep everything together just a little bit more. By the beginning of this year, I realized, my system was ancient history, replaced by a patchwork of shreds and tatters I’d thrown together on the fly as needed.

To make matters worse, it really wasn’t working — obligations kept piling up and the remnants of my system kept falling down. It was time, I realized, to get serious again, and to rescue my productivity system and get it back in tip-top shape.

With that in mind, I decided I should go back to a strict GTD system — and this time, pay attention to the ways I was modifying it or even violating its principles. In the interest of accountability, I thought I would share with you my experiences over the next several months, both to provide a model of what a GTD Refresh might look like in case you, too, have fallen off the wagon somewhat, and to keep myself accountable by sharing my experiences with the Lifehack audience.

My plan is to share, every week or so, where I’m at — essentially writing up my weekly review. My hope is that by sharing what’s working and how, and what’s not working and why it isn’t, others in the same boat might learn something that will help them refresh their own productivity systems. My focus is especially on the  idea of an “in-place” refresh — which will be somewhat slower than a “traditional” GTD start-up. Allen recommends newcomers to GTD set aside a couple of days to collect everything and process it into one’s first lists. But I simply can’t do that — so instead, I’ll be following another Allen dictate — take all the stuff you can’t deal with right now and put it in a box marked “Stuff to deal with later” and come back to it when I’m better able. 

Getting my head together

I’ve decided to start my return to “orthodox” GTD not from the “runway” level — the level of everyday actions, and the level where we tend to get most swamped by disorganized inputs — but from the “20,000-foot” level, the level of “Areas of Focus”, and work my way up. I’m pretty good about keeping track of my next actions (though I don’t contextualize — which I’ll be starting now) and projects in a simple Moleskine with a couple of tabs for “Next Actions”, “Projects”, and “Notes” (a catch-all that acts as my inbox-on-the-go).

Where I’m falling apart is in juggling all the different roles I play and all the directions I’ve allowed myself to be pulled in. So before I start the big job of evaluating and organizing all my projects and next actions, I decided to spend an afternoon thinking about who I am and how my life is defined — and how I’d like to define it. 

To shake things up even further, I decided to mind-map each of Horizons of Focus from 20,000 to 50,000 feet. I am typically a fairly linear, analytic thinker, and I’ve always had some reservations about mind-mapping, but what I’ve been doing, what comes naturally to me, isn’t really working — so I need to do something different, and mind-mapping is certainly way out of my normal range of thinking behaviors. It’s visual where I tend to be verbal, it’s spatial where I tend to be linear, and it’s an unfamiliar tool that, I hoped, would let me do untypical kinds of things.

And it did. Over several hours, I made mind-maps of my Areas of Focus, my ideal Vision of myself, and my Purpose. I skipped Goals because I want to “marinate” on my Areas of Focus and my Vision for a while before thinking about my goals over the next year or so.

So, for instance, here’s what I listed as my Areas of Focus:

1. Teaching:  I teach two classes (often several sections of each), each at a different school.  Teaching is my primary occupation, so it’s obviously a big part of “what’s on my mind” at any given time — both in keeping up with the schedule I’ve set, and discovering new materials to use, techniques to incorporate, or ideas to share with my students.

  • Women’s Studies
  • Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

2. Career Development / Marketing: This is my catch-all category for all the things I do to advance myself professionally, both as an educator (professional development, keeping up with recent research, etc.) and as a writer (applying for writing gigs, contacting editors, querying publications, etc.).

3. Writing: Writing is an increasing part of my career, and my long-term goal is to taper off my teaching in favor of writing. (I hope to always teach a class or two, but on my own terms, not as my primary income.)  Because I write for mainstream publication, both online and off, as well as for academic outlets on one hand and business clients on the other, there are a lot of sub-categories under this heading — a lot of outlets I have to be thinking about at least somewhat often.

  • Academic: Writing I do (or have done) as an anthropologist, including my book on the Cold War, articles appearing in books or journals, conference presentations, and instructional material.
  • Commercial: Client work, including ghostwriting, marketing materials, press releases, etc.
  • Books: Both work I have already written that needs continued attention to market and sell (in the case of my self-published book) and books I’m planning to write.
  • Blogs / Websites: Lifehack, of course, as well as my own websites and other sites where I write as an occasional contributor.
  • Freelance Writing: Articles and queries written for mainstream and trade publications.

4. Finances / Money: Paying my bills, building up my savings, dealing with long-term financial obligations like student loans, planning a retirement fund, keeping track of income, expenses, and taxes.

5. Leisure: Activities I do for fun, either by myself or with friends and family. Planning a vacation. 

6. Relationships: Networking, friendships, colleagues — all the interpersonal relationships that need maintaining.

7. Dating: Although technically another kind of relationship, I felt this deserved its own category. Single since the end of last summer, I’ve recently re-entered the dating pool, and that takes a lot more energy and a different kind of maintenance than the relationships listed in #6.

8. Family: My parents, brother and sister-in-law, nephew and niece, and other family members. Birthdays and holidays, going out, family activities.

9. Health: General health consciousness, including doctor’s appointments, ordering contact lenses, paying attention to my physical fitness and diet, and similar concerns. Also, I was in a car accident several years back which left me with an ongoing lawsuit and pretty severe headaches much of the time, so that takes a lot of attention.

10. Household: Everything to do with maintaining and living in my home, from grocery shopping to housecleaning to decor and so on. 

11. Transportation: Auto maintenance, car washes, etc.

 As you can see, I’ve got a lot going  on. Next week, I’ll start a new mind-map listing my projects, and my “Areas of Focus” mind-map will help me to generate new projects, as well as set some goals. And then, I’ll start importing my action list into a GTD-based personal organizer — I figure, if I’m going to go “pure” GTD, I should use tools that are designed with that structure in mind, rather than the “flat” to do lists I’ve been using. 

 Have you “reset” your GTD system before? That is, started over again, basically from scratch? How did it go? What did you do differently the second time around? What was most helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments — maybe we can help some folks who’ve given up get their systems back in order, or even help some newcomers avoid the mistakes we made our first times around. 

 Next time: Goals and Projects. And setting up a GTD organizer. 

Love this article?