For the last several months, I’ve been slowly rebuilding a more-or-less by-the-book GTD system. I’ve done elements of GTD for years, but things over the last year have gotten too complicated and my hope is that implementing the whole GTD system as close to Allen’s vision as possible will help me balance two quite different careers with the rest of my life.
I had intended my next “GTD Refresh” post to be about reaching”Inbox Zero”. Allen advocates keeping an empty email inbox for the same reason he advocates processing your physical inbox down to empty every day – if your inbox isn’t a place where you trust yourself to get the information you need and is instead simply a place to store things that could very well be important, you’ll never be able to relax and trust your entire system. Everything in your inbox represents a potential task or project that you are not doing – and you don’t even know what it is.
Well, by that thinking, I’ve got maybe a thousand things I should be working on, because that’s how many emails were in my inbox last week. After a few hours clearing out unread newsletters, there are still nearly 700 emails in my inbox. Clearly, that’s not good.
Well, I’m working on it, and I’ll report back when the job is done. In the meantime, though, I’ve realized something else important, and it’s that realization I intend to share with you today: the importance of decisiveness.
Decisiveness is what “Inbox Zero” is really about, after all. An empty inbox can be an assurance that you don’t have unrecognized work you should be working on, but more than that, it’s a sign that you’ve defined that work and decided what to do about it. Every message that sits in my inbox, then, is a little piece of undefinition.
Defining your work is at the core of the GTD method. Whether the work comes in the form of an email, a project on your someday/maybe list, a conversation with a friend, or a random observation when you walk into your house at night, identifying something as a thing to do, and committing yourself to the doing of it is key.
Decision-making, as it happens, is really hard. Our brains just aren’t well-suited to the task. For example, while we’re quite good at deciding between a clearly good option and a clearly bad status quo, we’re quite bad at deciding between two clearly good options and a clearly bad status quo – often remaining in the bad status quo in order to avoid having to choose.
Similarly, when confronted with two things that are both clearly good but difficult to compare, and a third thing that is like one of the first two but clearly inferior, we almost always choose the superior thing that’s like the inferior one. Somehow, the inferior thing makes it’s superior look superior not just to the one like it but to the thing unlike
If it’s hard to decide between clearly defined options, how much harder is it to decide what to do when the options aren’t defined at all? And if we often settle for what we already have to avoid having to choose between two better options, how much easier must it be to settle when there are none?
That’s why defining the work is important, and that’s why an empty inbox is important – because the only way to get there is to force yourself to define the work and decide what to do about it for every email that crosses your virtual transom. And if you can do that for email, you can do it no matter how the work comes to you. And if you can do that, then you’ll be as productive as a Very Productive Person indeed.
As for me, my backlog of emails suggests that I’m not much of a decision-maker, and that’s got me worried. Since I doubt I can do the 0-to-60 transformation to Master Decider, I’m going to try to keep one simple resolution: from now on, I make a decision about every email. That should serve me well when I finally get my inbox down to zero, but I’m not going to wait until I get there.
Hopefully, this small change will help make me more decisive in other areas, which should make a big difference as I refresh my GTD system and further commit to a more productive, stress-free life.
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